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In the months before I graduated from college in 1993, I watched friends of mine literally wallpaper their living room with the rejection letters they received. They were engineering and computer science majors -- fields that were supposed to practically guarantee employment. Being a journalism major myself, I tried not to think too much about my own prospects and took solace in my low-paying but otherwise satisfying job at an independent bookstore.

Yet I ended up being one of the first of my crowd hired, thanks to my having let myself be dragged to a journalism job fair by one of my friends. One of the résumés I dropped off at that fair bore fruit. I was called in to interview, and somehow -- one of only two instances in my life when I can recall this happening -- I said all the right things and got hired on the spot.

A year and a half later, I was ready to move on, and I began to send out résumés to newspapers in cities where I thought I'd to prefer to live. Already, I was starting to feel the squeeze. One interview that felt positive was followed a few days later by a phone call informing me that the position was going to be eliminated rather than filled. Just days after that, I heard that the newspaper with which I'd interviewed was merging with its competitor. In fact, two of the papers I interviewed with that year have ceased to exist as independent dailies, as has the one I was looking to leave.

It was five months from the time I began looking to the time I found a new position. It seemed like ages then; it seems like a blitzkrieg now.

In 1995, I got hired as a writer and editor at an alternative weekly newspaper that I'll call the Velvet Cage. This was my joking nickname for it: The pay was terrible, the benefits were great, the work environment was great, the hours were great, the people were great, and to be able to say you worked for the Velvet Cage carried cachet in the community, so people tended to keep working there long past the point where they should have moved on. Unlike those others, I left four and a half years later, when I felt like I'd hit my personal and professional limits, buoyed by the optimistic thought that my then-wife, a nurse, could find much better opportunities in the metropolitan area where I'd grown up.

And she did.

I, on the other hand, couldn't get arrested. Almost immediately after my homecoming, I saw a posting for a copy editor at a prominent university press. I submitted my rez, got called in for an interview, confidently tackled the editing test (I had no fear -- I'd written them before) . . . and never heard from the publisher again. When I called to follow up, I was told that the position had been filled.

Shortly thereafter, I saw another copy editing posting, this one at the mighty alt-weekly that I'd grown up reading. Ah! This was my shot! My former editor was on a first-name basis with my prospective future one. He sent her a note telling her to keep her eyes peeled for my résumé, which I promptly sent in along with my choicest clips.

I was never even called in for an interview.

At that point, I was demoralized. Apparently it wasn't what you knew that counted, but it also wasn't who you knew, and if that was the case, then I didn't know what it was.

Starting that winter, I found myself on a nearly ten-year career odyssey, over the course of which I've applied for unemployment insurance, used it up, given up on my former field and switched to a new one (in which there was supposedly a shortage of qualified and interested candidates), gotten a master's degree and $39,000 of student loan debt, and spent an aggregate of just under three years working full-time, plus another two and a half years of precarious work and freelance editing gigs.

And I've wondered again and again: Why is it so hard to get a job?


Ever since I left the Velvet Cage -- but perhaps also, subconsciously, dating back to the experience of my college classmates -- it's felt to me that the "hiring" process was more of an elaborate system of screening for reasons not to hire someone. At every stage of the process, being too forward could result in an employer's writing us off as a nuisance, while not being forward enough could mark us as being insufficiently motivated. The assumption has been one of job scarcity and worker abundance: We were not interviewing the employers to decide whether we really wanted to work for them; they were interviewing to decide whether we should be permitted to. Books such as the bizarrely named What Color Is Your Parachute? (which has always conjured up in my mind the connotation of being thrown from a plane and having to find work before you hit the ground) told us that we had to choose the right color and weight of paper, the right typeface, the right layout for our résumés depending on our field, a scheme as arbitrary and recondite as the colors of the sashes on Ph.D.s' graduation gowns. They lectured us not to pad our résumés with false information, and I never did, although it always seemed as though many of the people who got hired did anyway and somehow got away with it. And under no circumstances were we ever to discuss salary until we already had an offer in hand -- heaven forbid that we should give the impression that we were interested in money.

Often, in fact, the process prevented us from even knowing that job openings existed. Oh, sure, there was a Help Wanted section in the newspaper classified ads, but all we ever saw there were entry-level jobs or jobs with peculiar and specific certification requirements. If we were looking for a mid-level position in a common field, we had to make lists of prospective employers and telephone them to ask about openings, or just mail them résumés cold and hope for the best. Then we had to follow up on our résumés by phone, which usually involved talking to a human resources employee who told us there was no opening even if there was. If we weren't doing this eight hours a day, we weren't trying hard enough.

