View From the Job-Seeking Trenches

We keep looking around at the labor supply and wondering how job seekers are being affected by current market conditions. The question across the recruiting and HR discussion boards is how the workforce is reacting to these conditions. We’re also wondering why it’s so difficult to find qualified, experienced people. These are excellent issues to ponder and develop theories about. One way to get the answers is to ask the population. But an even better way to develop a true appreciation of what is happening is to see it from the job seeker’s perspective ó that is to say, to put yourself in the shoes of the job seeker to find out exactly what is going on. It’s sounds quite noble to spend a few days or a couple of weeks playing job seeker, especially if you’re pretending to be an executive-level candidate. But it’s another thing entirely to put yourself in the shoes of the majority of the workforce and taste of their bread. From December 2002 to June 2003, I did exactly that, and I have some revelations to share. In Part 1, I’ll report on my findings from December 2002 to February 2003. Part 2 will report on my findings from February to June 2003. A Slow Market In the past, I’ve talked with my audiences about getting started again when all of the past resources are skimpy or no they longer exist. My recommendations were based on 1999 market conditions. I revisited one of these resources ó a skilled labor agency. Other resources I used were print and online classified ads, and as well as some temporary agencies. Overall, the picture was not very promising. Things were either sluggish at each juncture or else an exercise in futility. Here is some of what I learned about each resource, from the job seeker’s perspective. Skilled Labor Job Shop The usual scenario at a skilled labor agency is register, take a safety test, and then become qualified to be sent out. There are few, if any, background pre-qualifiers. Experience is not an issue. Education is not truly necessary. It isn’t important whether you have a Ph.D. in nuclear science or a bachelor’s degree in business or homemaking. It isn’t even important if you’re still working on your GED. But the ability to follow instructions is important. Completing the registration and successful performance on the safety test are preliminaries that serve as screening tools to determine whether one is qualified to be sent on an assignment. Once one is registered, the next step is to go to the agency before the doors open at 6 a.m., sign in, and wait to be called to go out on a job. The wait may be short. The wait may be long. If there is no assignment by 10 a.m., it’s certain that no day labor will be available. The only option is to try some other resources, come back for the evening shift, and try again the next day. In 1999, a handful of people did a lot of sitting, but most were sent out to work. Registered laborers who want to work for the day show up at the agency door around 6:30 a.m., sign in as ready and available for work that day, and then wait for the dispatcher to send them out based on client calls for workers. Of the 30 or more laborers waiting to do things such as distribute flyers, janitorial duties, factory or construction work ó or any other low-education, labor-intensive opportunities ó about 80% were sent out. If there was additional work and the laborer performed well, the employer asked them to return the next day. Sometimes the assignments ran for a week or longer. One-day assignments are paid on the same day. If the assignment ran for a longer period, pay was at the end of the work week. The remaining labor-ready job seekers still in the job shop after 10:00 a.m. are not qualified for one reason or another. Accuracy, speed, professionalism, adaptability, motivation are all determinants for repeat employment. Amount of experience with the type of work required is another. Many times, trainee level experience is sufficient. Those who were not sent out one day may present themselves the next day or on the next shift (beginning at 4:00 p.m.), use another job shop, or search for other types of work. There is no stigma for not being employed on any day. The mix of candidates is diverse. In 1999, they were predominantly black men, followed by a small handful of Hispanics, and then whites. There were women as well, mostly Hispanic. Many of these people were still working on obtaining their GED. There were some exceptions who had more than a high school education or more than a bachelor’s degree. Those with degrees were prudent enough to not list that information on their application. New Market Profile In the late part of January 2003, these expectations changed. The number of labor-ready candidates is now more than 45, closer to 50. Due to the nature of the work offered by the job shop, the attire is still durable work clothing suitable for construction work. The weather dictated use of knitted caps to protect from rain and cold. Clusters sat together, biding their time by reading newspaper articles to one another or talking about different issues. Slang English is the common language. I registered around