Opinion: Soledad O'Brien: Still no job? Don’t give up
Reina Valenzuela lost her job in 2008, but went back to school and has since opened her own firm.
November 15th, 2011
11:32 AM ET

Opinion: Soledad O'Brien: Still no job? Don’t give up

Editors Note: This piece has been done in collaboration with Latina magazine . A shorter version appears in the December-January edition of that publication.

By Soledad O'Brien, CNN

The long and bumpy journey to my first paying job in TV is the sort of memory that – when I recall it now – causes me to smile, roll my eyes and shake my head.

I was 20 years old, a junior at Harvard who just dumped pre-med, determined to make it in television news following a local TV internship. The only problem was that I had no idea how to snag the job of my dreams, and my mother, my source for most important information, had no clue either. But as an immigrant who left desperate poverty in Cuba to make her way in this country, she was incredibly tenacious. A lack of contacts or know-how didn’t stop her from cornering a woman with a WNET tote bag on the Long Island Railroad. The ride from Manhattan to Smithtown, New York, where I grew up, is about 90 minutes: plenty of time for a proud Cuban mother to make a pitch for her ambitious daughter and secure a phone number for the woman with the tote, who did indeed work at WNET, the PBS station in New York City.

Mom called the lady a few days later, and asked her to hire me.

I learned all of this only because when I came home during college break, my mother told me proudly that she had secured an interview for me. I was mortified. I didn’t know how to get a job in television, but I did know having your mother inquire on your behalf was something you did when you were trying to get into a dance class at age eight.

So I was mortified, but slightly thrilled, too, because I had no idea how to get a “real job” either and an actual interview was a step in the right direction, no matter how I got it.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to wage a successful job hunt, mostly because you cannot pass a day doing what I do and not hear about depressing job numbers: 13.9 million of us are unemployed, 9% of the U.S. population.

Unemployment is devastating our minority communities. Seven of every 100 whites are unemployed. For African-Americans that number is more than double – more than 14 of every 100. It’s 11 per 100 for Latinos. That lack of work has contributed to a startling drop of wealth in minority communities. A study released by the Pew Research Center this summer concluded that from 2005 to 2009 wealth – which is defined as all that you own minus all that you owe – dropped 66% among Latino households and 53% among black households. White wealth, the study said, dropped 16% in the same period.

Rather than wallow in these dismal numbers, we need to be proactive. It may take a while for the economy to recover and the jobs to come back, but as Latinos, we need to put ourselves in the best possible position to snag those opportunities when they do arise.

Reina Valenzuela was 45 years old when she lost her job in 2008.

“I was working as legal support manager for a law firm, heading a team of paralegals and working with the HR groups,” she says. The experience taught her that she liked managing people, so while she was working she began to take a course or two each semester with the goal of eventually getting an MBA. When Valenzuela was laid off, she returned to school fulltime, graduating with an MBA in global management in 2009.

Valenzuela, an immigrant from El Salvador, believes in the power of education. Following a divorce in her 30s, she returned to school for the first time to get an undergraduate degree and improve her earning power. More of us Latinos need to think this way.

Everyone - no matter their race - talks about the importance of education when it comes to securing "that" job, but for Latinos, it’s especially important. Here’s why: A 2009 study out of Princeton University looked at a group of racially diverse young men with similar looks, heights and educations applying for entry level jobs in New York City. The study determined that racial discrimination against African-Americans was more pronounced than it was against Latinos.

Part of what sociologist Algernon Austin takes away from the study is that racism affects African-Americans applying for jobs more heavily than it affects Latinos. He says increasing high school and college graduation rates among Latinos would greatly diminish the current three-percentage-point-gap between white unemployment and Latino unemployment.

“Among [whites, Latinos and African-Americans], Latinos have the lowest level of college completion and the highest in high school dropouts,” says Austin, the director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute.

“More educated workers tend to have lower unemployment rates,” Austin says. The October unemployment rate numbers bear that out: 12.7% for high school dropouts, 4.2% for college graduates.