Four years ago, I got a master of education degree and certification to teach. One of the places I've looked for work is in a major metropolitan public school system that uses "principal-based hiring": Instead of hiring teachers through the central office, all interviewing and candidate selection is done by building principals. Which, in theory, is a great system -- it should give principals the power and freedom to choose candidates who will be the best fit for their visions as educators, while saving applicants from being thrust into situations they aren't prepared for. In practice, however, all it means is that you can't get past the school secretaries to talk to the principals. You can't even find out whether there are openings. Up until a certain day in late March, which changes from year to year, you'll be told, "We don't know what our needs are going to be for next year." After that day, the message becomes, "All our positions have been filled."

On a few occasions, I've gotten called in for interviews and, weeks later, received a letter in the mail saying that another candidate was chosen to fill the position and wishing me luck in my search. I treasure these letters, because usually, employers send nothing. They don't write. They don't call. They don't return your call when you call. Closure is not a priority for most employers. Once they've chosen their new employee, the other applicants cease to matter. For all intents and purposes, they cease to exist.


On Oct. 10, the New York Times ran an article in its Jobs section, "How a Good Candidate Clears the H.R. Hurdles":

If your only relationship with the company is electronic, via a job board or a posting, your chances are not good. H.R. people confronting hundreds of faceless online applications have one main goal: to weed out as many people as they can.

“The employer is not expected to be creative or flexible or see the opportunity in you that you think you might have” when the relationship is purely electronic, said Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer at Adecco North America, the staffing firm. She considers that to be an “unrealistic expectation on the part of the job seeker.”

But if you can establish personal contact with someone on the inside, you may be able to make your case. It’s tiresome to have to repeat this, and a lot of people don’t like to hear it, but it comes down to networking.

It is tiresome to hear this. Networking is a system that rewards people who collect acquaintances like pretty rocks. It discriminates against introverts, who like to go home after a day on the job rather than go out for drinks and make "connections" with coworkers and contacts. It assumes and encourages an instrumental attitude toward others, the attitude that other people exist to be used, that relationships amount to the trading of favors. It's fundamentally unjust that one's ability, one's right, to support oneself (and, if applicable, one's family) should depend on knowing lots of people who know lots of people who might have positions to fill. The longer you're on the outside of a system like this, the less likely it is that you'll ever get in.


There's something perverse, something malevolent, about a society that on the one hand defines a person's (especially a man's) worth by his willingness to work, his ability to work, his commitment to his job, his degree of success in his field -- and on the other hand throws obstacle after obstacle in the path of someone attempting to establish his worth in this way, systematically eliminating opportunities to work because employees are in some way bad for the bottom line. That's what our employment sector is doing to people, more and more. "You are only as much as the money you make," it tells us, "and your request for the chance to make money is denied." It's become an engine for turning somebodies into nobodies.

About seven years ago, while I was on unemployment and two-thirds of my friends were either unemployed or underemployed, I became painfully aware of how many conversations begin with the icebreaker, "So . . . what do you do?" I began a feeble campaign to replace that phrase with "What is best in life?" but gave up on that because too many people couldn't think of an answer, and it was distressing for both them and me. But we all know the answer. What's best in life is to have useful, fulfilling work. To contribute to one's society in a positive and productive way, and to keep deprivation at bay. To have samyag-ājīva -- right livelihood. That's why that damned insensitive icebreaker will never die, no matter how high the unemployment rate: because our work is part of us, so much that it's the source of our most common surnames. And as long as corporate hiring culture refuses to create the jobs that we need, for our souls as well as our pocketbooks, and frustrates and humiliates us in our quest, it conspires to prevent us from becoming fully ourselves.

Originally posted to Geenius at Wrok on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:23 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What do you put in it's place? (4+ / 0-)

    Something like the civil service exam? What about people who aren't much on test taking, but can motivate people like free donuts?

    There's nothing to do, but learn to network, even if badly. I should know...I've been networking badly all my life.

    "Grab a mop -- let's get to work. "
    -- President Barack Obama, Oct 2009

    by davewill on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:35:25 PM PDT

  •  It is tough (15+ / 0-)

    I was the hiring manager at my last position.  I was filling mostly entry level analyst work in an area where I didn't expect any of the candidates to have specific experience related to the job, so I was looking for intelligence, ambition, good systems analysis and attention to detail more than any specific resume items.  I would fill about 8-12 positions per year.

    My last three openings, the last was about 7 or 8 months ago, I got over 50 resumes.  I have interviewed a rocket scientist, a baker, a daycare owner, a CFO of a paper company and a myriad of others with some very strong qualifications in their respective fields that could not get jobs in their traditional areas of employment.

