How We Work Now

Trailblazers: They're freelancers and entrepreneurs, low-key bosses and border surfers of the global marketplace. Some work for big corporations, some work only for No. 1. These savvy, self-directed folks are facing new challenges, forging their own paths--and reaping surprising rewards.

THE FREE AGENT JAMES OXENDINE, Atlanta

Skill: He knows how to market his talents directly to the most interesting--and the highest--bidder. Lately his track record has kept his phone ringing.

Payoff: Great independence means you never have to say you're bored. He has no boss worries, a reasonable income and a home office with a view.

HIS FATHER WAS A NUCLEAR physicist who did high-altitude weather research for the U.S. government. His mother was a factory timekeeper who earned a graduate degree in counseling. James Oxendine, 49, aimed to be an achiever, too, as a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio. He saw--in his parents' lives and his own--embodiments of Malcolm X's insistence on self-determination. Oxendine graduated magna cum laude from Ohio's Central State University, earned a law degree at Georgetown, then topped it off with a Ford Fellowship in political economy at Clark Atlanta University. After 20 years of working in the public and private sectors to revitalize minority neighborhoods and businesses, Oxendine thought his job managing a $1 million urban-problem-solving program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center had grown stale. He hungered to do, not to manage. So he boldly dubbed his community-development service The Oxendine Group and waited for the phone to ring. It didn't. ""Ego?'' he says, when asked about the psychic impact of the change. ""Oh, yeah, I remember that.''

Oxendine works alone, but he's got plenty of company. By some estimates 25 million Americans are now flying solo. ""Not long ago people would disguise that they were working from home; now they're celebrating it,'' says Daniel Pink, a former White House speechwriter who's writing a book called ""Free Agent Nation.'' ""This is a legitimate way to work--it isn't some poor laid-off slob struggling to find his way back to the corporate bosom.''

Some of the attractions live up to the fantasy. Oxendine's office is his living room, bathed in soft licks of jazz from his stereo and featuring a cheerful view of a park on the edge of downtown Atlanta. But after two and a half years on his own, Oxendine has some advice for anyone who thinks the transition to self-employment will be easy. ""Children or other folks out there listening: don't try this at home.''

Oxendine's adventure began in June 1996 with some important assets. He had $25,000 in liquid savings and a couple of verbal commitments from clients that planned to use his services as a lecturer, mediator and bridge builder among banks, bureaucrats and community-development groups. Those contracts never came through. So he dipped into his savings to meet expenses. That was his biggest mistake--today he wishes he'd used that $25,000 as collateral for a small-business loan. His biggest adjustment: irregular income. His humblest moment: a friend offered to buy his lunch because, she said, ""you don't have a job.''

Three lean months from the start, Spartanburg, S.C., hired him to help with a neighborhood-revitalization project. In 1997 he landed a string of Atlanta jobs. In 1998 clients started calling Oxendine instead of the reverse. His income, he says, has gone from ""minuscule in '96 to minimal in '97 to measurable in '98.'' He's still making less than before, and he's nearly exhausted his nonretirement savings, ""but now people know what I have to sell,'' he says. His biggest gain: a new sense of personal accomplishment. At The Oxendine Group, the return of the ego could be only a few contracts away.

DANIEL PEDERSEN

THE NOMAD MICHELLE BREINER, Sunnyvale, Calif.

Skill: She knows how to spot the next trend and find a job at a company poised to exploit it. She's attuned to the world of start-ups and venture capital, too.

Payoff: Her mobility gives her great contacts and broad skills. She works hard today, but stays equally focused on preparing for new challenges tomorrow.

IT'S TEMPTING TO VIEW MICHELLE Breiner as a clichE of the New Economy. Yes, she has her own Web site; no, she probably won't take a job unless the pay includes stock options. At 30, she's already worked in five industries, from CD-ROM development to Web-page design to e-commerce. Today she's creative director at the Internet Shopping Network, an online auction site. But don't bet on finding her there in five years. Talent migrates quickly today, drawn by bigger challenges.

Many of the pejorative stereotypes about her generation--as ruthless, disloyal job-hoppers--are wildly overblown. But it's clear that folks under 30 are leading the wave of Americans who are changing their notions of what constitutes a career. Skill-building is in; ladder-climbing through the ranks at a company is out. Says Bo Rinaldi, an agent for programmers: ""Modern-day workers want to contribute, they want to deliver something rather than simply building [seniority].''

In Breiner's case, the roots of her restlessness are clear. She was raised in Silicon Valley by an entrepreneur father whose career advice was simple: ""You have to be prepared to look for opportunities, to keep your eyes open,'' says Sheldon Breiner. Opportunities took Michelle from Virgin Records in London to game-maker 3DO and then, after a stint as a freelance Web designer, to her current post six months ago. In each case she jumped ship when she saw a new technology (like the Internet) ready to bloom. ""[Older people] might find it insulting that we move around so much,'' she says. ""But every company benefits from my being there--whether I'm there three years or 20--and I leave no challenge unmet.''

Navigating this terrain takes a new code of ethics. Breiner has never left a job in less than a year. When she needs a new challenge, she attempts to find it with her current employer, and she leaves only when that's not possible. And pay raises aren't a prime motivation to jump: it's better to seek big challenges, she says, and let big payoffs follow naturally. Above all, she won't patronize her bosses by pretending all her dreams lie in the bigger office down the hall. Where will Breiner be in five years? ""Possibly running or starting a company,'' she says. ""I'm guessing it will involve a technology that's not here yet.'' Her eyes are open. She'll know it when she sees it.

DANIEL MCGINN

THE ORGANIZATION WOMAN PATTY BARTEN, Libertyville, Ill.

Skill: After 20 years of solving one company's problems, she knows how to get things done and can make her employer's far-flung operations work together.

Payoff: She has clout that dwarfs any title, and she can reinvent her job and chase new challenges without having to prove herself all over again.

HE ARRIVED AT 8 EVERY morning and rarely left before retirement. William Whyte's ""Organization Man'' was a corporate toady whose loyalty bordered on cowardice. Job hop? Never! Why would he breach what amounted to a lifetime employment contract? He faded by the 1990s, when the bond between company and employee all but disintegrated. Now workers were free to bolt to the highest bidder, notching their resumes at every job switch.

How, then, to explain Patty Barten? She is 46 and has worked for Motorola near Chicago since 1978. But she wasn't just racking up seniority. Instead, she behaved more like an in-house freelancer, focusing less on the titles she collected than on how much she learned at each new task. ""Gain experiences,'' Barten says, ""and guess what? You get promoted!'' She advanced from the grunt work of industrial engineering (factory designs, time-and-motion studies) to running five plants that built cellular-phone systems. Her Motorola biography vaguely says she's now a vice president. But because her duties change so rapidly, it doesn't even try to say vice president of what. Her current job: coordinating Motorola divisions worldwide to meet special needs of major customers.

Digging in at one company has paid Barten rich dividends. She wants to remain an influential player. ""I don't see how you do that in choppy little increments'' at a series of companies, she says. As a known commodity, she can route her ideas to anyone at Motorola--and usually get results. And she can periodically reinvent herself without having to prove to a new employer that she can handle more responsibility.

There are more Patty Bartens than career experts admit. Last year economists at the Chicago Fed reported that one third of male workers 35 to 44 hadn't changed jobs in a decade. But like Barten, the successful ones will have to take an entrepreneurial approach to their corporate careers. And by the way, Barten has heard from lots of headhunters over the years. She just figures that companies are most influenced by the employees they trust.

JOHN MCCORMICK

THE GLOBALIST ANNE LARLARB, Phuket, Thailand

Skill: The consummate networker, she scouts opportunities in advance but can also improvise when things don't go as planned. Ability to sleep on sofas a plus.

Payoff: One minute she's hobnobbing and soaking up the arts scene in London, the next she's on a plane headed to the sunny beaches of Thailand.

