on September 11, 2005
Ehrenreich might as well be telling my story from 2002 to the present. Years of top grades, honors programs, a top 10 MBA, 'investment' in student loans, a good professional start--ending in long term unemployment followed by underemployment when the industry I was working in crashed in 2001-2002.
Unlike Ehrenreich, I've had more time to consider why a good education can be so meaningless if something bad happens during your career. Anyone, REALLY ANYONE, can go from being the best and the brightest to essentially unemployable in their field within 6 months--irrespective of their confidence that they are the type of person with hard won skills that will always be able to get a good job. People who have not experienced this for themselves will not believe it, because it is too unconfortable to believe. But this is how markets really work. Customers in a grocery will buy perfect vegetables and skip over the ones with visible bruises until they are sold at a deep discount. Hiring managers do the same thing. Candidates must be unblemished by any concern or question, including hiring gaps or rapid job moves, or unusual industry changes.
So for many, the system is broken at many levels. Education does not meet the needs of the future employed. It is too costly and of too poor a direct relevance to compete with educational systems and hiring criteria overseas. The process of hiring people remains superficial and flawed (Peter F. Drucker has some very good data to verify this to be true) but it is what it is and probably will not change any time soon.
Most managers hire on the basis of positive inside references, directly related previous work experience, and enthusiasm and good interpersonal rapport during an interview--if you are lucky enough to get an interview. For all the emphasis in our culture placed on achievement through education, lets be realistic. It is at most a footnote on a resume. Even if it did cost you years of work and tens of thousands of dollars.
What is to be done? Avoid educational debt, if it is not too late. Cultivate interdependence with friends and family--they will more often than not provide the leads for your next job if you lose your current one. And for god sakes do not be another one of the millions of a-holes out there who say, if they don't have a job its because they should have worked harder on their education or career earlier. Ehrenreich is pointing out something very painful and real that people choose not to look at unless it directly confronts them, which is a bad time to get the message.
Barbara Ehrenreich's latest work of social commentary, "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream," is an indictment of the "magisterial indifference of the corporate world." Posing as an unemployed white-collar worker, Ehrenreich adopts an alias and markets herself as a public relations person and event planner. Her goal is to obtain a corporate job that pays approximately fifty thousand a year with health benefits. She plans to keep the job for three or four months, write about her experiences, and then quit. The author sets aside five thousand dollars for travel and other expenses connected with her job search.
During her odyssey, Ehrenreich pays for career coaching, attends a job fair, posts her resume on Internet sites, enrolls in a boot camp for job seekers, and networks extensively. She learns to sell herself, treat job searching as a full-time job, always maintain a winning attitude, put her faith in God, and dress for success. Much to her surprise, Ehrenreich's efforts do not land her a suitable job. She asks herself: Do I lack charisma? Am I too old? Is it unrealistic in today's market to look for a decent job with health benefits?
The author acknowledges that any or all of the above may have been factors in her failure to find work. However, she wrote the book because she believes that there is a bigger problem holding job-seekers back--corporate America's indifference to the needs of its workers. Ehrenreich maintains that human resources departments rarely even acknowledge receiving a resume anymore. Even worse, when an applicant sends in a bid for a job, he is often the victim of "bait and switch" tactics. Instead of offering the advertised job, the company rep tries to convince the job seeker to settle for a lesser job with no benefits or job security. In desperation, some white-collar workers take "survival jobs" such as housecleaning, cab driving, and retail sales in order to put food on the table. When the income from these jobs does not cover the bills, these stressed-out individuals max out their credit cards, seek help from relatives, and downsize their lifestyles as much as possible. Without health insurance, workers are terrified of becoming become ill because they have no money to pay for medical care and prescription drugs.
Ehrenreich is a savvy writer who throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever project she undertakes. She skillfully depicts the humiliation and frustration of her futile job search. However, this book will probably not resonate with readers in the same way that Ehrenreich's bestseller "Nickel and Dimed" did. First, the author's experiences while she looks for work lack bite; they are not very dramatic or gripping. Furthermore, Ehrenreich's indictment of corporate America breaks no new ground. Anyone who reads a newspaper knows about downsizing, outsourcing, and greedy and corrupt CEOs who make big bucks while their lower level employees lose their retirement funds.
So why read this book? "Bait and Switch" is worth a look because of the author's self-deprecating humor, effortless writing style, and compassion for the victims of heartless companies. Ehrenreich exhorts middle class job seekers to become activists, urging them to protest the fact that people who "do everything right" and "play by the rules" often end up in ruins. The problem is that even if such individuals find the courage to mount some sort of protest, who would listen? "Bait and Switch" gets high marks for the author's lively presentation and style but lower marks for her exploration of an already well-publicized problem without offering a viable solution.
on September 27, 2005
It's commonly assumed in the United States that if you go to college, get a job and work hard, you will be successful. You will own a house and a couple of cars, you will be able to afford medical care, and you will be able to educate your children to a level where they're guaranteed even more success than you've achieved. If this was ever true, it isn't anymore, and Barbara Ehrenreich shows us the results.
In her first book, NICKEL AND DIMED, Ehrenreich went undercover as an unskilled worker to learn how the lowest level of workers supports themselves. They don't, she learned, because the system doesn't work, and her second book shows that the system doesn't work for the business classes either. Here, Ehrenreich poses as an out-of-work PR executive and details her job search.
Franz Kafka joined forces with Charles Darwin to create the brutal, surreal corporate world the author discovers. People are downsized, laid off, forced into early retirement, and just plain fired as a matter of course in this brave new world of ours, for reasons as pointed as ageism and sexism, as arbitrary as a profitable company wanting to show more of a profit, or for no reason at all. Of course, even knowing the fragile task of holding a job in this environment, the human resources departments hold the job-seeker responsible for every unemployed minute. Working time lost to illness is unemployment, working time lost to child or elder care is unemployment, working as a consultant is unemployment. Unemployment is unemployment, and the longer such periods last, the blacker the mark against the prospective employee.
You're lucky to be working, even if you're doing more work for less money over longer hours than you ever expected, even if you get no benefits, even if you survived the last round of layoffs and have no idea what will happen the next time. For if you're not working, you become one of the lost souls Ehrenreich meets. They max out their credit cards on image consultants and career coaches, each one contradicting what the last one said, on networking forums that turn out to be loosely disguised prayer meetings, on advice books, and on inspirational videos. They spend months and even years surfing the Internet and sending resumés to companies that rarely bother to respond at all. Oh, it's depressing.
But it's not depressing! How could it be depressing? Jobseekers are instructed to leave behind any negative thoughts --- anger, depression or mounting panic, for instance --- in order to present a positive image in their next interview. They are warned that revealing any negativity will count against them, as will age, gender, overeducation, having children, or any interests at all beyond devoting themselves entirely to their prospective employers. Smile!
In the book's conclusion, the author urges the unemployed to band together and lobby for more worker protections. I hope they make it happen, I really do.
--- Reviewed by Colleen Quinn [...]
on June 7, 2006
This is a well written book, but it reads like a description of a particularly vicious battle, as related by an observer comfortably hidden away on a distant, grassy knoll.
The author gave herself a nice nest egg of a few thousand dollars and then went out to find a job in Corporate America. Her plan was to spend six months finding a job, and then spend a few months working at it before she quit and wrote up the scandals. She spent her nest egg and then gave up in about 9 months, and then she went back to her comfortable life style. She even gave herself the luxury of sneaking back into the "real world" for a few breaks to rest up while doing the research. Those of us who live the nightmare do not have that option. We are stuck in it.
She did not even *get* to the ugly part, where you finally do find that job (after years, not months, of searching) to find that the corporation pays you only for the first 40 hours of work each week, and then the next 40 hours of work is OT (your Own Time).... and then they find a way to "downsize" you after only a few months.
