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.