WHEN ANNE LARLARB arrived in London two years ago, she had no idea where she'd end up. A designer fresh out of the Yale School of Drama, Larlarb decided not to follow the rest of her classmates to New York, where theater hopefuls from around the world scrabble for the same jobs. ""I decided that life is too short to not try to break in [somewhere else],'' says Larlarb, 27. So, she packed up and moved--and, since then, she has moved and moved and moved. Now in Phuket, Thailand, where she's apprenticing in the art workshop for a major motion picture, Larlarb says, ""I consider my home my suitcase and my little laptop. My e-mail address is my only address to speak of.''

About 3.3 million Americans live overseas, a number that the State Department estimates has quadrupled over the last 30 years.The expatriate of years past has typically been the government worker or the relocated employee of a multinational firm. Larlarb is one of a new breed of global worker, someone who's kludged together a life out of going anywhere for an interesting job.

Luck has played a huge role in Larlarb's successful globe-trotting so far. She moved to London on a student visa, without a job. After two months of odd work, a chance introduction through a friend turned into a job assisting a famous set designer. Another introduction turned into her job in Thailand, where she's logging 14-hour days and living out of three suitcases at a hotel. In between, Larlarb squeezed in monthlong theater gigs in Louisville, Ky., and New York. She now believes that the more she travels the more marketable she is. ""People see that I can adapt to different situations,'' she says.

Such a life comes at a price. Larlarb has boxes of possessions all over the place, managing money is a nightmare, marriage is out for now and hanging on to friendships is a matter of vigilant e-mail and phone calls. But it's worth it. The exposure to new cultures, she says, has been invaluable research for her design work. As she pages through her journal, Larlarb has just one word: ""Wow!''

JENNIFER TANAKA

THE RETREAD DAVID EVANS, Warren, Mich.

Skill: While others bellyache about retraining, he relishes technological change and learning. His self-improvement streak guarantees he'll never be obsolete.

Payoff: He's found a niche helping his peers adapt to the wired world and reminding younger workers that computer skills are only one facet of the job.

IF YOU REMOVE ALL THE LATE-MODEL cars from the parking lots, it's easy to imagine the General Motors Tech Center in the 1960s: populated by crew-cut engineers, the buildings filled with the smell of the clay used to mold car designs. David Evans remembers those days well. A 30-year GM veteran, he recalls how a dozen designers would hunch over a single blueprint in large, open studios. Today the Tech Center is a different place, cubicled, wired and aglow with computers. Like most companies, GM has entered the Information Age--and brought workers like Evans along for the ride.

For many of his colleagues, it's been an arduous journey. It's one thing to become adept at Microsoft Word; it's another to learn five different computer-aided de-sign packages, as Evans has. Compounding the pressure: Evans, a ""portfolio manager'' who helps GM make sure Buicks don't look too much like Oldsmobiles, is 48 and working at a company that's wildly overstaffed. But Evans isn't sweating it. Like the classic cars GM was building when he signed on, he's been overhauled and retuned.

What sets Evans apart from others hit by big workplace changes is his enthusiasm for technology, his commitment to self-improvement and his healthy sense of perspective. On his 45-minute commute Evans listens to business audiotapes; at night he pursues a master's degree in system engineering, even though he's 20 years older than most classmates. Each time GM upgrades its computers, he heads to training classes, knowing he'll be asking more questions than younger workers. He's unfazed, because he understands the value he and other old-timers offer. ""I have kids here who can really make a computer fly, but they don't have the years of experience making a car go down the road,'' Evans says. Today he's found a role helping reluctant workers get accustomed to designing cars using 3-D computer images--and reminding younger staffers to occasionally power down the computer and return to pen-and-paper drawing. Says Evans: ""I'm a technologist, but I think the best computers we have are the ones between our ears.''

DANIEL MCGINN

THE CYBER PLUMBER JOYCE HUCKABY, San Jose, Calif.

Skill: She can peer at the innards of high-tech contraptions to fix problems, and keeps studying to stay abreast of rapid technological change.

Payoff: The freedom of unsupervised work at white-collar wages, and job security in a world with more high-tech equipment than ever.

