Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Bait and Switch

tags: , , , ,

While I was flying back to NYC last weekend, I read (yet another) book about job hunting. This book detailed the obvious; that searching for a white-collar job is not as easy as you might think, as you’ll learn in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich (NYC: Metropolitan Books; 2005). In this book, Ehrenreich posed as an unemployed white-collar worker, in search of a job in public relations and event planning. To avoid being identified as a journalist via a Google search, she legally changed her name and, relying on her past (real) work experience, actively markets herself. For the book, her goal was to obtain a corporate job that pays approximately fifty thousand dollars per year with health benefits. Her plan was to keep this job for three or four months, write about her experiences, and then quit. To find this job, Ehrenreich earmarked five thousand dollars for travel and other expenses connected with her job search — a generous sum, in my opinion.

But instead of chronicling the trials and challenges of the average white-collar employee working in a large corporation, the author never actually manages to get her desired position in the first place and only succeeds in getting one (or was it two?) interviews during the entire ten months of her job hunt. So faced with a ten month investment in a fruitless (and expensive) job search, Ehrenreich instead writes about the white-collar long-term unemployed people, those people who “did everything right” by “playing by the rules” only to find their lives crumbling around them anyway. She writes about all the people out there who prey upon desperate unemployed professionals who are “in transition”. These predatory people masquerade as career coaches and as speakers at job hunting “boot camps” and religious ministries. As an undercover job seeker herself, she also subjects herself to those ridiculous personality tests that employment agencies and employers use, reads books that are supposed to help ease one’s job search, posts her resume on several internet job sites, attends job fairs and networking events, all in pursuit of those elusive employers “out there” who cannot find the qualified professionals that they so desperately seek.

As a social commentary, this book is spot-on, although incomplete. Ehrenreich finds that human resource departments rarely acknowledge receiving an applicant’s resume; that many corporate managers use interviews to try to convince a job seeker to settle for a lesser job with no benefits or job security; and that corporations prefer to fire good employees rather than allow the CEO and his cronies to forego a promised pay hike. Along the way, the author also exposes the bias that exists for gender, age, and looks. Finally, and most damning, Ehrenreich finds that the jobless are routinely persuaded that they have only themselves to blame for their situation. This, despite the fact that hiring managers will only consider a job candidate who is perfect in every way; without any health or credit or personal issues, no employment gaps or rapid job moves, or unusual employment changes. In short, this is how the employment market really works. Eventually, when she is unable to find a job — any job — at all, Ehrenreich asks herself the same questions that everyone else asks themselves under the cover of night; do I lack charisma? Am I too old? Too unattractive? Is it unrealistic in today’s market to have a decent job with health benefits?

Even though this is a good book, it could have been dynamite: Unfortunately, Ehrenreich only touches briefly on the darker aspects of a long-term job search, never exploring it deeply. I think this is possibly due to the profound shame that unemployed professionals feel, causing them to remain silent about their situation, even amongst each other, at least until their trust has been gained through mutual suffering. But Ehrenreich could have written about the people whom I’ve met and gotten to know during my own fruitless long-term job search. For example, she could have written about the man in his early fifties who lost his wife and children and home one year and ended up sleeping in his truck for another year while searching for a job, his suit carefully hung from the clothing hanger above the window; or the man in his mid-forties who lost his job while employed overseas and ended up stranded in Singapore until a group of sympathetic strangers gathered the funds to fly him back to the United States; or the man in his mid-thirties who was an adjunct professor at a Manhattan university living in a local shelter and subsisting on solely peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and canned tuna; or the man in his early thirties who sold all his possessions on eBay so he could pay his rent for another few months before he was evicted; or the woman who was a recent college graduate trying to survive while paying her student loans by delivering pizzas from her rickety and unreliable car; or even me, who tried to survive on an unpredictable patchwork of adjunct professor and private tutoring positions and pet sitting jobs for more than three years until I was fired by the university and ended up in a mental hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Because she didn’t get many job interviews, Ehrenreich never had to endure the interviews that I and my fellow job seekers were subjected to while smiling through gritted teeth; interviews where we were asked to explain how we will merely survive or afford health insurance on the paltry wages offered by the job we were interviewing for; interviews where we were demanded to explain, in detail, gaps in our employment history; where we were asked about our health and our family’s health, or where us women were asked about our marital status or whether we have, or plan to have, kids. Additionally, Ehrenreich never became “downwardly mobile”; she never decided to pursue a job that was far outside of her experience or “beneath” her qualifications, as many of the professionals whom I know have done. If she had done so, she would have discovered that, in downward mobility, there is an astonishing bias against her work experience and educational level — all of which are rationalized by employers who claim that a professional will either become hopelessly bored on the job or will leave the moment a better job becomes available, nevermind that both situations are true for anyone that they could hire. But of course, like me and my fellow white-collar job seekers, if Ehrenreich had left her professional experience off her resume, as many people recommend, she would have created an inexplicable and unacceptable gap in her employment history which would also disqualify her from being hired.