    It always makes me sad to look at 50 applications, interview 12 people and hire a single person.

    Repubs - the people in power are not secretly plotting against you. They don't need to. They already beat you in public. (Bill Maher)

    by Sychotic1 on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:37:36 PM PDT

    •  I would love to know what this looks like (9+ / 0-)

      from the other side. Trying to figure out what a hiring administrator is looking for is like trying to pry secrets out of a magician.

      Is it really bad, for instance, to be too aggressive?

      "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk." --Ian McDonald

      by Geenius at Wrok on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:41:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  From time to time I'm asked to interview people (9+ / 0-)

        and sometimes screen resumes. The resumes are usually somewhat prescreened so I can't really say much about that process. I always tried to engage the person in talking about their experience. I wanted to both get a feeling for what they had actually done, and to gauge their passion and enthusiasm for doing it.

        I know a lot of my fellows seemed to concentrate more on asking trick questions and trying to trip up applicants.

        "Grab a mop -- let's get to work. "
        -- President Barack Obama, Oct 2009

        by davewill on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:45:11 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I am sure each position is different (4+ / 0-)

        For instance, my boss will always give one that is two-sided copied and/or on quality paper a second look.  He won't even look at one that doesn't have a cover letter.

        Another manager I know always checks the start and end dates and thoroughly reads any reason for leaving a job.

        Another manager I know hates typos and grammatical errors, one is a mistake, but more is sloppy and they will just go on to the next.  They are also very put off by any explanation that is too technical (this would apply to apply outside one's field I assume) so that they cannot figure out exactly what the prospective employee did.  That means "I extracted the WEENUS from the IABASE system for redaction," would not go over well.

        In my area I often looked for people who had worked with numbers successfully, had taken some accounting course work, and I always included one of my "blind chickens" which is someone whose resume you might never classically consider for the job, but there was something compelling about it.  So far I have not hired one of my blind chickens, but I keep looking for that surprise person who is perfect for the job.  Being OCD often helps.  I used to joke with my manager that in the next interview I am going to put a pile of pencils on the table and if they prospective hire arranges them neatly when we come in, I am giving them an extra point.

        It is hard to look at people who are smart and eager to work and not have positions for all of them....although I always send the wallpaper...er...letters.

        Repubs - the people in power are not secretly plotting against you. They don't need to. They already beat you in public. (Bill Maher)

        by Sychotic1 on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 02:24:34 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  AAAAAGGGHHHH! (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Geenius at Wrok, bebacker, CMYK

          I used to joke with my manager that in the next interview I am going to put a pile of pencils on the table and if they prospective hire arranges them neatly when we come in, I am giving them an extra point.

          And just how are we supposed to know whether we gain points for arranging them, or lose them for being a nosey anal retentive git?

          "Grab a mop -- let's get to work. "
          -- President Barack Obama, Oct 2009

          by davewill on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 04:03:03 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  It's a troubling situation. (6+ / 0-)

    I really think everything that drives the corporatization is the duty to shareholders to maximize profit.  If that duty didn't exist, then executives of goodwill (however few they may be) could work to balance profits with other demands (ensuring a living wage, being environmentally responsible, acting as a good corporate citizen to participate in the community).  

    I read an article, however, that suggested that the case that is believed to have created the duty to shareholders, Ford v. Dodge, did nothing of the kind.  In other words, that we've deluded each other into thinking this legal duty exists, when it really doesn't.  I don't know that that's true, and even if the case didn't actually create the duty, it's been cited so often as creating the duty that I'm sure the duty exists.

    My only concern is that we've gone too far.  That our business executives are so thoroughly inculcated in the profit-maximization paradigm that they can't break out - even if it wasn't required of them.

    Compromise on Personnel - Never on Principle. Street Prophets - "Ani Adonai Eloheichem" He says.

    by mkrell on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:38:52 PM PDT

  •  Walk it off, buttercup. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bablhous, mkrell, OHdog, Rosebuddear, CMYK

    Just kidding. I'm currently also 'out of the loop', to put it mildly.

    My own attitude is that having friends in high places helps, but only to a certain extent.

    I suspect that most people hired this way are companies that are either start-up, or fairly high-level positions that friends will give to other friends only on the expectation of some sort of return.

  •  This is one area (4+ / 0-)

    Where your Chamber of Commerce may be useful. Mine organizes bi-weekly get togethers where people looking for work and employers can meet, listen to presentations, and chat over lunch.

    On the scale of fun things to do, maybe a minus 2, but you have to get out there, start handing out your cards, meeting people.

    Every day's another chance to stick it to The Man. - dls.

    by The Raven on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:41:31 PM PDT

  •  And you didn't even mention the intrusive (13+ / 0-)

    urinalysis that would reject a smoker of two joints the weekend before but be perfectly ok with a guy still hungover from the night before.
    Just sayin'...;-(>

    "We're right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody's giving booze to these goddamn things!"-Hunter S. Thompson ;-)>

    by rogerdaddy on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 01:44:11 PM PDT

  •  I have never understood the particular expertise (11+ / 0-)

    of HR people. The vast majority of them have no real experience in the fields and jobs for which they keep the gate. The worst are the outsourced "headhunters" for non-profits. Somewhere back in the 90's someone convinced all these non-profits that they were so bad at judging people that they needed to leave the screening out of applicants to the "professional" screeners. Said screeners ofcourse wouldn't be caught dead working the uncompensated hours, ill-defined or undefined duties, or personal level commitments that make good non-profits excel.

    •  I've always pictured HR (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OHdog, Rosebuddear, Hens Teeth, imamish

      as being a giant madlibs game.  You have ten blanks for "required qualifications," and the more you fill in, the better a fit you have - but that HR doesn't bother to actually check to see if you fill in the blanks.

      I know it's more than that, but I also like to picture a whole department of people doing nothing but madlibs all day.

      Compromise on Personnel - Never on Principle. Street Prophets - "Ani Adonai Eloheichem" He says.

      by mkrell on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 02:16:31 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  One size fits all doesn't (9+ / 0-)

    What I can't fathom is why networking, getting along well with others, is considered desirable for all jobs. I do accounting, and my understanding is that you want people who don't get along well with co-workers handling the money. People who will turn in fraud, waste and abuse from any employee. Just saying.

  •  great diary! (7+ / 0-)

    I noticed in the 90's I actually got responses to my resume and since about 2002 nothing! At least call me in to smack me in the face or something! Anything.

  •  Unfortunately, the networking process is only (12+ / 0-)

    marginally successful.  There are so many people out there trying to leverage their contacts that people are no longer willing to be helpful.  The whole thing frightens them.  The unemployed are like lepers.  People know they exist but don't want to get too close for fear they might catch it.  America is no longer the place of opportunity...we have become the place where people who have done all the right things come to die and be crushed.  

  •  I blame Monster (9+ / 0-)

    Resume spam.  If you have been unemployed long enough, you have done it.  Any job in your field gets a resume.  Any job in a related field gets a resume.  Any job near your house gets a resume.  etc.  In an age of emailed resume's the cost to send one more is negligible.  The cost to send 100 more is the same.

    So HR now has to wade through all this junk, and frankly a lot of good stuff gets caught up in the maelstrom of deletion.

    On top of that, the HR screeners often don't have any idea what makes a good candidate.  So the first, second, and even third screen is eliminating people on arbitrary grounds.  Even worse, it's letting some of the wrong people through.  I occasionally interview these candidates and wonder how they have gotten this far.  Then I read their buzzword laden resumes and I understand.

    Ironically, I just got a call from a headhunter last week asking me if I was interested in a position I had left three years ago.  Has it been unfilled all this time?  I hope not.

    For every Daily Kos diary there is an equal and opposite Daily Kos diary.

    by hillgiant on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 02:27:17 PM PDT

  •  HR people can't handle scientific and technical (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raboof, Rosebuddear, smellybeast, CMYK

    expertise job openings. They have not a clue what the words mean much less the relevance of skill sets to a science based job. All they do can be done and increasing is being done by a computer program matching key words in the advertisement with words found in the resume and cover letter.
    Employers have a buyers market now and all the advice of matching your skills in your former jobs with new, but different, jobs is bull because the ones hired are the ones that were doing the exact thing being advertised for but at another company.

    Health is the first requisite after morality - T. Jefferson

    by OHdog on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 02:29:21 PM PDT

  •  this diary is spot on (6+ / 0-)

    I might just add that employers go out of their way to keep you at arm's length. If you call a company or show up in person, they say "apply online". The lack of human contact gets to be totally frustrating.

    I spend my days making phone calls which are never returned, calling on potential employers only to be told "go home and apply on our website", and sitting in my jammies making endless applications online.

    And it's true that there is always some peculiar requirement which is a spoiler for a job you would otherwise be perfect for. Exactly what was said upthread - what employers seem to be looking for is someone who has years of experience doing EXACTLY what they used to do at their old job - anybody who wants to change careers or follow their dream or any of that stuff is SOL.