FIVE YEARS AGO JOYCE HUCKABY'S life wasn't working out. A single mother with three children, she wound up on welfare, in a shelter for the homeless, worried that the world was passing her by. Then Huckaby enrolled in the technical school at Heald College, an 18-month program that arms students with the latest high-tech expertise. Today she has a home for her kids and a $30,000-a-year job repairing the increasingly complex machines that are used to diagnose and fix cars. ""Shops pay $20,000 for a piece of equipment and don't open the manuals,'' she says. ""That's job security.''

Good jobs for folks who skip college are fading fast. As the economy changes, the best opportunities will be in technical niches like the one Huckaby has found opening the cabinets of today's high-tech equipment and--unlike the rest of us--making sense of what's inside. Think of these people as the blue-collar workers of the Information Age, who are thriving in new jobs that provide a ticket to middle-class life. Huckaby's alma mater, the private, San Jose-based Heald, is one of about 1,000 such vocational schools around the country that offer technical degrees; in five years, enrollment in its $17,000 ""applied science'' program has doubled. Top graduates, who start the program with just a high-school diploma, typically win job offers from companies like Intel, IBM or Pacific Bell.

Inspired by her parents, who run an automotive repair shop, Huckaby took a slightly different route: she fixes high-tech car-repair equipment like vehicle aligners, brake tuners and smog-testing machines. On a typical day she's at a Chrysler dealership on San Jose's sprawling Automall strip, replacing a faulty circuit board in an emissions-testing unit. Later she's at a school, fixing equipment used to teach students in a shop class. Huckaby's office is her white company van, filled with brain-numbing guidebooks. ""If I want to punish my children, I read them my operation manuals,'' she says. But it's no joke: half her job is keeping up with technological change.

Huckaby likes the fact that she's not tethered to a desk, gets her hands dirty (literally) and regularly solves problems that could derail many small businesses. ""People rely on us for their well-being,'' she says. ""We're the medics of metal.''

BRAD STONE

THE NEW AGE BOSS JOHN RIEBER, Los Angeles, Calif.

Skill: He manages to give workers freedom to maneuver while keeping control under deadline pressure, and knows how to hang on to valuable employees.

Payoff: An expanding job title and responsibilities--and a track record that allows him to dream up new projects for himself and those who work for him.

IT'S NOT YOUR FATHER'S STAFF meeting. John Rieber, vice president of programming at E! Entertainment Television, leads the weekly gathering for the 20 staffers of a travel show called ""Wild On.'' Everyone is invited, even the temp. And Rieber, 42, goads the mostly Gen-X group not by old-style command and critique, but by praise and gentle suggestion. One problem under discussion: how to keep late-night viewers from tuning out in mid-episode. Rather than lecture, Rieber shows a clip from a Halloween-in-Key-West segment in which the host attended a costume ball as the Bride of Frankenstein. The bit is cute, it doubled ratings in the second half hour and--Rieber's big point--it was improvised on scene. Scripts are fine, he says, ""but if you see something better, do it.''

Rieber doesn't follow the old script for bosses, either. As the executive presiding over live programming and four news, talk and entertainment shows at E!, he oversees a staff of about 400, from producers and directors down to green production assistants. Good staffers are hard to come by, expensive to train and worth keeping happy. Preventing defections is a key goal for today's bosses; to achieve it, Rieber fosters camaraderie and gives lots of freedom. ""He lets you run the show your way, but he's very focused,'' says Ed Zarcoff, news director of E! News. When disagreements happen, Rieber asserts himself gently. ""I try to do it in a way where they know they were heard and they weren't penalized.''

E! pays less than comparable jobs at broadcast networks, but it's growing more quickly, so Rieber can hold out the chance of advancement. Drew Fessenden, executive producer of the show ""Fashion Emergency,'' started at E! logging tape in the video library nine years ago. When subordinates ask about promotions, Rieber hands the challenge back to the job-seeker. ""Look around,'' he'll say. ""Tell me what would keep you satisfied.'' Another technique: he de-emphasizes hierarchy, which is why temps attend staff meetings. ""Anybody can have a good idea,'' he says. All they need is a boss who knows how to listen.

ANDREW MURR

THE NICHE FINDER MARY NAYLOR, Washington, D.C.

