Job (security) hunting or, the job that wasn't there

On the quality and the quantity of the quest for international jobs today.

Adopting a generation-graphic approach I reflect in this post on the dynamics revolving around international jobs applications. Lack of transparency, information asymmetries, and compromised power relations are discussed as they manifest themselves at applicant’s individual level. While impacts on the subjectivity and other costs are unilaterally borne the whole process remains propelled by rising levels of unemployment and diffused lack of job security.


You read the job description: you do not know how many of you out there are doing the same at the same time. “How many could we possibly be?” You wonder. You read the job description again, you meet all selection criteria, and you breathe a sigh of relief. It goes without saying that you just need to stretch some concepts and competences, introduce key words here and there, but you will be fine, you can satisfy all requirements. You take note of the position at stake, and you move on, reassured that there is something vaguely waiting for you somewhere.

Next day, first thing in the morning you retrieve that webpage: no, you were not hallucinating, you remember well, you are eligible, same as yesterday, apart from the fact that being able to speak Chinese or Arabic would be an asset. Yes, they call it an asset, in terms of the so called human capital, you are an entrepreneur of yourself now (see Brunilda Pali’s post on this same blog), knowledge and skills are your resources. Yet, you do not have this specific language asset, but you do have so many others ‘assets’, who does actually care?

You take the time to go through the job profile once more, meticulously. You skimmed confidently over it the first time, you scrutinize it scrupulously and doubtfully now, even trivially. They require a “sound proven track record” of success into say alleviating poverty, plus 5 years of “progressively relevant experience” into say team management. They are straightforward about it, it is essential. Oppositely from the sophistication of “what a confusing problem is to draw on your own experience”, here the adamant and irrefutable principle in force is that you are capable of doing something only if you have done it before. But yes, you have done it before! It will not be this to prevent you from putting forward your candidature. It is just a matter of labelling, of making formal the informal.

You are half way through now. It is the turn of the so called desirable criteria. Are you good at networking and liaising with media outlets? Sure, ever since you started to move your first steps in a work environment. What about procurement and contracting procedures? They are no secrets to you, you have been into the business before, didn’t you have that website realized by a contracting party? Finally, the last set of criteria, the packaging of the self. These are quite vague and cross-cutting in nature, referring to personal characteristics, values, code of conducts, attitudes. Such as accountability, transparency, self-reliance, resilience, leadership, but also team player-ship, and so on. Oh, let’s not forget to mention the ability to work in stressful situations, while meeting tight deadlines. Of course you are all this and much more, your word of honour.

Well, you are ready to write your motivation letter now. But first, you want to have another look at the website of your would-be employer. You go through mission statements, activities, research projects, and so on. Everything is quite well presented, although a bit too rambling for your tastes. Then you look at the pictures of the staff. They all look a bit washed out, composed, neatly combed. Maybe it is neoliberalism today that looks like that, in its for-profit and not-for-profit variants, yet you wonder if your face would ever fit in. Or it is just a matter of being in and out? Maybe once you are in you will look pretty much the same as everyone else. Was someone talking about impacts on our subjectivity? Ah, let’s leave it for now. Determined as you are to apply for this position you drop these time-consuming cogitations, and you focus on your CV and cover letter. It is time to dispatch them.

Eventually “Dear Applicant, we acknowledge receipt of …”. Again, how many of you out there have done the same? “How many could we possibly be?” You wonder. But you have no clue. Because you are actually blind to your reality, and you do not know who and from where, each one from his/her own cell, has acted like you. Maybe even your next-door neighbour was interested, although you would never expect her to be. You live in a global round dimension, and the world wide web has made it your crystal ball. Through it you reach out to others and you let others reach out to you, information is shared and disseminated, borders crossed with a click, barriers overthrown, and jobs advertised. It is a huge single market. And if you are looking for an international position you are on it, whether you like it or not. Allegedly, (perfect) international competition regulates this job market. So on the one hand there is a single post to assign, whilst on the other hand you have millions of potential applicants: the entire world (in time of crisis) virtually looking at that job opening on all sorts of job platforms, with everybody meeting the selection criteria theoretically being able to apply. You do not know anything about your impalpable competitors, you neither see nor meet them, and in most cases you do not know anything about the monopolistic employer either. Information is very asymmetric. Yet, every time there is a job offer of this kind the same story unfolds, like in a commercial rite: hundreds if not thousands of applications reach the mailbox of the job offering party, whilst raising levels of hope and concealed expectations are harboured at diffused micro-individual level. Have we ever attributed a value to all this? Have we ever monetized these visions and the cumulative time spent along the way? No, never.

And what happens afterwards is even less transparent. Interpolating between random statistics and rumours, you realise the meagre reality you are facing. During the first round of the selection process each one of these applications (4-500 hundreds in average) receives between 5 and 7 seconds of attention, at the utmost. Sometimes they are dismissed even before and quicker, at the ‘hands’ of ATS procedures – applicants tracking software – which look for relevant key words in your dossier. If they fail to find them you are out. But even when this is not the case, you do not know much of what recruiters do with your information, with your files. Their power is unlimited: they have the resource you want. Your Job, maybe. For that you are willing to take orders, and execute them, while you have already adopted a new vocabulary and maybe a new look. More and more applications require now samples of past works and other forms of evidence (social accounts, published works, etc.). Fair enough. But what happens to ideas, plans, and suggestions you are asked to produce while getting prepared for the second round of the selection process? You will be evaluated against them, they say, and you feel so lucky, challenged, and enthusiast that you cannot be bothered about copy rights or similar at this stage. Hence, you just address the tasks and you forward them back.

And again, there is nothing left to do for you but to wait. You wait for a feedback that, most of the times, never comes though. Or if it comes it is not a feedback to you, it is a feedback to hundreds of people, it is a non-feedback, it is a bunch of words that do not say anything apart from dumping you with a terribly nice combination of words. What about accountability, transparency, and ethical values now? What about all those selection criteria you felt obliged to address, how do they in turn apply to the omnipotent would-be employer? To the very same organisation that, maybe in a fully different context, and most likely a developing one, where things are much more affordable, preaches about the full respect of human rights? You are expected to be serious about job hunting, but there is apparently nothing very serious about job allocation.

And there is more to it. Maybe it turns out that that position did not exist at all, not for those like you, genuinely going through the whole process: reading the job profile, getting excited, getting prepared, and so on. This job, very simply put, was never there. It was meant for a member of the employer’s network, an acquaintance, or the very best candidate on earth, which unfortunately they did not realize it was you. Hence, even if it was a real opening it was not for real, it was just a remote eventuality, a hallucination that you shared with hundreds, thousands of applicants. Actually you were warned about it already in the beginning “we regret to inform that due to the large volume of applications only shortlisted candidates will be contacted”. And they are on the safe side, while you are not, you ‘missed’ – you believe – another opportunity, you are out.

Well, you are this “large volume”, although you are (not) just a number. And this volume is unfortunately on the rise, while these job openings are shrinking further under its weight. But you are isolated, blind, and scarcely informed, while you go for broke in a losing game. And you pay the price of your time, of addressing jobs descriptions that sometimes read as an offence to your intelligence, and of adopting homologating formulas and ready-made sentences that neutralize your subjectivity. In turn, words and key words, which work like hatchets, unpredictably punish or promote your personal or professional capital assets, while work experiences, education, and training put together in a life-time are evaluated in the time-span of 5-7 seconds. Much ado about nothing, about a job that was not there. So please, at least this, while you keep going, do not be too earnest about this farce.


Acknowledgements

Cover image credit: Numbers, by DaveBleasdale, https://flic.kr/p/6hkJF1