sunset in order to be available for work the next day. The job shop staff is bilingual, English and Spanish. They are courteous and businesslike with candidates. One of those who reports back from the day’s work talks with the desk clerk about his pay. A clarification is requested. Another speaks up for the first by using formal English. Everyone’s attention and expectation of the new speaker snaps up significantly. Appearances in the job shop are not what one should expect and the job seekers are living down to their expectations in order to be hired out. The next day, I presented myself. My name is place on the sign-up list at the bottom of the second page of single-spaced lines. The morning group of job seekers is similar to the one from the previous night. I stand out like a sore thumb and busy myself with composing on my laptop as I wait to be dispatched. Another job seeker also stands out. He appears to be in his early 20s. He also sits quietly with his own reading material ó The Wall Street Journal. As it turns out, he is new to California. He’s moved to Los Angeles from New York or Massachusetts. He’s an actor. A friend told him about an interesting article in the Journal and he’s trying to find it. The Journal is his regular reading material. He’s been registered with the job shop for some two weeks or so. The time stretches into 9:30 a.m. and no names have been called for dispatch. The young actor gives a parting, “Good to meet you,” and moves on to another place. My laptop is packed up. I lingered a short time to talk with the morning desk clerk and scan the candidate sign-up sheet. Only three names are crossed out, indicating people who were sent out on work assignments. New names followed mine at the bottom of the second page and begin a third one. “The lines through the names indicate who was sent out?” I ask the desk clerk. She confirms the correctness of the observation and responds by saying, “Things are really slow right now.” “When do you think things will pick up?” “Truthfully, probably not until the middle of March. I hope!” “That long?” She nods and agrees that is a long time, observing that the pick up is only speculative. Print Classified Ads The number of opportunities being advertised in print classified ads is sparse. I’m looking for jobs with easy entry that provide at least something close to poverty-line income or more. There is one situation that is so easy that it becomes a deterrent. The company seeks people who can do presentations and demonstrations. They pay during the training period. Even something that is a reasonable facsimile of a resume will be accepted. The intake representative confides that the manager never looks at the resume anyway. They just need some sort of paper on file; everyone gets hired. In fact, they want people to come in so that they can get hired and paid. There is a group interview and orientation. Once hired, the candidate is taught how to make presentations to companies so that they will buy artwork. The details begin to sound like raising daisies. Yes, getting hired is more than easy. But this cattle call sounds as though there is no legitimate career opportunity and may be a straight commission situation in the long run. It also sounds like a situation where termination or layoff is just as easy as getting hired. Best to side-step this. Other ads result in calls not being returned. Several follow-up calls result in finally contacting a few of the advertisers. Although the positions are now filled, it appears the probationary employee is not working out and will likely be replaced the following week. Given what I’ve learned from the places where I actually made contact with a human ó not a voicemail service or recording ó I’m put off. None of these situations sound like real opportunities. I’ve found no paying work. Online Classified Ads It seems that if the print classified ads are low, there must be a lot more online classifieds available through the Los Angeles Times. Why not take advantage of my dial-up and explore them? Online classifieds are truly an experience. There are a lot of listings, all over the country. My search offers up results across the United States. Eventually, I’m down a path completely unrelated to what I want. I’m in new counties and states and a different field. I’m lost and bewildered at the results and extremely discouraged. This is not a viable option for a job search. Incidentally, it looks like the medical field has a high demand for employees of all classifications. They can even apply online! Temporary Agencies Many of you readers are executive recruiters, whether in-house or third-party. Many of you are in recruiting- and staffing-industry-related fields. And a great many of you are temporary staffing professionals. You read these columns and know the authors. So it is with a high degree of trepidation that I embark on the next phase of my research ó checking out what using a temporary agency now entails. After several calls, it looks like the way to get into a temporary agency is now a matter of faxing my resume, submitting it online or sending it by email. At least there are several ways to get