This post is a direct response to Victoria Didilica’s 08/05/2013 featured blog post on LinkedIn entitled Is It A Case of "There are No Jobs” Or Is It That “There Are No Good Applicants?” While my post examines the relevant items about recent graduate employment difficulties, the market, and the Career Services industry as indicated by so many of the commenters on Ms. Didilica’s entry; it does refer to at least one commenter by name (Fred Cosgrove). I recommend that readers follow the link and familiarize themselves with the content attached to the original post for a broader understanding of my assertions below. The content of my post may also be useful to similar LinkedIn threads like Martin Kral's Who's Responsibility Is It Anyway?
THE PAST RARELY MEETS THE PRESENTNetworking and building a personal pitch have always been heavy go-to elements of the Career Development (Career Services) industry, going back to before teaching these practices could even be considered a viable industry. This is not without reason, as year after year, in the case of networking, regardless of which source one most trusts, the number of positions landed through some use of networking technique fluctuates little from staggeringly high percentages. Such speaks to even blog commenter, Mr. Cosgrove’s loved one (I am sorry for your loss) having obtained employment by simply asking, even during the worst economic period in modern times. Asking is networking in its most basic form. Today, though, even in a tone-setting Mecca of employment like New York City, while asking ABOUT jobs remains key, directly asking FOR a job is a near impossible solution that yields positive results only anecdotally. The major job-seeking differences between The Great Depression and this century are many and not the least of them is the lack of a realistic, face-to-face place to “walk up” and make such a query. Even if folks during The Depression had to wait in line for days with empty bellies to ask those fateful questions, the person to be asked was reachable, the line (queue) was there. “Pounding the pavement” to obtain walk-in, spot interviews or even to more inadvisably paper the town with one’s resume was a doable quest. Did I mention doing so was also free of charge? Plus, it wasn’t incidental either. This manner of gaining employment (in America) lasted from folks stepping off of a ship into a crowd with no money in their pockets and looking to work for room and board straight on through to “Tony working stock in the cellar of Doc’s Candy Store.” That’s an entire nation economy that (save for the massive atrocity of slave labor) was built on the backs of people consistently working and consistently getting that work just by “asking.” The 2013 New York City, by contrast, has a barricade around every construction site, usually with at least one security guard to make sure that disturbances like your “question” are turned away at the gate. Road repair projects have actual police officers, agents of the state, pulling double duty to both guide automobile traffic around the obstruction and to most respectfully waylay your attempts at speaking with the foreman. There are both buzzers (if not doormen) and lobby security guards to keep a person out of every single New York City building when s/he does not first have an appointment. Business-focused soirees are by invitation only. Names of hiring managers and decision-makers are only published when the organization requires it and then usually without any direct contact information writ alongside. "Cattle-call" job fairs open to unlimited numbers of job-seekers ensure that even the most prepared candidate gets no more than 60 seconds to speak to a company insider who may or may not have anything to do with hiring. HR as an industry, once targeted specifically to benefits compliance and EEO responsibilities, today largely functions as a hiring clearing house unmoved by any outside contact that does not immediately relate to the express directives of a CEO’s main circle. Even the internet, a tool meant to spread information widely and freely, when it comes to job search, is a tool often used by New York companies as an additional filter or firewall between an open position the organization MIGHT be looking to fill three months down the road and the many applicants they do not wish to engage. In short, while Mr. Cosgrove's observation was constructively figurative, it is still important to note that there is no longer a Depression-like hirer out in the open to be convinced, nor is there any semblance of a physical line to wait on to “pay ones dues in hardship” as did our predecessors. The job-seeking difference between then and now is that then you could walk-in and ask everywhere until you found a job. Now, outside of first floor retail, you can still walk everywhere, but that would be until you find a place that would allow you in to merely ask a question. This is a complete reversal of odds to numbers so low it is not unlike a lottery. I am certain that those who look to the market for an explanation, or dare we hope a solution, would agree that any market cannot withstand a practice that would imply we flood just the first floor retail sector with the 7.5+ percent unemployed population in New York.
RAISON D'ÊTREThis is precisely why Career Services exists. For lack of a direct vector to gainful employment, a methodology by which each generation looks at the next to ask, “Why don’t you just do it the way that I did it?” we instead prevail as an entire industry to help individual job-seekers navigate the newly complex, obstacle-jumping, ever-changing, standards-lacking, multi-layered, interpersonal numbers game that is each person’s unique road to career solvency. We are here to acknowledge that while there is much to be learned from how previous generations proactively acquired personal employment, platitudes like “go out and pound the pavement” or “why don’t you just walk around handing out your resume” are largely without literal merit in a city like New York. Yes, you are soon going to be asking for a job just as your grandfather did. However, skilled networking that encompasses all your digital and interpersonal assets has completely replaced what once was a matter of “walking up to a guy.” This wasn’t replaced because we created something better. It was replaced because that’s how big businesses collectively wanted the job market to take shape. By all means, if you know the guy or know of the guy or know of an open job, go ask. Be prepared, but direct. It is in this respect that we can learn from the past. Yet, if you don’t even know of the guy or where the job might be (or be created), that’s where your networking, your research, and your creativity come in and therefore where a guide through the boundlessness of those three becomes the wise choice. With all and much due respect to my many Career Services colleagues whose precise wisdom on this subject is without compare, if a market in this downturned condition can vibrantly withstand having our entire industry remain in the economic fold; widespread specialty advisement functions that permeate the ranks of every other corporate ladder, sector, and business entity; the same economy could certainly withstand a fantasy zero percent unemployment rate that by trade-off would render Career Services professionals obsolete.