As we’ve been hearing throughout this year, when it comes to population numbers, Latinos are winning – big. We are on target to be nearly 30% of the U.S. population by 2050, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But population isn’t power. Education is the magic formula that leverages numbers into impact. Four in 10 Latino adults in the U.S. have never completed high school, according to Pew Hispanic Center statistics from 2009. A little more than one in 10 of us have a college degree, which means we’re unqualified for, and massively under represented, in fields that translate to money, power and middle class living in the U.S.: legal professions, healthcare, education and on and on.

However, early indications are we may be heeding this message of education. A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center says in 2010 approximately 1.8 million Latino students aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college. That’s an increase of 24% from 2009.

Of course, education alone will not get you employed. You need to get out from behind your resume and start networking.

Valenzuela sets aside one day every single week to network. On that day, she attends a conference or a professional meeting, and follows up on newly collected business cards or contacts she has made online. “LinkedIn is my favorite for professional networking,” she says, but she also uses Facebook and Twitter.

“Very often Latinos stick to their circle of friends, acquaintances and family,” says Mariela Dabbah, a Latina author, speaker and CEO of LatinosinCollege.com. “They don’t take full advantage of professional networking. Encouraging Latinas to network year round, where they can meet people is very important. I think a lot of them don’t know where to find these opportunities."

Dabbah stresses the importance of joining professional organizations and attending conferences. She also encourages people to use social networking sites as tools to create off-line meetings or informal, informational interviews. And she suggests doing volunteer work to expand the list of who you know.

“Jobs are gotten through people who know people. You think you can sit behind a computer and send resumes. You don’t get really get jobs that way,” Dabbah says.

My current job at CNN came from a conversation I had with an executive I bumped into at a minority journalist convention. He said to me, sort of casually, "Might you be interested in something like this?" And I was.

Valenzuela is not looking for a job anymore. These days, she’s looking for clients.

A graduate school internship in Washington, D.C., taught her the ins and outs of completing government certifications and connecting with diversity suppliers at major corporations. She decided to use her knowledge to start her own management consulting business called Starfish Global. Valenzuela now specializes in helping Latino-owned entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level, “by organizing, restructuring and setting up systems that will help them manage their company and their employees.”

“I strongly believe the entrepreneurial spirit in general is what’s going to get us out of this financial mess we’re in,” Valenzuela says confidently. “It’s the small businesses and new businesses that will bring back jobs and the growth we need to get out of this recession.” She is especially passionate about immigrant business owners because, “we have that courage. We come from places that have experienced tough times.... We know if you work hard and give it an honest effort you can succeed.”

She has had challenges. “It’s going to take me years to recover my investment. It hasn’t been easy. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all fine and dandy,” but Valenzuela gets up every morning confident that she’s now doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing.

I am also doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s due, in part, to the career track I embarked on with my very first job in TV. I got it – not from the lady on the train with the tote – but from the television station where I did my internship. When I learned they had a position open, I applied and asked for recommendations from people I met while working there. In other words – my newly minted contacts helped.

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Filed under: Economy • Education • How we live • Latino in America • What we think
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Dan I.

    Unfortunately, that interview you got for a new grad with no experience would, in today's economic environment, never have been offered to you. Jobs that 5 years ago were being advertised as "entry-level" are today advertised as "2-3 years experience" due to the amount of unemployed, experienced workers.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reina Valenzuela

      You are right Dan! with the flooding of the job market the rules of engagement have changed.


      November 23, 2011 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
  2. Anthony

    Seriously, this woman went to Harvard and couldn't figure out how to get herself an interview? And this was during good economic times? Sorry, Soledad, but your apparent lack of any social intelligence is not a relatable issue for most unemployed Americans who didn't go to the TOP SCHOOL IN THE WORLD. Why would you lead this article with your uninteresting, narcissistic tale? You should be embarrassed to tell anyone your story; it is not a badge of honor, but rather very irritating that you actually think you can relate to people with real problems. I'm sure your mommy enjoyed reading it, though.