Since she never found a job, the entire book relates her encounters with scummy con-artists posing as career coaches, the people that real job hunters know to avoid. She missed out on the longer and longer commutes and the ever-decreasing annual salary and the loss of benefits and the loss of vacation seniority and all of the other nasty rules that are now considered Corporate Standard Behavior.
The book has no credibility because the writer did not really experience the horrors of Corporate America any more than she would have experienced the horrors of war by watching "Saving Private Ryan".
I think that the author was honest in what she did write, but the work is so incomplete that it carries no weight.
on January 9, 2006
Based on personal experience, I'd say that 'Bait and Switch' nails the isolated, anxious and frequently depressed flavor of the lengthy white collar job search. I'd also give 'Bait and Switch' kudos for publicizing the frequently unpublicized fact that 90% or more of what you'll do on a job search will be useless. And I further endorse Ms. Ehrenreich's view that the economic and institutional causes behind increasing white collar job loss are seldom discussed and even more rarely viewed as areas suitable for public policy intervention. So, all told, 'Bait and Switch' has some worthwhile things to say.
That said, 'Bait and Switch' comes across to some degree as an inept parody of a job search. For the most part, Ms. Ehrenreich (using a fictitious identity) seems to select relatively unqualified job counselors and spends most of her time in unfruitful activities, including entry-level job fairs, sending her resume to Internet job boards and networking with job seekers with little or no knowledge of the public relations industry in which she hopes to secure employment.
Ms. Ehrenreich might have been more successful in securing a white collar job if she had included the following activities in her job search, and this advice will probably hold true for you and others:
1)Screen all career counselors carefully before hiring them. Previous corporate placement experience and successful experience in placing people with backgrounds similar to yours should be sought. Get references.
If your budget is tight, establish or resume contact with less expensive but reputable organizations that offer career advice-- including your college or grad school placement office; a community college class; or local alumni groups, many of which sponsor career activities.
2)Network with people who actually have jobs or work for organizations in the industry that you hope to enter. Ms. Ehrenreich did relatively little of this in her book. How can you find these people? Ask friends, relatives, business contacts, and professional associations in the field in which you have an interest. Yes, you can cold call relevant organizations, professional groups and employers. Yes, you will be turned down repeatedly, but some folks will talk with you and will be helpful. It will take awhile, but it will happen, so be patient and persistent.
3)If you are going to spend money on networking, see if you can attend professional meetings or conferences for the field(s) in which you hope to work. You will learn more about your field of choice (which will make you more knowledgeable about where to look for a job, as well as a more confident interview subject) and meet employed professionals in your chosen field. At least a few of the people you meet will be willing to suggest additional ideas or contacts that will help you find a job. If your budget is tight, focus on local meetings.
This process may take awhile, but it will give you a more solid network of contacts than if you do not focus your efforts on the field you hope to enter. Ms. Ehrenreich did not undertake much of this type of activity and her follow-through appeared to be spotty.
4)Hedge your bets. People find jobs through a variety of mechanisms, including job postings on the Internet and in the newspaper, through executive recruiters, and through networking. So use ALL of these mechanisms. A lot (perhaps most) of what you do won't work (that is rule number one of job hunting, so just accept it), but you will make progress. The key is to broaden your network of people and companies with actual jobs to offer and contacts who actually work in the field.
5)Be persistent, but know when to fold. Most folks with jobs will need a few e-mails or calls before focusing on you, so do make multiple attempts. But if someone does not get back with you after 3-5 contact attempts, go on to the next contact or organization. Your mission is to concentrate on the subset of people who will be helpful. Ignore those who are not.
6)Stay in touch with the folks in your network. E-mail or call them every couple of months to report progress or no progress and to ask for their continuing support. Keep these contacts brief, but do make them-- you never know when someone you contacted in the past will get some new information that will benefit you. And if you hear of some information that will benefit your contacts, pass it on to them-- that will help cement ties.
7)Local focus may help, as some companies are not interested in paying relocation costs. That said, you can make it more likely that an out-of-town employer will notice you favorably by scheduling a trip to that city to meet with prospective employers, or by stating that you will pay your own expenses to get to and from the interview. If you are intent on relocating to a particular city, you can purchase a cell phone with that city's area code, rent a PO Box in that city for a mailing address, or see if a sympathetic friend in that city will allow you to receive mail care of his/her address.
