Overstock chairman speaks to students about unpredictable future job market

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The thing about technology’s firm grip on life is this: Today’s college students could end up working in an industry that doesn’t even exist yet.

That was the case for Jonathan Johnson, chairman of the board at Overstock.com. As an undergrad, Johnson majored in Japanese at Brigham Young University, but he said being a continual learner and devoting himself to problem solving helped guide him in the right direction.

“I’ve had a winding path to where I am today, and what I thought I would be doing when I was a college student is very different than what I’m doing today,” he said. “The industry I’m working in — e-commerce — didn’t even exist when I was in college.”

Johnson spoke to Dixie State University students in the Boeing Auditorium of the Udvar-Hazy School of Business building Thursday about maintaining relevance in the workforce when it often feels like all that is important are screens and technological advancements.

Before providing students with advice on how to be successful, Johnson gave a brief history on Overstock.com. The company began with a room full of people selling liquidation goods overstock; its beginnings were so modest a bell rung after each sale. Now, however, the company earned revenues of $1.3 billion in 2013.

Johnson said he attributes growth to a staff full of problem solvers. 

“The employees I look to and promote are the ones who solve problems — not create problems — and when they find problems, they should bring them to me with a proposed solution,” he said.

Lauren Randall, a senior psychology major from Upland, California, attended the talk and said Johnson’s continual emphasis on solution seeking appealed to her.

“When he was talking about things that will make you stand out … I liked the one about being a problem solver, and I think for me, being solution-focused, positive and not dwelling on things were cool things he touched on,” Randall said. 

Other topics Johnson discussed included finding happiness and learning always. Stephanie Marshall, a junior business major from Eagle, Idaho, said his ability to discuss both long-term and short-term issues — like seeking new avenues when what’s going on isn’t working — kept the audience engaged with stories students could relate to.

Johnson gave both personal and professional advice. Developing a daily routine contributes to his success, he said, and that routine begins each day with what he called the “language of business”: the newspaper.

“Different parts of the newspaper have been important to me at different times,” Johnson said. “As a little kid, it was the comics, then it turned into the sports page, then it was the business page, and now I read the opinion page … and at some point in my life I’ll probably read the obituaries.”

Numerous audience members asked Johnson questions related to being successful post-grad. Understanding technology helps, he said, but some traits will always be important.

“Becoming a good learner, becoming a good communicator, becoming a good problem solver — [those are] going to apply to any industry existing today or existing in the future,” Johnson said.