AND HOWSo, as industry professionals, even experts, we are responsible for being the living embodiment of all the latest information in the job search field. We are the one-stop litmus test for the 20,000+ job search tips that are doled out over the internet in groups of five like a music countdown. We are the go-to bank of answers that speaks to what a hiring manager wants to hear, how to target a job search, and negotiating workable compensation, all in 2013. We are the front-line on making employment documentation unique, relevant, and dynamic. We are responsible for never relegating a single job seeker to the hugely irrelevant blanket statements that represent a know-nothing person’s upturned nose at the unemployed, even when said statement remarks upon something that actually would have been good advice not so long ago. Part of this is always statistics, numbers, groups. We are remiss when we don’t spend deep focus on how to navigate job search through an African-American male unemployment rate that is traditionally double the national rate. We have fallen down when we do not fashion useful advice on managing an ex-felon status, a special needs employment situation, a skills gap, an expatriate status, job elimination, gender-based glass ceilings, and so on, all in a capitalist structure that dictates “everyone must work” despite an American job market stuck at one available job for every four active job seekers [HBO’s Hard Times: Lost on Long Island]. If a group can be enumerated, it has been measured time and again.
JOB SEARCH STRATEGY LACUNAE FOR THE RECENT GRADUATETo those groupings of concern we now add the recent college graduate. Like the other groups, we, as professionals, must accept that the high unemployment and underemployment numbers suddenly attached to this group not only represent an express concern not easily dismissed with opinionated tales of graduates’ inflated expectations, but also our own need as professionals to divine what it is that makes job search different for members of this group in particular. I would like to offer what I believe is clearly one part of the issue. Delivering services to a mid-career job seeker or a job-eliminated manager or even a seeming jack-of-all-trades; we always talk in terms of strategy. Networking strategy, targeting strategy, job search strategy, the list goes on. Yes, the most specific strategy almost always entails some very common pieces of career search advice. Yes strategy, while unique to each job seeker, can be looked at overall as having components that frequently repeat person to person. For instance, everyone needs to network, everyone needs a resume, etcetera. These are vast generalizations that can trick those in our field and our customers/clients into thinking that there is a single magical formula for landing the perfect position. But strategy is just that. It is the most solitary techniques, gambits, and in-the-moment maneuvers that one will use to cross through a sea of other strategies and strategists. The good news is that, unlike chess, there can be plenty of winners. The difficult news to swallow is that, like on a chessboard, no strategy exists in a vacuum. Chess players are confined by the edges of the board, the rules of the game, the fixed numbers of pieces, and countless familiarities with what defenses fail against what offenses. The viability of one’s chess strategy is further tested, interrupted, slowed, and/or left wanting with an opponent’s every move. Reevaluating and adjusting strategy in real-time is a requisite part of reaping expected returns. Where to start, how to start, and how to continue are living, breathing mechanisms that while complex, could not exist if both players approached the board with their own set of rules, or, to the point, no rules at all, no confines, no foundation on which to build. There would be no game and nothing would get done. Please consider that a mid-career job seeker coming to you as a Career Services professional for first time help, does so, even unwittingly, with some honest-to-goodness personal confines in tow. That is to say that, numbers crunched, household amenities cut, coupons clipped, whatever the case, the basis for the strategy is somewhat laid out before us. If s/he takes a position at less than a certain compensation, that family will be homeless within two years. S/he may not be able to work nights and weekends without paying out in child care more than what would be earned working those nights and weekends. Single income families tend to have continuing benefits issues more than dual income families. Age related medical issues have already begun to reveal themselves. S/he tends to have a spouse and family already when such is in the cards. At least a general understanding of one’s unsecured debt, credit rating, and investment options is something that, if not known, can be found out. Savings accounts and severance packages can often be tapped to fuel an employment gap. With all these issues in play, you are certainly never going to suggest a strategy that mimics those aforementioned upturned noses and advises her/him to “just get a job at McDonald’s for now while we figure out something better.” This is a person who will have much of a unique strategy firmly founded in static, financial need as defined and afforded by the earlier portion of a career. Career Services professionals are not making something from nothing. They make strategy from foundation. Recent graduates have far less foundation for a strategy. In addition to their strong median tendency toward lesser comparative, practical experience in their respective fields, many of their forthcoming life decisions have yet to reveal themselves as positive or negative. They share perceivable similarities with Schrödinger's cat. They’ll begin with little or no savings as did the Great Depressioner, but also start out their careers in an immediate and sizable debt that Great-Grandad could never have imagined. That’s a debt that will follow them into marriage and sometimes children. They’ll also begin with nearly the least amount of sheer access, direct or indirect, to any job openings as compared to the already employed, the seasoned job-seeker, or even the middlingly-connected young professional. While the immediate circle of digital acquaintances that surrounds a 2013 graduate is a far larger web of network connections than some 40-year-old counterpart; that counterpart’s connections are mostly work colleagues and close friends. The bulk of the graduate’s network is likely other unemployed graduates looking for job leads. The access represented by a hiring manager out in the open? That’s a relic of old New York. It is all too simple to sum up, say, a graduate’s lack of mortgage, marriage, children, and tax burden to a more advantageous job search stance as if s/he should be wildly open to any job that comes along simply because s/he can relocate more easily or because s/he has a whole life of potential career changes ahead if step one doesn’t work out. These things they lack, the savings, the paid debt, the access, the experience, the life choices, the hallmarks of foundation for every “other” job search strategy; this vast vacuum of would-be useable indicators does not, cannot, and should not represent in a Career Service professional’s mind some excuse to presume their strategy is any simpler. In fact, it will be far more complex.