8)If you are 40 or over, take your school graduation dates off your resume and delete all of your job history more than 10-12 years old. Unfair, I know, but it will help to eliminate age bias when your resume is screened. I am sorry to have to include this piece of advice, but it is helptul.
9)More power to you if you can job hunt 40 or more hours per week. But if you can't, that seems reasonable to me and is one of the points on which Barbara Ehrenreich and I agree. Just make a sustained effort to find employment and stop to renew yourself when you get discouraged or stuck. Try to keep your life balanced while you search, and leave enough time for relaxation and exercise. Easier said than done, but give maintaining balance your best shot.
10)Pay it forward. With luck, white collar unemployment will make you more compassionate toward job seekers in the future. Accept the help that you receive with gratitude, and make it your business to help someone else when you are able to do so.
on September 6, 2005
The title and premise of this book are quite misleading. I expected the book to be about how "white collar" employees were laid off, or how they struggle to make ends meet despite their comfortable salaries. The book rather describes how author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the challenge to get hired into corporate America and experience "white collar" work for herself.
The majority of the book is about her experiences working with different "career coaches" and "networking groups" and other assorted entrepreneurs who work to help laid off middle managers get re-employed. As she works to craft the right resume, pretending to be a PR executive, she describes what it was like to work with others who were also trying to find work.
I did find the descriptions of the various personality tests, and the cheesy coaching tactics she engaged to help her to be fascinating. In the end the book is as much about the whole sub industry that has developed to try and get middle managers re-employed after being downsized or laid off from their companies as it is about any sort of "American Dream". The tactics and descriptions certainly do not put these "coaches" in a very positive light. Throughout she makes overgeneralizations, and makes fun of people with religious beliefs and values, which detracts from her point considerably.
The overall effect though is indeed chilling. What she described about those people looking for work for sometimes months on end was more than just depressing; it was a hopelessness bordering on desperation. This aspect of the book is quite powerful. The depression, loss of confidence and sheer volume of silence that greeted her in her "job search" illuminates the human psychological casualties brought on by what is described throughout; corporations being faceless, cold entities discarding people at will.
While there are holes in this book and the premise itself big enough to drive trucks through, Barbara really nails it when she gets to understand the emotional toll she feels as she faces rejection over and over.
The book is written exceptionally well, is quite funny, and despite her rather obvious political biases which undermine her subject matter credibility at every turn, it is well worth reading. In fact I think every corporate executive who has a role in determining the fate of middle managers should read this book if for no other reason than getting a first hand glimpse at the impact of their decisions.
This is in no way a light book, it is dark, depressing and ultimately offers no solutions to the problems it outlines. Despite that and despite my misgivings about the flaws and the biases of the author, I do recommend this book highly. It will change the way you look at resumes and the people you interview.
on May 31, 2012
Starting with the positives, at least Ehrenreich acknowledges that the struggles to land a good job are as difficult for entry- and mid-level professionals as they are for blue-collar and unskilled professions. It appears to boil down to whom you know and I think Ehrenreich had a distinct disadvantage in that she A) had "a Gap" in her resume due to the covert way she went about this and B) she apparently didn't know anyone in the field, which I find strange for a writer. In general, this book paints a somewhat accurate picture of the difficulties and scams encountered in the average white-collar job search, but I think Ehrenreich is a bit naive about it. Didn't she talk to anyone at PRSA to find out how they got where they are?
I actually HAVE a career in PR and noted at least one method that Ehrenreich didn't try, or at least, didn't mention. I found there are really one of two possible paths to land a PR gig; cold-calling just doesn't work. One method that worked for me -- absent any good contacts in the field early on in my career -- was taking internships. One of my internships was paid and the other was unpaid, but both built up a little mental Rolodex of contacts for me and some of those people were able to at least provide references, if not job leads. The other method she didn't seem to address at all and that is: start out in the mail room or reception. In most PR and advertising firms, a professional fresh out of school or with a Gap will not just start out at some cushy $50K account executive position right from the start. You start by sorting mail and taking phone calls. Back in the 80s, we called that "getting your foot in the door." Once you're in, then you hustle. You make friends, you go to lunch with people who are in a position to hire, you keep your ear to the ground for open positions and you position yourself (by getting involved in various projects) for job promotions and transfers to the job you want, not unlike interning.