Another unfortunate thing that often happens to white-collar job seekers after their interview, when they supposedly are hired for the job, they must then “pass” a credit check, which they could instead flunk, especially if they’ve been unemployed for a long time. But Ehrenreich never explored this because she never had the opportunity. Unfortunately, this credit check serves to do nothing more than separate long-term job seekers whose credit has been damaged or destroyed from those who have only been on the job market for a few months, effectively punishing long-term job seekers by relegating them to perpetual unemployment or underemployment in an unpredictable string of cash-under-the-table jobs as a house cleaner or pet sitter.

This doesn’t include the other forms of corporate gate-keeping; all those other checks and tests that potential employees must also “pass”, particularly those mysterious personality tests (don’t even get me started on those!).

What do I think professionals should do to avoid this predicament? White-collar employees should expect that everything, especially their career, is temporary and will disappear from their lives suddenly and when they are most vulnerable. Once they are unemployed, they should expect to remain so for a long period of time (at least for six months and probably for two or more years) at least once in their working lives, and they should plan accordingly. My advice is to always save as much money as possible to keep yourself from having to live on the streets. Even if you manage to get a good job that pays well, keep your living expenses as low as possible and NEVER go into debt for anything, including your education and housing. Even after you have a “real job”, continue learning new (and marketable) skills, such as bookkeeping or a new computer language. And — as a reserved and self-effacing person, I have particular trouble with this one — always market yourself for your next position to your family, friends and colleagues.

So why should you read this book? Because everyone knows someone who is or will be unemployed, or they themselves will be. This engagingly-written book provides a brief but disturbing glimpse into the world of white-collar unemployment where no one is special and everyone is expendable. It touches on the exhaustion, isolation, sense of betrayal, self-blame, desperation, depression, hopelessness and even the permanent damage that long-term job seekers experience. Unfortunately, this book does not present anything that resembles a solution to the problem in my opinion, although I think it serves as a powerful wake-up call that should cause one to deal more compassionately with relatives and friends who are unlucky enough to be among the white-collar unemployed in America.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. She is a frequent contributor to Harper’s and The Nation, and has been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

Comments

  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    November 3, 2007

    I had a vision thirty years ago, of a vast plain covered with young people like me, seeking work for their lives, and all across the plain, under a low ceiling of gray fog, were career ladders, each with its hiring manager proclaiming the wonderfulness thereof.

    And my point of view slowly rose up, and from above the fog I could see that almost every one of those career ladders ended, just above the fog, and thereon were crowded all the people who’d hoped it would take them somewhere.

    And elsewhere, with different gatekeepers who’d not extolled those ladders but searched for the children of the rich and powerful to quietly lead them to where they belonged, were the few ladders that continued to go up higher and higher, above where the ordinary people’s careers ended.

    So I renegotiated my work schedule and arranged to drive my old VW bug into work early, and park it in the parking garage, and work four hours, and if the wind was right I’d then take my old car — with my hang glider on top — and go out to Fort Funston and soar for three hours or so, and then land and go back and finish another four work hours.

    Worked for me.

    Watch out for those ladders. They’re bogus.

    Learn to fly.

  2. #2 LilyBamboo
    November 3, 2007

    So true so true! I’m lucky enough to be in Switzerland (where I have the special skill of speaking English). I have given up my career in research science to go into secondary school teaching and I still have many hoops to jump through before I (hopefully) end up with job that is semi-secure.

  3. #3 Scott
    November 3, 2007

    I never understood how a potential employee’s credit history is something that employers should take into account, or for that matter even legally be allowed to check. I could maybe see it for someone who was going to be a loan officer themselves or work in a casino or something, at least for those it would be vaguely job-related. The next time someone asks to run my credit, they will most likely hear me say: “No, see, I work for you, you pay me. The money flows from you to me. Unless you’re planning on giving me a paycheck before I’ve begun to work for you, I should be concerned about your credit, NOT the other way around.” But for that matter, I would think that a bad credit score would actually help you get the job because they would figure you’d never turn down an opportunity to work overtime.

