We have heard a great deal in recent years about unemployment. Statistics. News stories. “Unemployment rises to 7%.” “Unemployment rate declines as people give up looking for work.” The word itself describes an abstraction, and the humanity of those affected is destroyed. Some people try to document the lives of people struggling to find work, for example Barbara Ehrenreich in her works Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Yet, we never hear from the unemployed themselves. Almost all the stories come from the United States, but our official rates in Canada are lower, and among the lowest in the country are in my home province of Manitoba. Does this affect the perception? I write this article to give one perspective.
Follow Your Dreams
Born in the early 1980s to a typical middle class family, I am at the front end of the so-called “millennial generation.” As a child, I, along with other children of my generation, was told that I was special. As a teenager, we were told that the secure “jobs for life” available to our parents were becoming a thing of the past, but that if we followed our dreams and made sure our skills were always updated, we would be all right. In my case, this ended up as studies in geography that concluded in my mid-20s. So I should be set for life, right?
It’s A Jungle Out There
Not so fast. I found it very challenging to find work, so I turned to resources, like career centres and reading books and articles that claim to provide reliable step-by-step instructions on how to find work. While I respect the commitment of those staff who are doing what they feel is needed to help people, a great deal of the advice they gave was unclear. For example, we’ve all heard the statistic that “80% of jobs are never advertised external to the company.” That statistic is generally floated as a self-evident truth, with no justification for how that statistic was derived, so that is problematic right off the hop. But let’s be generous, and assume that statistic to be true. How do you go about finding these jobs? They’re the “hidden job market,” that you find through “networking.” How does networking work? Basically, you talk to people and try and find out where the opportunities are. I know some people who can do this very well. There are others for whom this is a challenge, and they don’t know how to present themselves in a way that doesn’t come across to say, “give me a job because I need one.” Which begs the question, does finding a job depend on skill or personality type?
“Cold calling” is another technique, where you call places and talk to people you don’t know to try and find information. I have not found this particular approach to be productive. Often I’m directed to the company’s career webpage where I can stand in line like the rest of the people, and I get the sense that they really don’t know how to help me anyway and are trying to let me down gently. This is not to pass judgment on these people. If someone called you out of the blue one day asking for help on finding work with your employer, would you know where to direct this person? How would you deal with the tension of feeling this person’s difficulty and not having any inside information that would help? But don’t worry, you are supposed to “follow up” with employers. While I can see the logic behind a simple, “hi, I sent my resume, have you had a chance to take a look and what can I expect?” type telephone call, I find some of the exhortations to follow up to be ridiculous. Are the people making these decisions not adults who are capable of knowing who they do or do not want to talk to? I imagine that if I took that approach to dating that I would run the risk of being thrown in jail. But it seems perspective employers are ahead of the game anyways, with many explicitly asking for no contact and advising that they will only contact the people they are interested in dealing with.
Another thing that is suggested is that you “go where the jobs are.” How do you do this? Some advice tells you to search for a job in your target city, for example taking a vacation there. But do you really want to spend time away from work thinking about it? What about the resources you will need to stay there, and if you have the resources to be able to flit about the country like that, do you really need a job that badly anyway? I remember once asking to stay with relatives in a different city (one of these is in human resources), and was told, “you’re not going to get past the gate keeper,” and I had another consultant tell me that moving actually creates issues on top of the challenges of finding work.
You are also supposed to “tailor your resume and cover letter” to the job description. Unfortunately, several job descriptions are so specifically written that it’s impossible to imagine any one person meeting the criteria. So do you make a judgment call, or do you still send in the application even if there are several criteria you clearly do not meet? What are your odds anyways? One of the jobs I applied to I found out there were about 60-70 people, applying for one position. No matter how good your cover letter and resume is, your odds are terrible, and even if every single application matched the job description perfectly, there is no way all of them would be selected for interviews.
What’s worse is that so many companies have career sections of their website that scan the resumes, and if yours does not match perfectly, you do not continue in the competition. There are also privacy implications, as for many of these sites you have to give personal information including address and contact information just to be considered, and they may not even acknowledge your application.
The worst of this is the silencing effect this has on the job seeker. Most career consultants will tell you to stay positive, and several programs are designed on the idea that if you stay positive, good things will come your way. You have to banish negativity. Well, what happens when things don’t turn out as you intend? When people don’t acknowledge your application, they don’t call you back to let you know, or you have an interview that you feel went great only to find out you didn’t get the job? When did it become socially acceptable to treat people as if they don’t matter, the way job seekers often are? And how can you communicate the sense of frustration, and mostly betrayal, when you are expected to keep a positive spin on the situation?
These organizations also work on the outdated assumption that once you find a job then everything is all right, no matter that the job is only part-time or one to which you are not well-suited but you made that compromise because you have bills to pay. So your struggle continues, and while there may be relief because at least you have money coming in, there’s also added stress. Maybe the job creates problems with your personal schedule and having the time outside work to do things you enjoy. Perhaps you do not fit in with the company culture. Perhaps the stress is having a negative impact on your performance, tipping you towards that downward spiral where job loss is inevitable.
Unemployment: The Personal Impact
Lost in all of this is the impact on people who are unemployed. There are the obvious financial aspects, whether your income is reduced or lost outright. Certain sacrifices may have to be made. For example, what happens if you can no longer afford your vehicle but you need one to attend interviews? What if you lose your housing and you have no personal support system to rely on? It is especially hard since there’s an implicit determination of your self worth by whether or not you have paid employment. There’s the issue of the negative impact it has on your social circles, your relationships, or even potentially on your suitability to date someone. The longer this goes on, the more it hangs over your life, like a shadow, choking out everything else you find meaningful. Where has your life gone? What could you have done or accomplished with yourself had you had meaningful work for the last 6 months, the last year, or even the last few years of your life?
The Myth Of Re-education
One of the ways governments have tried to deal with unemployment is to offer retraining incentives for people to go back to school. This is problematic for several reasons. The main reason is that with the focus on training, it misses the point completely about the number of jobs available, and training people for jobs that aren’t there is a waste of time and resources. Another barrier that graduates often face is employers asking for experience.
Complicating matters is that many colleges boast of employment rates above 90%. Sounds good, right? That depends on how you count employment. [u=http://www.rrc.mb.ca/index.php?pid=1236]Red River College in Winnipeg publishes an annual survey of graduates to track this very phenomenon. The employment percentages are derived from adding together those who are employed inside their field of training, and those who are employed elsewhere. What is the purpose of attending college if not to gain a skill set for particular employment? And what of what you studied in college if you found employment outside of your desired field?
The Road Ahead
People who struggle to find work do not need “sympathy” or “positive thoughts.” They need secure employment. While calls for more generous unemployment benefits are helpful in the short term and well-intended, this is only a temporary solution. Unemployed people do not want to sit around all day collecting from an income support program, they want to be our there contributing to society as their talents and skills suit them. So how do we go about fixing this problem? I honestly have no answers. Perhaps the Good Jobs Revolution or Generation Squeeze campaigns are good places to start. Whatever the solution is, we cannot rely on policymakers alone to fix this problem. Those of us who do struggle with unemployment need to be at the table influencing policy decisions, whether through existing organizations (for example, organizations that deal with discrimination based on race, gender, or disability) or through forming new organizations of our own. And I hope that by starting this conversation we can move forward and address this problem. I have added my voice, and so now I welcome yours.