Silicon Insider: Signs of Life in the Economy

Get ready for a nasty case of whiplash.

I don't think I've ever mentioned in this column that for the last four years I've taught a course in professional writing at my old twice-alma mater, Santa Clara University. I only teach it one quarter each year, to a small seminar composed mostly of seniors. As I write this I'm in the middle of grading final exams.

The structure of the class is that each lecture addresses a different type of professional writing, beginning with public relations, advertising and speechwriting, and ending 10 weeks later with screenwriting, novels and poetry. I start it with assignments such as introducing a guest speaker or announcing a new backpack, and end with writing the proposal for a non-fiction book. Pretty ambitious stuff, but my students (to my amazement given my own academic career) are always up to the task.

One important part of each lecture is that I try to tell the students about the pluses and minuses of each of these careers, and how much they are likely to be paid. I even make them attach an invoice to each of their homework assignments. It can be rather shocking for them to get "paid" $35,000 for an advertising campaign they dashed off in 10 minutes, and $25 for the CD review they lovingly labored over for two hours.

One of the best things about the class in the first few years was that the labor market was so strong that a job was waiting for any student who wanted a job in PR or advertising or corporate communications or journalism. I hired some myself. This added a certain excitement to the class, making it less like another theoretical seminar, and more like basic job training.

Last year, and especially this year, have been a different story. Newspapers and magazines and the PR and advertising industries that serve them have been in the worst tailspin since the Great Depression. It was especially difficult this fall, when even as I was lecturing on magazine writing, my own magazine, Forbes ASAP, the magazine I'd help found a decade ago and of which I'd been editor for three years, died. On one particularly awful day, I taught my class (trying to be as upbeat as possible), then went off to the magazine for the official termination meeting with corporate HR.

Through all this, I always felt it was important for me to be as honest as possible with my students. So, whereas in the past I might talk about job opportunities, this year I counseled my serious student-writers that they might want to consider hiding in graduate school or a safe job for a year before seriously launching into a career in journalism or communications. Don't worry: the good times will come again, I told them in late September, even as I swallowed my own fear that they might not.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in the last two weeks of the course in early December, I suddenly changed my tune. It wasn't a conscious decision, just a gut feeling that found voice in one of my lectures. Out of the blue, I told my students "It strikes me that you just may find a hungry employment market by the time you graduate in June."

The Small Indicators Are Looking Up

Certainly the autumn stock run-up had something to do with it. But, too, there has been a lot of counterbalancing depressing news — more lay-offs, a rumor of war, the growing risk of deflation — to dampen any outburst of optimism. And yet, there I was, filling young minds with sunny news.

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