    November 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Vince

    What is with CNN and Soledad? Is she like their "race correspondent" or something with her main qualifications being 1/2 black?

    November 16, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • ACamelSpider

      Vince, with all due respect, CNN may have selected Ms. O’Brien due to her international bi-racial linage, or her superior intellectual ability to communicate issues, in a non-condescending, thought provoking manner. Consequently, I’ll raise you 50% to her upbringing, and call you 50% on her Harvard education.

      November 16, 2011 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  4. Mike s

    What about some of us who are white, male and didnt attend harvard! I went to a local college and hold two b.s degrees in technology, I graduated in 2006 in the top 5% of my class and I cannot get a job. I tried going through temp agencies but they told me that after two years that they cannot place you in a job. Heck gas stations wont hire me because im overquallified. Dont forget us non minoriy, male unemployed....we deserve jobs also.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Brad


      November 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
      • Standard

        It doesn't help that most of your degrees are in basket weaving and "international communications". The easy degrees which cost $100K in student loans are deeply and sorrowfully to blame for a lot of our joblessness crisis.

        November 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Gonzalez

    What an inspirational story, I truly loved it. I'm a Hispanic male and high school drop out trying to secure a job in a new city. It's been tough but I am very optimistic, however, if no opportunities open up, I'll just have to let my entrepreneurial spirit take over. There are illegal immigrants running successful businesses here in the U.S, which is impressive to say the least.

    November 16, 2011 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Reina Valenzuela

      Dear Gonzalez,

      When you say that "if no opportunities open up, I'll just have to let my entrepreneurial spirit take over" you are losing valuable time, Go for it! take the time you have available to prepare, to gain the knowledge and skills you need to make things happen. Nobody can do that for you! only you can!


      November 16, 2011 at 5:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Standard


      November 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Deb

    College educated and at 50, I've been on literally dozens of interviews, but still can't find a job where I'm not passed over in favor of younger candidates, even though I can work circles around them all. I'm now turning my attention to the home, where I'm getting caught up on maintenance, and also breaking ground on building a new garage myself. My husband calls
    me "the world's hardest working unemployed woman"! Lol.

    November 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reina Valenzuela

      Hi Deb,

      I know the feeling. I personally know many educated and experienced women who are unemployed or "underemployed". It is a reality! so glad you're taking on those important household projects that add value! There is no such thing as wasting time when you are improving your home.


      November 16, 2011 at 6:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Depressed

      On resume, Harris, IBM, Lockeed Martin and Dell, still no job. It is true. Age kills you even its not your fault you are getting older. Experience doesn't help either. They are looking for young guys to burn up at a lower wage. That is no way to run a country. No wonder we are falling behind. We reject all out available talent pool of all ages.

      November 16, 2011 at 7:26 am | Report abuse |
      • durundal

        Coming from a 'younger' guy, I would point out that we have a different view on the situation: namely all the jobs want experienced professionals, and you cant get experience unless you've already been working in the field (the old revolving door). Rather than resent the younger generation, assess your interview skills and freshen up the `ol resume. Its a tough time to find a job for all of us out there – regardless of age

        November 16, 2011 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
      • Duane Bethea

        Find other educated people in your circle and talk about creating some type of business. I hear all these stories about well qualified people not being able to find a job. While you are looking and don't stop by all means try to be creative and think about how you can leverage your skill set. Even if it takes a year or two to get something moving that's about the time it takes now to find a job. So what do you have to lose.

        November 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Change

    Soledad I'm a big fan of yours and you're certainly an inspiration to all Americans. You broadcast journalism the way it should be broadcasted and you do indeed connect with the viewers and I personally like the fact that you're such an objective and down to earth journalist that take profesionnal journalism to a higher level. And I totally agree with you that it would take some time for jobs to resurface as the federal reserve said in 2009 when President Obama took office but unfortunately because of the urge to play olitics and score political points, the GOP seems to feel that President Obama should deliver these jobs overnight on a silver platter. But I too am confident that the economy will begin to improve and Americans will start returning to work soon. Soledad you're indeed an inspiration and you are one of the reasons why America is still a great nation. Thanks a million for keeping us informed and may God bless you in all your future endeavors.

