Sometimes, It’s Not Who You Know, But Who You’ve Yet To Meet

As the saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know” that matters, and nowadays this isn’t always enough to secure a job. Many unemployed and underemployed are spending more time at their favorite coffee shop, continuing their affair with coffee—job hunting, networking online, and updating their resume. Plugged in, and sometimes plugged into headphones as well, many (not all) people close off to their fellow coffee drinkers who may be on the same mission.

More customers doesn’t necessarily equate to increased revenue for coffee shops, which is why some have taken steps to regulate their WiFi, such as charging a nominal fee or granting so many minutes per purchase because it’s overuse and lower turnover can negatively affect their bottom line.

Coffee shops like Truffles don’t mind granting free access as long as customers buy a cup of coffee now and then, respect staff, and share tables when it gets crowded. Jamie Orlando, the owner said that, “They [WiFi using customers] want to be somewhere, but they don’t want to be alone.” But it’s what he said next that caught my attention, “Enjoying free WiFi is a great way to socialize without having to talk to anybody.” I knew that some push back comments from readers were to follow:

One of the most pertinent and well written pieces in a long time. What could be more relevant to present day society than the lives of un and underemployed individuals and their daily routines. Socializing has become passe as the electronic network has made actual interpersonal relations obsolete. Viva la internet!

I feel like an alien anymore walking into my favorite coffee shop (Gypsy), because I’m not attached to a laptop!! I actually had a cyber-couple glaring at my mother and me because we must have been talking and/or laughing too loudly on a recent Saturday!!!! Harper’s Magazine is right…pretty soon human contact is going to be obsolete!!

Tensions are brewing, and articles that support, critique, and complexify the implications of WiFi in coffee shops are many. Three days after Laptop warriors find cozy homes in coffee shops, libraries with free WiFi was published, I came across an article titled Where did café culture go?, critiquing the lack of socialization in coffee shops (specially “third wave”), and 21st Century Unemployment Watering Holes. In this later article, Tom Watkins feels for the unemployed who spend their days at coffee shops, and suggested the following:

  • The state [Michigan] should post job information from Michigan Works and the Talent Bank at all coffee shops across the state including education and training programs through the “No Worker Left Behind” program.
  • In collaboration with the private coffee shops, install computer terminals/kiosks linked to job and training opportunities to be available to those without computer access.
  • If you are an employer, stop by any coffee shop and post or announce your employment opportunities.

Pulling the plug on WiFi is an option to increase turnover, but I don’t see it becoming the norm. More importantly though, pulling the plug won’t guarantee a return to the days of old where chatting with friends and strangers at coffee shops was more common (not always though). In actuality, I’ve been to plenty of coffee shops without WiFi where customers still sit alone, looking past each other. However, the mere fact that unemployed and underemployed people retreat to coffee shops creates an opportunity, an opportunity for them to talk, exchange ideas, share experiences and lessons learned during their search for a new or different job. Maybe even meet a stranger who is that “need to know” someone.

Tweetups and meetups, organized and semi-organized gatherings at coffee shops are becoming more common, allowing strangers to talk in a safe and conversation friendly place. In Baltimore, Legal Grind offers people the opportunity to get legal advice in a non-law office setting, and University of Maryland students to get real world experience in the process. For $10, you can get a lawyer and a cup of coffee.

So, how about $10 to meet with a career counselor or maybe a financial planner, with a cup of coffee of course. Or maybe just a table set aside for job hunting customers, who may in turn become consequential strangers—people who don’t seem to matter, but do; people who bring information into our lives and open us up to new opportunities, people who may help in landing that next job.

There’s nothing wrong with plugging in and socializing online alone at a coffee shop, but the person sitting at the table next to you may be or know somebody that can help you along. Knowing something and knowing people is important, but you may also need the help of people who you don’t know already, people who you’ve yet to meet.

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