THE META OF CAREER SERVICESThe deeper truth here is that Career Services professionals have to look inward and completely reshape what they offer when it comes to job-seeking graduates as a group. How can we possibly justify cobbling together generalizations and stratagems honed on more precise foundations as if itemizing what worked elsewhere somehow constitutes a strategy here? How can we rest our laurels on being the first to inform a student about job search mainstays as if the fact that sounding novel to them is in some way providing a useful service? The problem is not even that graduates’ foundations differ so greatly, person to person or group to group, as would be the case when comparing, say, the 50-year old, Asian-American single mother of four working two jobs to maintain mortgage payments with the 30-year-old newly minted MD who has just been downsized from Investment Banking after relocating himself and his fiancée across country. The problem is that we are somewhat whole-hog, automatically supplanting the genuine absence of a foundation with familiar foundations that actually do exist elsewhere. We’ve not been wary of properly viewing these “cases” as a negative space, a complete absence of the indicators usually used to launch a realistic career strategy. We are taking everything that HAS worked, even for graduates of the past, and are offering it to today's graduates explaining why it SHOULD work. Meanwhile, the numbers of unemployed graduates grow as we point fingers around trying to find a scapegoat in everything from government to the job seeker’s own attitude. I think it is fair to conclude that as far apart as the 2013 job-eliminee is, strategy-wise, from the fellow who got on an assembly line by being the first to show up in 1939, so too are 2013’s recent graduates miles apart, strategy-wise, from all other job seeking groups. Let’s innovate. Professional improvisers, the types you see on “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” often assert that they are making entertainment from nothing, conjuring small, applaud-worthy hits from thin air. Those within the theatrical community who disagree with this assessment sometimes counter using the observation that each improvisation exercise has a structure (like a chess board) and that most of the exercises incorporate previously unknown input from the audience or the environment (like strategic indicators). This debate rolls on, the latter group calling foul on the “nothing” idea while the former group, truly believing in the “something from nothing” concept, idealistically pushes ever forward to use fewer and fewer inputs/structures/indicators whilst figuring in on how to yield the same, entertaining results. Those “improv’ers” need not be 100% correct for our industry to learn from them. The mere fact that they function quite well under the fervent belief that their work literally hails from a vacuum is a noteworthy glimpse at just how alternative our approaches need be to service the recent graduate. So, which familiar elements of cutting-edge Career Services have the most in common with creating something from nothing? Right off the bat, teaching job seekers to best convince an employer to create a new position for them comes to mind. Also, creating company-specific, research-based, professional PitchBooks with a supporting live presentation to demonstrate where businesses might be leaving money on the table further fits within this premise. Acquiring the venture capital to launch one’s own business, again, reads similarly to a “something from nothing” effort. Plus, rare Career Services professionals who can engage graduates in, for instance, a studied Jungian approach, pitting matters of archetype and imagery against the more mundane rigors of job search, certainly employ a methodology deriving its strongest strategic indicators from the intangible mind alone [“The Career as a Path to the Soul”] At first glance, this set of insights seems counterintuitive. Why would we jump directly to advising on the supremely difficult paths to have a job created for a job-seeker who is working on the first-ever draft of a resume and who has never been to a single interview in her/his field? It seems like putting the cart before the horse. Why would we study the psychological disciplines of Carl Jung, Yoram Kaufmann, David Rottman, and others when only so very rarely has there been such a noted requirement in the Career Services field before we, ourselves, could be hired? Why drift from the practices that we know are best practices for the sake of largely alternative strategies? Well, because zero percent unemployment is a fantasy, while Career Services going the way of the dodo is something that can realistically happen through the mere appearance of it failing. Any university trying to rebrand its Career Services Department through a paradigm shift can tell you, for the recent graduates group, as a group, we are failing.
WHAT TO CONCLUDEThis behemoth of a shift in approach is the higher degree of complexity I’d prefaced earlier, the one that need replace the “easier search stance” misnomer that is normally attached to a “student” situation. So, we look into ourselves, not just to find the very demanding Career Services answers above to replace or augment our typical approaches, but also to ask of ourselves, “Does this sound farfetched because we cannot make it work, or does it sound farfetched because it would require of us so much more work?