    November 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ACamelSpider

    Ms. O’Brien,
    Love your talent, all the time.
    I have my reservations regarding “networking, et al” while acknowledging its effectiveness is some situations. Please allow me to explain. In example, a former supervisor and I maintained e-contact for over two decades. Recently, I asked her to review my resume, which she did and further stated, she had submitted a number of online resumes to one of my former employers, and she had received no response from them.
    As fate would have it, I informed “Jane,” I maintained a long term friendship with a current employee of the desired, non-responsive company and would ask “Jill” if she would make a referral. I contacted Jill, she said yes, and the referral was made.
    Jill made the referral of “Jane” to her employer, because she trusted ME with her reputation.
    I certainly don’t believe for a moment, Jill would have done the same for just any jobseeker trolling Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn trying to make a connection to her current employer. I know I would not, since work reputations can be difficult enough to sustain.
    Without a certain degree of trust, I would find it unwise to make “social networking” referrals, regardless if it’s trending. Kudos to your mom for getting your foot in the door. Like I said, both parties had trust factors in play regarding YOU.

    November 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • DoNotWorry

      I agree. I have a LinkedIn account, and get large numbers of "requests" to link based on my contacts. These are people I've never met. I always decline and although I have empathy, I do not want to lose my contacts due to a pitch.

      November 15, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reina Valenzuela

      I agree with you. I believe that nothing replaces the "face to face" real life connection. Social networks are essentially tools to communicate, build relationships, stay in touch. I would never give a personal recommendation to someone I don't even know, and I wouldn't expect one either. It is up to the individuals to build a relationship and to earn that recommendation. In the case of Linkedin, it can be used to find recruiters, job postings from companies, trade groups, associations, etc. In the end, these are just tools not a free pass to the front of the interviewing line.

      Looking for a job is a full time job 🙂


      November 16, 2011 at 6:40 am | Report abuse |
  9. tamara reina

    Yes there are times when enough isn't good anymore. Being an MBA graduate myself and looking for a better job everyday.

    November 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reina Valenzuela

      Hi Tamara,

      It may get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, look around you find an organization that can use your skills and volunteer or look for the type of industry where you would want gain experience and apply for an internship. Having been at the hiring end I can tell you that those long gaps in employment history in a person's resume. Make sure you continue to gain experience and exposure to new opportunities.


      November 16, 2011 at 6:14 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mom

    I've been so tempted to do what your mom did, Soledad. And I always hold back thinking I'd hurt my child more than help. But I love this story, and knowing your mom spotted an opportunity and pounced on it is admirable! Si se puede~ I think if this were me today, I'd get the number and then just handed it over to my child ... along with a good script for the phone call. Ha!

    November 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sidd

    Its time the average American realized that the only way for them to save their jobs and thus their economy is to:
    1. Buy American, preferably local.
    2. Buy from the small neighbourhood store instead of the large corporations.
    There is absolutely no other solution. You might save a couple of bucks buying 'made in china', but in the long run you are going to end up exporting your jobs to them.
    Buying from large corporations means you are most probably buying stuff made elsewhere, at the cost of American jobs.
    There are many websites to point you to 'made in America' on google.

    November 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • DoNotWorry

      I agree. I have always leaned toward made in America, but the last few years it has gotten very difficult. I would add to your list as follows:
      3. If a store does not have the product you want made in America, ask to speak to the manager and let them know you are choosing to buy only American made products. Corporations need to know that we are serious, so walk away from that product made elsewhere. For 8 months, I have walked away every time. We need to support our jobs.

      November 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
      • Monique`

        Yes, yes, yes. Don't hesitate to let store management know you want to buy American products. If there were enough people doing this, I believe a difference would be made.

        November 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |