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What’s not to learn?

Marketplace Staff Nov 3, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The employment numbers that came out this morning showed a glimmer of economic promise. There are at least some jobs being created. But it’s not like it’s any easier to get the best ones. Employers, as always, put a premium on skilled workers. And especially educated workers. Folks who hold a degree earn more — and are unemployed less — over their lifetime. But with more Americans sporting college degrees, what can you do to put yourself ahead of the pack? Well, keep learning even after school. We sent Cash Peters to do exactly that.

CASH PETERS: The Learning Annex started in New York around 26 years ago. I think it really was in someone’s annex in those days. Now it’s spread to big cities across the U.S. and Canada and is a source of inspiration to millions. Traci Wise is their L.A. coordinator:

TRACI WISE: We’re offering things that are helping people either start a new business, figure out what it is they really want to do with their life, or improve their life tremendously.

PETERS: Isn’t the Learning Annex for total losers?

WISE: Absolutely not.

PETERS: People who wouldn’t get into college.

WISE: We offer things that you can’t get in college.

Ah, now that’s definitely true. Fees start at around 20 bucks. For that you get tuition in all manner of subjects: Double Your Business in 30 Days; Bending Spoons with your Mind. I swear. And, perhaps the greatest idea ever: Lap-Dancing 101.

WISE: We’ve got a great guy who came in and taught 20 Ways to Make Money as a Writer.

PETERS: You just know he never did, though.

WISE: No, he did!

PETERS: This is the thing, though: The ones who write, “How to Write a Bestselling Novel”— you have never heard of these people.

WISE: Yeah, but we don’t get those teachers. We get the people who have . . . you know, who are the huge successes. But truth be told . . .

PETERS: How many people go in Lap-Dancing 101?

WISE: Oh, it’s really popular.

I bet. Best thing of all: the information in a Learning Annex class is jammed into about three hours, which I guess means you can learn all you need to know about a subject without the tiresome hassle of getting good at it.

In the end, I chose one that teaches you “How to be a TV producer.” Naturally, in L.A., that’s bound to attract a wildly optimistic crowd.

PETERS: Why have you come?

WOMAN: Because I have a project now, a sitcom I’ve written and I’m going to present it.

PETERS: On a scale of 1 to 10, how hilarious is your sitcom?

WOMAN: It’s a 12.

PETERS: So, it’s super-hilarious, actually.

WOMAN: It’s super-hilarious.

. . . . .

MAN: I have produced a film.

PETERS: Which film was it?

MAN: A thing called Planet of Dinosaurs.

PETERS: You produced Planet of Dinosaurs?

MAN: I produced and directed Planet of Dinosaurs.

PETERS: And was it ever released?

MAN: It made enough to make all its money back for its investors.

PETERS: But why can you not just be a producer by being one?

MAN: Because you can make an awful lot of mistakes. Take for instance Planet of Dinosaurs.

. . . . .

PETERS: And what’s your sitcom called, so I can tune in that night?

WOMAN: I’m not going to say yet.

PETERS: It’s not called Planet of the Dinosaurs, is it?

WOMAN: No, no, it’s not. It’s not.

. . . . .

PETERS: So why did you come here tonight?

CHRIS DEBIEK: Uh, I dunno.

Which is a little unsettling, because that’s producer Chris Debiek, the guy giving the talk.

DEBIEK: I worked on three movies for PBS Masterpiece Theater.

He’s worked on three movies for PBS Masterpiece Theater. But, why would he take time out to give talks to a bunch of producer wannabes?

DEBIEK: Well, I like helping people, I like working with young aspiring filmmakers.

PETERS: I mean, could they not just e-mail you?

DEBIEK: Well, that’s a little impersonal.

I learned a lot from Chris’ talk. Such as, I don’t want to be a producer after all. Apparently, you have to be organized. What’s odd is, it wasn’t a talk, really. More a three-hour Q&A. The audience just bombarded him with Qs. It must have been very frustrating for him.

DEBIEK: I respond to certain questions. And there are others I can’t. And I say, humbly, I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.

PETERS: You don’t just feel like saying shut up. Just shut up.

DEBIEK: No. If people told me to shut up . . . I’m not going to shut up, because I have a big mouth? That’s what gets you as a producer.

In fact, that’s probably the whole talk in one sentence. There, I’ve saved you 20 bucks.

Anyway, the Learning Annex is going from strength to strength, though, oddly, they set limits to the kind of course they teach. Traci Wise again.

PETERS: What wouldn’t you consider? What is beyond the line for the Learning Annex?

WISE: It’s hard to say. If you gave me an example, I could say yay or nay.

PETERS: Cock fighting.

WISE: I don’t think that would really appeal to people. I think we’re trying to put classes out there . . .

PETERS: Assassination: The Dos and Don’ts.

WISE: Right. . . . We could do How to Break out of Prison.

PETERS: Oh my God, write this down. Why are we not writing this down? It’s a winner.

It is. Of course, we left off one obvious one: How to be a Loser Journalist. I’m available. Call me.

In Los Angeles, I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace.

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