Never in my life have I wasted money on career coaches (who have no credentials or otherwise obvious insight), job fairs, recruiters, or any of that stuff. In fact, all the career counseling material I've read advises against that sort of thing. If you have to pay money to get a job, it's probably not all that legitimate in the first place. Second, if one had the money to waste on a $4,000 workshop, why does one need a job? That sort of thing is totally out of reach for the newly minted college graduate or someone who has been working as a receptionist for minimum wage and is looking to move up the ladder.
on September 14, 2005
Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bait and Switch: The (futile) Pursuit of the AMERICAN DREAM, is the second in what hopefully doesn't become a streak of otherwise good books with awful titles and even more unfortunate subtitles (the other being Freakonomics). Here the author of Nickel and Dimed turns her focus away from blue- and pink-collar workers and instead looks at the purgatory of mid-level corporate functionaries. The book is at times moving, poignant, funny, bombastic, and overwrought. In the end, she reaches beyond the the limits of the data she's gathered, which makes it harder to appreciate the truly precarious position of the American middle class.
In B&S, Ehrenreich attempts to reproduce in the corporate world what she achieved in the service economy: find and take take a job as if she were actually living the life of those that "normally" fill such positions. She constructs a parallel corporate persona complete with resume and friends willing to lie if called upon as references while she looks for work in PR. Only in this case, she fails to actually secure any jobs. This wouldn't be so bad if she confined her attention to the tribulations of white-collar professionals "in transition", i.e., unemployed. Indeed the best parts of the book are typically incisive observations about the bunkum sold in the growing "job search" industry, the especially difficult time older workers (especially women) have in the job market, and the amazing emotional and (il)logical contortions these job searchers force themselves into as they attempt to maintain a veneer of energetic positivity and affluence amidst rejection, depression, and mounting debt. As a refugee from management consulting, I identified with her visceral reaction to business-speak and frustration with the never-ending powerpoint presentation. Had she focussed more on the people and stories she encountered among the longer-term unemployed, she would have succeeded in personalizing the plight of those who find themselves living in that netherworld between the business and household unemployment surveys.
In the end, however, Eherenreich resorts to a tortured metaphor of Corporate America as some walled city with the requisite peasants, hangers on, etc. She makes statements about the (dis)ability of workers to find jobs that are not supportable based on her experience for one key reason: she was unable to rely on her network of friends and colleagues to help her find a job (for obvious reasons). Though she acknowledges this handicap she under-appreciates its importance. She spends at least two chapters discussing her experiences "networking" but fails to realize that once unemployed it's your "network" that gets you employed again. This is particularly curious since she presumably has a literary agent whom she pays precisely because the agent has a pre-existing set of contacts. "Networking" while unemployed will, virtually by definition, yield nothing other than a bunch of unemployed "contacts". While this is further indictment of the useless advice career coaches hawk, it also belies some of Eherenreich's more extreme statements, including the subtitle of the book. I, for one, was rooting for her to get a corporate job so as to read her internal monologue when the VP calls her into a meeting at 7:30pm on a Friday. Maybe next time.
on September 13, 2005
Having experienced white collar unemployment during BOTH the 1989-1990 recession and "jobless recovery" as well as the 2000-2005 tech job bust, I can certainly testify that the phenomenon of long-term unemployment Ehrenreich describes can and does occur.
However, such experiences do not necessarily result in ultimate downward mobility. I graduated from college in 1990 and did not find a suitable white-collar job until 1997. This was an extremely demoralizing experience and radically changed my views about the value of college, downward mobility, the decline of the middle class, etc.
