Purple Squirrels and the Reserve Army of the Unemployed

BY Paul Solman  August 15, 2012 at 1:35 PM EDT

Purple Squirrel
Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr user Todd Mecklem.

Paul Solman frequently answers questions from the NewsHour audience on business and economic news here on his Making Sen$e page. Here is Wednesday’s query:

Name: Frances Barbuto

Question: Many times you do stories about individuals who have lost their jobs and are struggling to find work in today’s poor economy. I am one of those individuals. Since losing my job in 2009 I have gone for retraining in the healthcare field as a medical coder. My background is in library science. I have two master’s degrees and over 25 years working as a librarian in the financial services Industry. I went back to school and took a certificate program in medical coding. I took and passed the exam to become a certified coding associate. Since then, I’ve applied for positions and even tried to volunteer in the field. I always get the same answer: “You need two years of experience in order to be hired.” I can’t tell you how many times in three years I have gotten that answer. Would you consider doing a report on individuals who go for retraining in a field that is supposed to be growing, and yet people cannot find work? I am a member of associations in the coding field and on the blogs for those associations there are always postings from individuals experiencing the same thing.

Paul Solman: As it happens, Frances, we’ve been looking into issues much like yours and should have a story about them on the NewsHour soon. Concerning the issue of experience, there can be too little, as you relate, but also, surprisingly, too much.

During our interviewing, one of the most unexpected insights came from a PhD biologist who took a law degree and became a biology patent attorney 10 years ago. To our astonishment (and hers, I think), even she hasn’t been able to find a job. The problem seems to be her experience — too much of it. The few jobs that she has found all specify no more than four years experience. She thinks it’s code for “less expensive” or maybe simple age-ism. Who’s to say?

“Why don’t they negotiate salary with me?” she asked. “I’d be willing to consider taking less.” She then answered her own question:

“Maybe they think I’d be unhappy working for less.”

But the larger problem is one we’ve chronicled here all too often over the past decade or so: would-be workers at the mercy of those who might hire them, harkening back to a term associated with Karl Marx and first used by him in 1847: “a reserve army of unemployed workers.” A hundred and fifty-five years later, it is again a buyer’s market out there, employers dictating terms, looking for the now-proverbial “purple squirrel.” But, as the Urban Dictionary puts it:

For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as a “Purple Squirrel”; not in nature and not in the job market. It is a metaphor used by recruiters to identify the unrealistic expectations of a client company.

The happy exception is when a perfect candidate, with exactly the right qualifications and experience, is actually found for a job opening. That person would then be referred to as a “Purple Squirrel”.

But every human being is flawed, and even if the candidate has all the requirements, i.e. IS a Purple Squirrel, they might not even get a phone screening.

Thus, even one recruiter’s Purple Squirrel can be “just another disqualified candidate” to the client company.’

The rest of the write-up nicely fills in the picture of the job market these days, and can be read here.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.