The Tribulations of Job Searching In 2023
There was a time when interviewing was a bit more straightforward. Just ask my grandmother. She's 92 years old and when I last became antsy about not having a job she asked why I wasn't just putting on my suit and tie and walking "downtown to their offices with your resume printed out". It sounds funny but it is exactly how things used to work. But now we live in the internet (not the "age of" the internet. We are literally in it!) and that means we live in a world of forms and algorithms.
The question is no longer whether you match with a company or team, it is whether your ones-and-zeros match up with the ones-and-zeros they asked their AI to look for. Your cover letter? It better have the right keywords. Your resume? No more than a page. The best format? Nobody is really sure.
With that in mind, what are the issues facing the modern job-seeker?
How College Actually Effects Careers
More and more people are considering forgoing higher education (often due to cost) and heading directly into the workforce. The problem? If they want to move into higher-level jobs at any point, employers still want to see that degree. Half the time it doesn't even matter where that degree is from or what it is for, they just want to know that you (or your parents) paid hundreds of thousands of dollars so that you could drink, find yourself, and spend a few hours taking tests and writing papers about why Tolkien was probably using stereotypes in the Silmarillion. I can speak to this personally. Let's run down my education and resume to show you the immense discrepancy. All apologies to my wonderful parents.
After achieving rough grades in high school I still found that I could achieve a decent SAT score. My credentials were declined by every college but one. This one (a great place called Wheaton College in Massachusetts) seemed like the perfect fit.
Having found myself at a liberal arts college, I was made to take a variety of classes that had nothing to do with what I wanted. I eventually stumbled into an Art major. This lasted for two years at which point I realized I could not pass Art History without the head of the Louvre sitting beside me passing me answers, and I switched to English.
The English classes were lovely but many were of the read-poetry and lets-talk-about-the-professor's-book variety. I finally reached 2003 where I wrote a Sherlock Holmes book to achieve my final credit.
Having earned a degree in English, I was ready to take on the world. But what would my career end up being? I started as a Certified Nursing Assistant, then transitioned into a maintenance assistant, an Alzheimer's activity coordinator, a graphic designer, a customer service rep, a van driver, and a dog walker. I also worked part-time and full-time jobs here and there.
Finally, I found an office job with a decent wage. This job took six rounds of interviews. On day one I was presented with my desk and the surprise that after six interviews, it was not the job I signed up for. A year and a half later I was out of a job. After another year of searching, I ended up at Wegmans Supermarket and was finally earning a small but workable wage and was happy. I worked there for five years, rose up through a number of ranks, and received multiple raises.
Now, I have moved and I am finally writing for two different publications and advising people about caring for individuals with dementia.
So, ask yourself something. Having gone to college, how does someone pinball into so many different jobs? Strange, right? it took over twenty years to find a job that actually had to do with my major and now, having found these jobs I can tell you that if I'd had them when I graduated I still would not have been able to afford rent.
The Madness of the "Company Man" and the Need for Resume Equity
Every job wants you to be the "company man". For those that don't know the term, it means that you not only do anything your company wants, but you will stay with them for your entire working career. These are the people who receive a handshake, a gold watch, and a pat on the back for their years of service. Then they cry about how they will miss the company.
Of course, right after that speech the company sits back and hires someone much younger and much cheaper. The company man is an outdated pipe dream for both employers and potential employees. But consider how we still address it.
The company advertises a position. They say that it pays very well and has great growth potential. The prospective employee applies, says they are qualified, and that they want nothing more than to work for that company. In fact, they've always wanted to work for that company. It's such a good company!
The company says that it will take a minimum of two years to receive a promotion. The individual says that they will only work for the company if offered a bit more money. The company says yes if they promise to stay! The individual agrees while crossing their fingers behind their back.
The sad fact is that many companies want the turnover. They want to see a good chunk of people find other jobs because as far as they're concerned, anyone could do what they see as low-level jobs. Granted, that person needs a Ph.D., but he could totally do your job. Every time they bring in someone brand new they can start them at the lowest pay and offer fewer benefits. Some people make it past that point, but it becomes their job to look after the newbies.
On the other side of the coin, many freshly graduated faces are grabbing any job they can find because having a job gets you a job. Even a few months at one job builds resume equity. If someone sees you were “smart” enough to get a job in the first place, they assume quite a bit more about you than they do about all those "losers" who couldn't get a job in the first place.
However, it is important to remember that just because you were a Senior Tech Advisor to the CEO at company A doesn't mean that company B finds your experience equitable with its own corporate structure. The job may pay less, and the interviewer will tut-tut you a bit and say, "Hey, in two years you could get a promotion!" and lo, the circle doth continueth.
Remember When Remote Was A Good Thing?
There was a time, not very long ago when people were talking about the benefits of remote work and how efficient it was. There were studies done and in a post-COVID world, everyone was fine with the concept of working remotely. We felt this way because we'd all made the switch out of necessity. Work got done, and people figured out their routines while having the opportunity to spend more time on personal matters.
However, when COVID ended everyone changed their minds. At least, employers changed their minds. Suddenly remote work was verboten. People at the top started talking about the lack of efficiency and the importance of an office environment. Some companies even made it clear that if employees were not back in the office within days they risked losing their jobs.
What happened? Were we all suddenly inefficient? Did our collective will to work dissipate into the ether? The answer is pretty obvious: no. The fact is that businesses felt their control slipping. They realized that people were no longer engaged in extra company hours and it made them squirrelly.
An example: I have an acquaintance who works in IT. His job requires being in the office for eight hours a day regardless of workload. Some days he has ten hours worth of work to do and on others, two. Either way, he must be in the office looking busy. When he was remote, he no longer felt the pressure to pretend that a two-hour day had to look like eight. He did his work more efficiently, got it done, and was able to do other things. He was proving that he could do his work in the time it actually took. Does this mean he should be paid less? Does this mean that being in the office made things any different? I'll allow you to decide.
Now we have an issue. It's what companies consider “the big compromise”. Hybrid work. In the office for at least a certain number of days and graciously allowed to work from home for the others. Why? We proved efficiency during covid and companies did not burn down. The problem is that now companies use this as a negotiating tool. Come work for us and you'll get one day a week to stay home! What they don't talk about is that most companies at one point already had policies in place such as "summer Fridays" where people could leave a bit earlier during the summer months. But this has been revamped. Potential employees now need to decide between companies that trust them and companies that still keep brutal tabs. Some companies go so far as to require mouse-monitoring programs to track remote activity and make sure people are sitting at their desks. This is not remote work, this is a monitored workspace inside the home. Employees are still being forced to stay in their cubicles, the only difference being the wallpaper. Yet potential employees are being told this is a benefit.
The Interview Process Doesn't Actually Involve You
Do you enjoy being an interviewee? I hate to disappoint you but the world is even more automated than you think. New interview models include automatic interviewing. If you’ve yet to meet this process, strap in. You are given 3-5 questions to answer on screen. You sit at your computer, at home, probably wearing some kind of business wear, and have one minute to answer them. These videos are analyzed, mostly by programs, to find keywords and key phrases. Your verbal responses are analyzed for their SEO score. So now, interviews are no longer about meeting potential bosses and coworkers. They are about fitting into a tight mental box so that you fit even tighter into your new cubicle. Or, in many new “open” workspaces, fitting into your section of a shared counter/desk where each person has one drawer and phone calls are public.
Interviews used to be about finding these things out before arriving that first day. Now, you’re lucky if you even meet anyone outside of an HR form letter.
What This All Boils Down To
In the end, the powers that be will say that the job market has been streamlined. People are still valuable, but more as interchangeable phone batteries than assets: Even if you’ve had one for years it will eventually run out of power. But when it does, you just grab a replacement one. Works just the same but is probably a hell of a lot cheaper.
The main thing to remember is that for most people, college simply provides another keyword. Your resume has become a series of redacted statements separated by key phrases. So keep your head down and add Grammarly and ChatGPT to your repertoire because feeding a computer your resume will give it all the info to better explain you to the next computer. And tip your waiters because that may be the only human-centered job left. Let me just scan this menu QR code…