Skill: Being able to spot a new niche market emerging from recent trends--then building, marketing and managing a company to capitalize on it.

Payoff: Getting into a growing industry early. By the time it started to boom, she had already staked out a place and built the infrastructure to grow with it.

IT'S THE BANE OF EVERY CAR OWNER: standing in line at the motor-vehicles bureau. For Washington, D.C., lawyer Paul McQuade, the chore couldn't have come at a worse time: Christmas just days away, a business trip to Florida looming . . . and a broken headlight to fix before his car would pass inspection. So McQuade called Mary Naylor's firm, Capitol Concierge. The next morning an employee picked up the car at his office garage, bought the necessary parts, took it in for repair and then brought it to an inspection center. By 5 p.m. the car was back in the garage. ""Going through my mail in the cab to the airport the next day, I opened up the bill, saw $260 and thought "What a bargain','' McQuade says. ""I bought my whole day back.''

There's a new precious commodity in the 1990s: time. According to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, the average workweek is now 44 hours, up from 40.5 in 1977. The result: less time for everything. No wonder Entrepreneur magazine rates ""concierge services''--basically a paid version of the well-connected fixer in hotels--one of the hot businesses of 1999. That's great news for Naylor, who spotted the trend more than a decade ago. ""With dual-income households, no one's in the home anymore,'' says Naylor. ""I saw a market there.''

Back in 1987, Naylor, now 35, borrowed $2,000 and started knocking on doors. The pitch: she would pick up dry-cleaning, wait at home for the cable guy, shop for gifts or plan a dinner party. ""The hardest part was trying to sell people on a new idea,'' Naylor says. ""Everyone said, "Sounds great, but I don't want to be the guinea pig'.'' She focused on building managers hoping to impress tenants, and companies looking to attract and keep top talent, figuring that they could offer her services as a perk. Today she has 105 employees working in 80 residential and office buildings around Washington, D.C., revenues of $6 million and blue-chip clients like MasterCard.

For folks who can find the right niche, opportunities will always abound. Whether they're personal trainers or dog-walkers or they offer the A-to-Z assistance Naylor's staff provides, service businesses will continue to boom as hours grow more precious. ""I give people their weekends back,'' Naylor says. ""Time to read to the kids or sit down around the dinner table.'' And she can even arrange for help with the dishes.

ALISHA DAVIS

THE WORKER-IN-WAITING KRISTEN BENSON, Lisle, Ill.

Skill: She has the smarts not to choose her track too quickly. And she's figured out that college should be much more than four years of career training.

Payoff: Resisting the current mania for careerism keeps all her options open. She'll be ready not just for a job when she gets out of school, but for a lifelong career.

FOR YOUNG PEOPLE JUST STARTING to plan their careers, a hot job market can worsen the panic attacks. In today's money-nuts culture, the pressure to make perfect decisions is landing especially hard on high-school seniors applying to colleges. Many worry that a classic liberal-arts education will leave them unemployable, especially if the job market cools. High-schoolers dump these anxieties on teachers like Linda Brown of Benet Academy, a topflight Benedictine prep school outside Chicago. Armed with common sense and Kleenex, Brown helps students face their fears: Will there still be jobs? Will anybody want me?

Deciding what to make of college is difficult for Kristen Benson, one of Benet's top seniors. Early on, she wanted to become a doctor. Now the prospects of teaching or doing biological research also tug at her heart. But several college application forms urged her to select a primary area of study before she's even admitted. ""They ask you to check one box when you want to check five or six,'' says Kristen, 18, whose interests range from the Latin Club to the tennis team. ""I don't know what I want for a career. Is that wrong?''

Maybe it's smart. Some students make early career choices they come to regret. Brown sees a backlash, with several of those who grew to dislike what they'd chosen now counseling younger students to take their time. ""What you get from a liberal-arts education,'' Brown says, ""is doors.'' Kristen is applying to schools like Georgetown, Princeton and Northwestern, where she can later migrate from an all-purpose curriculum to a professional track. In her view, she's educating herself for all the jobs she'll ever hold--not just the first.

JOHN MCCORMICK

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