  4. #4 Mike
    November 3, 2007

    Fantastic review, Grrlscientist. You really nailed this one.

  5. #5 shaun
    November 3, 2007

    Thankyou for the great post.

  6. #6 Annie
    November 3, 2007

    That’s me in every way, except that I’ve run out of peanut butter, and my storage locker rent is only good until the end of the month. My remaining possessions aren’t selling, and the room I had in exchange for slave-like cleaning – well, I was kicked out for the weekend and have been on a bus all night. Now at a library with another thirty six hours to kill before I can sleep indoors again.

    Also doctorally educated, but my crime was to accidentally blow the whistle on illegal work practices – by my boss and the HR director. That transgression is literally killing me after the blacklisting and now going on two years of unemployment. Spot on about the credit checks, reference checks, HR practices, gender, age discrimination, employment gaps – you name it, and they have an excuse not to hire for it – every single bit of it.

    All I think about is ending this suffering – I would practically be better off dead – Scrooge’s surplus population is all the value that I have, except that there’s not even a workhouse.

    Good post, Grrl.

    On a lighter note, how’s the baby bird coming along? Is s/he getting used to the NY hubbub and your other birds?

  7. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    November 3, 2007

    annie; thanks for reminding me to post a message about the wee one. it’s on the way!

  8. #8 Library Diva
    November 3, 2007

    I enjoyed this book as well. I’ve been fortunate enough, thus far, not to have such an experience, but I think you’ve given some good advice to ward it off. I’ve been realizing lately just how unmarketable a degree in museum studies can be. It took me six months to switch jobs, and a friend had an identical experience. After looking consistently since January, she just got an offer a couple of weeks ago. Even at that, it’s several states away, and she’ll have to sell her house and be apart from her husband for several months while he finishes out his one-year contract at a local university.

    I am going to take your advice about learning new skills to heart. I don’t know which one I’d like to learn, but I’m going to look for something and go for it. I’ve been thinking about teaching, too. I need to motivate my ass and find out what a person with a master’s degree needs to become certified.

  9. #9 Stephen
    November 4, 2007

    Man, I am glad I don’t live in the US.

    If I interviewed someone and asked about marital status, or almost any of the things, I basically have to employ the person – otherwise they’ll sue me for discrimination. If you get to personal matters, it means “I’ve decided to hire you, let’s chat.”.

  10. #10 Dirkh
    November 4, 2007

    $5,000 earmarked for all the expenses associated with a job search is probably a pretty lowball figure, lamentably.

    Given that it sometimes takes at least 6 to 9 months to even generate decent interviews, I would call that figure conservative. Selling yourself costs money.

  11. #11 Constance Reader
    November 4, 2007

    “Even if you manage to get a good job that pays well, keep your living expenses as low as possible and NEVER go into debt for anything, including your education and housing.”

    This is an asinine statement. If you’ve managed to get a good job that pays well it is likely because you have already gone into debt to obtain a marketable education.

    Also, going into debt for housing can be unavoidable. Rental deposit, application fees, pet deposit, utility deposits, clean-up of the place you’re moving out of (more places are starting to require per lease terms that you pay for professional services; doing it yourself is not acceptable and forfeits your deposit). Plus there are the moving expenses themselves, such as moving materials and truck/trailer rental — yes, even here in Texas, not everybody has a friend with a truck you can borrow.

  12. #12 Tziporah
    November 4, 2007

    Respectfully, Constance Reader (great nick, btw), I don’t think her statement about debt is foolish, I believe it’s describing one more barrier the not-so-fortunate job-hunting professional may have to surmount. The point is, many of us can’t avoid debt, particularly for education, and that holds us back and causes problems. (I’m out of debt now afer six years of working two jobs.)

    I have posted in the past about not having health insurance. I’ve been hired for a job. It’s clerical, low paid and has nothing to do with my degree or experience, but I already love the people, the job appears to be doable (clerical can include overwhelming work volume and expectations) and it provides insurance. I am getting some long-term symptoms checked out to find their cause(s).

    It’s not where I wanted to be at age 55, but I realize, and therefore am deeply grateful, to be hired with good benefits for ANYTHING at my age. Also, I can’t afford a car, and I’m able to get to work by bus.

    Btw, once you have professional experience, you are considered overqualified for less qualified jobs, but once you’ve done the latter type of work, professional managers wonder what’s wrong with you that you couldn’t get a job in your field.