one’s foot in the door. Once through the transom, the resume will be screened and the candidate will be called in for the usual run of screening tests and interview. So far this sounds like there may be some hope of getting work. I have two options on what to submit now: 1) the real, complete background, or 2) the toned-down, dumbed-down background. I’ve already gone down the latter path. It resulted in a quick job at a low level and even lower wage. It also resulted in a job, not a career, that had an extremely low glass ceiling. The decision is made to go down the first path this time. The difficulty is that all of my records are gone and I cannot remember exact or even approximate dates, much less places. An informal question to some of my colleagues has revealed that a person in this situation will be viewed as manufacturing their background or else trying to hide something. This is not encouraging. A career summary is dashed off that contains approximate dates. It’s three pages long and still incomplete. It needs refinement. Time is scarce so it’s submitted as is. Ten to fourteen days pass and my contact person has not responded by phone or email. I call back and am told that the office is still in the process of reviewing resumes. If there’s a fit, they’ll call me in for an interview. I’m still waiting. Slim Pickin’s So here’s the picture. Layoffs in all industries are high, so there’s a glut of people looking for work. The other side of the picture is that employers are laying off in order to cut costs. That then means they are trying to deliver product to customers by using limited resources and stretching past their reasonable limits in order to do so. Day labor opportunities are no longer a quick fix solution for employment income in our present economy. In fact, unskilled labor opportunities are just as sparse as all of the others. Finding paid work is going to require a lot more creativity and work at sniffing out the fruit of the work cornucopia. At one time, it was possible to check the classifieds and find at least some paltry offerings where the advertiser returned the phone call. Now, advertisers are either too cavalier or too busy to bother to reply to voice messages. There could be even more explanations for the lack of response. Obviously, there are some messages that are getting a response. If that were not so, calls two weeks later would still result in no answer. Yet by that time there is an answer, albeit one by a perturbed employer who may be looking for a replacement. While there appear to be many more opportunities online, the ability to search them is challenging. One needs to be a pro at Internet and research techniques in order to stay on track and find exactly the right job titles in the right geographic area. This is not the strategy to use for job- and site-specific searches. For now, online classifieds are a great source of examining the field to get a general idea of what’s happening. Otherwise, they’re useful for those who are willing to relocate. Even temporary agencies, which at one time were the first bastion of semi-skilled and educated support workers, are formidable as far as getting a shoe in the door. Although there are ads and yellow page listings, many of the agencies have closed. Of those that still cling to life, there are many screening layers before one actually sees the inside of the office in order to actually talk with a placement agent. In the 1960s and ’70s, all one had to do was walk into these offices and complete the application form. Next was take ó and pass ó a battery of standard tests: a simple typing test along with one in spelling, filing and simple mathematics. An hour or so later, one could walk out armed with a time sheet. Many times, an assignment for the next day was among the registered temp’s arsenal. Now, some type of resume is mandatory just to be considered for getting invited to come in and take the battery of tests. The employment scene is not encouraging. At this time it is a place for the stalwart and hearty of will.

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Yvonne LaRose ( is a California-accredited consultant and freelance writer. Her column, Career and Executive Recruiting Advice, is read by professionals from all parts of six continents who rely on her advice, previous board experience, and insights on business management, recruiting, and career development issues. Former producer and host of "Legally Speaking," a bi-weekly legal news radio program, Ms. LaRose's 15 years of writing encompasses various media, including print. Her online writing appears at such places as, AIRS Directory, Workforce, ITWorld's Managing the IT Pro, and SmartPros. She has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Savoy Professional Magazine, The New York Times Job Market, and SmartPros. Yvonne helped author the e-book "The Last Job Search Guide You'll Ever Need: How to Find and Get the Job or Internship of Your Dreams." Her contributions deal with professionalism, how to handle criticism and the qualities of a good resume. For more information on her book, visit


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