However, the job market ultimately heated up again in the mid 1990's, and between 1997 to 2001 I was able to triple my salary through skillful job-jumping in the "hot" market ([dis]loyalty works both ways). This upward ride ended after 2000, and I was ultimately unemployed for 6 months in 2002, but beginning this year (2005) the tech market rebounded and I'm back at it again - and I've kited my income up 20%. You have to go where proven job opportunities are and strategically plan your move up the career ladder.
Two of the problems I have with Ehrenreich's "experiment" are (1) she chose corporate public relations as a target field and (2) went about this in the middle of a nasty downturn in the job market.
It is widely known that PR is a very difficult field to break into. She would definitely not have had the same experience had she been posing as an accountant or computer network administrator or even a computer programmer, but given her background in journalism it's obvious that PR would be an easier job role to emulate than any of these.
Also, like the 1990 recession, the 2000 recession produced one of the longest running job downturns since the 1930's. She might not have had the same experience at all had she made the effort several years earlier (or later) when the job market was on a more normal footing.
I also found no instances where potential employers tried to "whittle me down" on salary or benefits - the bait and switch Ehrenreich spoke of. As for the commission-only sales scams, these have been around forever.
Finally, I turned to a career counselor for help with a career change and foudn the Myers-Briggs test to be very helpful in finding out what I really wanted to do. But these services can't actually FIND you a job and they're not intended to.
Final thoughts - it helps to have something to fall-back on such as a skilled trade even if you're a white collar professional. I bought and sold used cars. An unemployed friend got a CDL and drove a truck during the downturn. This may sound low-rent, but his $15 an hour sure beat minimum wage at Walmart, and he had some interesting experiences during his travels.
Sorry, Barbara, but I just can't agree with the conclusions you present in this book.
on December 13, 2007
Ehrenreich is articulate and seemingly intelligent, yet clearly has a level of naïveté about what it's like to get and keep a "real job" that one wonders why a publisher would accept this book. She starts her experiment as a sort of undercover job seeker with a clear bias that the environment is dreary, callous, sexist, ageist, and soul-crushing. And you know what? For the most part I think that premise is more true than not. So you would think, perhaps, that I would enjoy the book. You'd be wrong.
Ehrenreich designs her search to fail by hiring job coaches, resume coaches, and other "professionals" that she clearly does not like even from the beginning. She then continues to meet with them, pay them, read what they recommend, and do their exercises, as an exercise to demonstrate how silly and wasteful they are. By seeking out the ridiculous she does manage to create a number of anecdotes that are frustrating and sometimes amusing. But this is hardly insightful. A journalist could pick any industry, group or subject matter and seek out the ridiculous in order to paint a slanted picture. It's neither difficult nor clever.
Another way that she sets herself up to fail is by choosing public relations as her career focus, with an emphasis on speech writing and event planning. She is seeking an executive level position in public relations with no corporate experience in it on her falsified resume. This is silly. She continuously expresses confidence in her abilities to write as a selling point, seemingly without realizing that potential employers see nothing exceptional about her from her resume. She confesses to aiming too high late in the book, but by then it is too late.
All of the above makes the premise of her "search" artificial and unintersting. But the thing that makes this book a downright boring read is Ehrenreich's continuous quibbling. She is anxious to display a dreary world for the job seeker. And in doing so she gripes and gripes and gripes. She gripes about trivial things such as hotel rooms, coffee, meals, buffet lines, restaurants, the attire of other job seekers,and the weight of people she meets. She dislikes Atlanta, so she keeps going back there several times seemingly just to have something to gripe about. The book reaches a low point when she decides to walk from one career fair to another career fair and then decides to gripe about the walk in her book. The reader simply cannot be asked to care about this sort of thing. Ehrenreich shows disdain for career coaches who keep emphasizing a "positive attitude," but then her book makes an unintentional but strong case that attitude really does matter. It's hard to believe that her prissiness and disdain for the entire corporate world did not show through to employers.
Basically, the book is dreary and full of only commonplace and unoriginal insights. I will not be reading another book by this author.