    Sigh. Buyer's market indeed. And it's only going to get worse. Like the man said - the most profitable company in theory is one that has NONE of those pesky "employees".

    I took the Myers-Briggs assessment once at my last job. My rating was INFP - which basically means introverted, intuitive, non-judgmental - the person giving the tests just shook her head and said "you'll never be management - those are exactly all the qualities that management loathes". LOLOL. Well, I could have told her that. By the way being introverted does not necessarily mean you don't enjoy other peoples' company - it just means you prefer more intimate one-on-one communication, as opposed to the kind of airy substanceless small talk that gets traded at parties and when you're "networking". (Gawd I hate that word - I suppose I will never get a job if that's what it takes.)

    •  INFJ Here, Anathema R Us (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rosebuddear

      As you say, INFs aren't suited to American jobs, Rosebuddear. The only people who like us are... people. What good is that?

      I've had one job that really worked out. I've diaried about it: The Best Job Ever working for The Best Boss Ever. Ten years out of a 45-year freelance work life.

      I hate networking. It's just another name for schmoozing and using. I don't like that kind of interaction, thanks.

      I don't apply for jobs. I'm not going to be the one person who gets the job 50 people want, and I can't take the pressure of a 'real job' anyway.

      But I got a job at Target because I made one of their employees laugh one day while I was shopping. She liked me so much she practically forced me to work there. It was a great experience.

      Be Open To What's Happening Around You is the only advice I can give job seekers. Unusual paths to work still exist. Shake it all about. Give chance a chance.

      WWTD: What Would Teddy Do?

      by JG in MD on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 07:29:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  My cousins used to pick beans during summer break (4+ / 0-)

    "I'll pick beans. I'll be the best darn bean-picker you ever saw.."

    In the interim, I'll keep up with my other "agricultural exploits" in order to keep home and hearth together.

    It's a Brave New World when you're looking for a gig when pushing 50 years of age.

    So, what if I really did just just have sex with a rainbow inside a bag of Skittles?

    by Anthony Page aka SecondComing on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 03:42:03 PM PDT

  •  I like this diary so I've recommended it. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rosebuddear, Mrs M, CMYK
    That is all.

    Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. Psalm 27:14

    by 99 Percent Pure on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 03:58:50 PM PDT

  •  Oh and you should market this piece (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rosebuddear, Mrs M, CMYK
    to a few magazines and newspapers.

    Very well written, very well done.

    Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. Psalm 27:14

    by 99 Percent Pure on Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 04:13:37 PM PDT

  •  Some more prevention tactics I've seen (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Geenius at Wrok, CMYK

    "You can't send your resume in along with a general inquiry to the hiring manager. You must apply for a posted job opening only. We'll just throw out anything you send us otherwise."

    So, in other words, if you have a slightly unusual or specialized background, you can't appeal to a manager who may have diverse needs and various ways of juggling the work, so that that person creates a job description that fits your strengths.

    "You must apply using our web application process only. We will throw out any paper submissions."

    And unfortunately the web page was put together by someone with no grasp of web applications, someone whose page requires Internet Explorer Version X on Windows Version X and even then doesn't work half the time.

    "In order to submit a job application you agree to provide us with access to your credit history and will agree to binding arbitration of any claims of damage to yourself that may result from this."

    Suddenly that urinalysis requirement looks totally reasonable by comparison!

    I'm sure it's tough for HR people dealing with hundreds of applicants for every position, no matter how low-paid and low status. But you really have to wonder how well the companies they work for are served by these tactics. And you have to wonder whether it's your bad luck or their incompetence when you apply for a position for which you have all the "required" skills and experience and 90% or the "nice to have" ones...and then never hear a word back. Did they really have lots of applicants with 100% on both the "required" and "nice to have" score, or is someone just screwing off?

  •  You are a good and thoughtful writer, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rosebuddear

    with interesting observations. In our impersonal, bureaucratic institutions there is no need or motivation to take a chance on anybody. They are likely to reject you out of hand if you don't fit the mold. I suppose your worst demerits now are your employment record and age. One of which you have labored mightily to rectify and the other out of your control. You might try a smaller town, where the list of applicants for a job is shorter and they may actually think about all of them.

    The best job security comes from being able to do useful things with math, because that is an uncommon skill, but the best way to make money is to have a good mind and an enormous tolerance for boring tasks: think accountants and lawyers. I enjoyed being a janitor as a college student. I could think about anything I wanted to, and would occasionally realize that I had no recollection of having cleaned the previous 3 restrooms, about an hour of work. Unfortunately the competition for those jobs is also greater. Still, not bad work. Good luck.

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