  13. #13 "GrrlScientist"
    November 4, 2007

    This is an asinine statement. If you’ve managed to get a good job that pays well it is likely because you have already gone into debt to obtain a marketable education.
    Also, going into debt for housing can be unavoidable. Rental deposit, application fees, pet deposit, utility deposits, clean-up of the place you’re moving out of (more places are starting to require per lease terms that you pay for professional services; doing it yourself is not acceptable and forfeits your deposit). Plus there are the moving expenses themselves, such as moving materials and truck/trailer rental — yes, even here in Texas, not everybody has a friend with a truck you can borrow.

    my point about debt is possibly extreme, but i don’t think it is out of line, especially since i know SO MANY PEOPLE who are in debt for their educations (but can’t find a job in their field, nor can they find a job that pays well enough to pay off their educational debt) and housing (when they lose their job, they often end up losing their housing soon afterwards). worse, your debt load shows up on a credit report, which means that employers will use this against you in the hiring process, unless you are 1-2 years out of college.

    your entire point rests on that tiny word “IF”: “IF you can get a good job that pays well” .. my point is that many people cannot and do not EVER get good jobs that pay well … many people who have done everything right end up being told repeatedly that all they have to do is “pay their dues” for another few years and then, they too, will be on their way up to the top of this huge ponzi scheme known as white collar or professional employment in america.

  14. #14 Library Diva
    November 4, 2007

    Is it even possible not to go into debt for housing? I’m not sure, but I’d guess that you’d be more secure taking out a mortgage than renting. If you need to, you can always sell your house and hopefully at least get your equity back, if not make a profit, and use that money to live on until you’re back on your feet. As a renter, though, you’re screwed. The money that you spend on rent is just gone, and once it dries up, you’re out on your ass.

    It’s true that you shouldn’t buy a house beyond your means, though. My aunt and uncle did this. While they’ve been able to stay in their seven-bedroom Victorian-era home, they’ve also only been able to heat it to about 50 degrees in the winter (in upstate New York!) and the taxes on it and the surrounding property have been killer. They had it furnished with crappy furnishings, and the wallpaper, carpeting, appliances and linoleum all screamed “REPLACE ME FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!!!!!” Now that their kids are older and they don’t have any dependants, they’ve been able to fix it up, warm it up, and enjoy the rest of their lives as well. There were a lot of miserable years in that house, though, and if they’d suffered any financial reversals, they would’ve been screwed.

  15. #15 "GrrlScientist"
    November 5, 2007

    as a renter who will probably never own my own house (or anything else that is more expensive than a pet parrot), i think it is possible to not go into debt for housing. but yeah, when it is impossible to pay rent, one would be screwed (although, in NYC, it takes an aggressive landlord no less than six months of nonpayment of rent to evict you onto the streets).

    but given your observations regarding selling a home to survive — a thought that has occurred to me as well — i wonder how my friends ended up homeless after losing their homes to foreclosure? i assume it was because they took out a second mortgage to cover the first mortgage payments and defaulted on that loan .. but this is only a guess on my part.

  16. #16 Farne
    November 6, 2007

    I can hardly believe what I’m reading … do they REALLY do a credit check on you to decide if you can have a job?? And as for whether you plan to have children… We aren’t perfect in Australia, but the credit-thing could only be justified if you were to have a position of trust handling other people’s money, and your marital/parenting status is pretty much out of bounds. You can’t even ask someone’s age. You can volunteer this information, if you like, but they can’t ask unless there is a clear issue directly related to the job (eg – you would have to work with anti-neoplastic drugs, so you can’t be pregnant and there is no other work for you to do…) Having said all that, the same things happen here regarding explanations of resume-gaps and questions about ‘down-skilling’.

  17. #17 "GrrlScientist"
    November 6, 2007

    yes, indeed, they do a credit check on you before finally hiring you. in fact, after one year of unemployment, which is enough to ruin mostly anyone’s credit, i was finally hired for an adjunct professor of biology position and was then told that i had to undergo an extensive background check, drug test and credit check (in addition to the three letters of recommendation from my advisors and previous places of college teaching employment that i had to send to them). i was astonished. i told them that there was no logical reason for them to subject me to that sort of intense scrutiny for a part-time temporary job that required a two-hour commute each way but didn’t even pay enough to cover my monthly rent — even my pet sitting clients (who have me come into their homes while they are vacationing) treat me (and trust me) better than that!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.