Photo of bald man with mustache wearing a blue sweater
Marty Nemko

Q&A: A career coach in the healing market

Name: Marty Nemko
Age: 66
City: Oakland and Napa
Position: Radio host

J.: You’ve had a successful radio show on the Bay Area’s NPR affiliate KALW 91.7 for more than 27 years, “Work with Marty Nemko,” on which you’ve talked about every workplace issue under the sun. But before that, you had an entirely separate career as a professor. You had to retool yourself professionally as well. Tell us about that.

Marty Nemko: I have a Ph.D. from Berkeley in educational psychology. I was a gypsy professor at Cal State East Bay, U.C. Davis and Berkeley, filling in for full-time professors. But I couldn’t get a full-time professorship, even though my dissertation was nominated for Berkeley’s dissertation of the year and I graduated with a 3.9 GPA. I had applied for many permanent positions and didn’t even get interviewed. Finally, I got one at a Bay Area institution. The five-person interview went absolutely wonderfully. I thought I’d get the job. But the head of the search committee pulled me aside and told me that he couldn’t hire me because I was a white male. That was a wakeup call.

So what did you do?

This is where a lesson from my father’s experience really made a difference in my life. My parents were Holocaust survivors — my mother was at Auschwitz, and my father survived many camps. What healed him was not speaking to groups about his experiences or going to Holocaust remembrance commemorations. It was work. Work moved him forward. He had a crappy little store in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, and going to that store every day healed him. One weekend, when I was a kid and working as a security guard at his store, I asked him, “How come you never talk about what happened?” And he said, “The Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Take the next step forward.”

So after my experience at not getting a job as a professor, I thought that if I could help other people find good work, it would be healing, I would be making a difference, like tikkun olam.

In addition to your radio work, you’ve helped more than 5,000 private clients as a career coach. How has the job market changed since you started more than 25 years ago?

It used to be the old saw, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” At that point, most jobs came with benefits. There wasn’t much offshoring. Now, most of my clients are underemployed with part-time jobs, contract or temp work and no benefits.

Clearly, the economy has changed dramatically during your years in the field. What do you find to be the most helpful questions you ask of clients seeking your counsel?

Have you tapped your network most effectively? Have you used LinkedIn? Have you acquired new skills? Are you putting yourself in the shoes of your potential employer? You need both soft skills and hard skills — real skills. It isn’t enough to be a team player or a nice person. You have to bring substance to the table.

Some of the many articles you’ve written over the years, particularly about reverse discrimination in the workplace, have been controversial. Has there been any blowback?

My politics are very iconoclastic. I’m pro-LGBT issues and pro-choice, but I believe the evidence is clear that most programs to close the achievement gap don’t work, or certainly work too poorly to justify the taxpayer expense. I’m across the board on many issues, and you can’t predict my views. But one of my editors at a national magazine was forced to fire me after I wrote an article that asserted that, qualitatively and quantitatively, men have it worse than women. He liked the article and published it, but when the women’s organizations pounded away at him, he caved. I truly believe that today’s censorship from the supposedly tolerant left is far more pervasive than the McCarthyism the left continues to focus on 75 years later.

What makes you tick as a Jew?

I am assertive in the way that many Jews are, which doesn’t always sit well with the New Testament, which urges us to surrender control to God’s will.

What do you and your wife, Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools, do that is particularly Jewish?

We attend joke night at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer, editor, publications manager, communications manager and public relations director at a variety of nonprofit institutions in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, relocated to Chicago. He and his husband love staying in touch with their many good friends on the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco.