A Tale of Two Job Seekers

BY Paul Solman  September 25, 2012 at 3:22 PM EST


Image of John Franklin by the PBS NewsHour.

Editor’s Note | For our broadcast story about the frustrations of online job hunting — which will air on the NewsHour Tuesday evening — we interviewed headhunter Nick Corcodilos. He wrote a guest post for us, “Six Secrets To Beat the Job Market,” and has agreed to answer your job hunt questions. Send in your queries in the comments here.

Making Sense

During a taping at McLean Bible Church’s weekly “Career Network Ministry,” in Vienna, Va., earlier this summer, nearly everyone we interviewed voiced frustration with the online job application process. Job seeker Rebecca Spradlin had a particular complaint: “you don’t know if it’s even a real lead. I’ve heard they put up job descriptions and they’re not actually hiring. ” One of the ministry’s volunteers, John Franklin, attests from personal experience that this is true:

John Franklin: The fact that you see an advertisement on an online list serve or job board does not mean there’s an actual job behind it, in many instances it’s a company just trying to get more information for its databases.

Paul Solman: Why does a company want information for its databases?

JF: Well, looking at it from the company’s side, the company wants to make sure it’s got the ability to fill a position as quickly as possible in the event that there’s a vacancy. If someone leaves the firm, if there is a decision to downsize but then to combine other positions, the company — from a competitive standpoint — wants to be able to fill that job as quickly as possible. In the consulting environment you may have some firms that will post ads on a contingency basis that if they win the contract, these are the positions they’ll be looking to hire. But in a lot of incidences they don’t necessarily specify this position is contingent, they just put the ad up and then you might find three to four months later there’s that same advertisement verbatim running a second time.

PS: So what percentage of the jobs that are posted, do you suppose, are not real?

JF: My experience has been it’s a very large number. Whether it’s more than half, whether it’s close to it, I really don’t know. But it is a very common practice in the recruiting industry for these advertisements to run in some cases repeatedly and you as a job applicant may think: I just applied for that job two or three months ago! Did they fill it and somebody not work out? In some instances you may even apply for the job, be interviewed for the job, and in my own case I’ve been on two instances flown to other cities for interviews only to find out that the position was not in existence in the company, they’re just trying to get a sense of what the talent levels were and what the salary expectations were so they have a market research aspect to it as well.

PS: They fly you somewhere just to find out?

JF: Yes, it’s happened to me twice. I was flown to Boston for one, I was flown to Chicago for another…There was one where I drove all the way down to Richmond and back and didn’t get the position and wasn’t even offered the chance for reimbursement even though I had obviously had tolls to pay and gas and 200 miles round trip, and so on… And it’s an eye-opening experience. It was for me after I was laid off. It was several months before I talked to a recruiter who pointed out to me that just because you’re applying for those ads doesn’t mean that necessarily there’s a job there, they may just be wanting to collect résumés.

PS: It offends you.

JF: It would I think a number of job applicants who apply for jobs only to find out that there was no job there. You’ve wasted a good deal of time, you’ve wasted a good deal of resources, you’ve wasted probably some money if you’ve had to drive across town, pay for parking, buy your car back, take a cab, take the subway, print up some extra copies of your résumé on decent paper, maybe get some business cards, go through that process of putting those keywords into that résumé, to say nothing of maybe filling out a very extensive online application, your entire employment history, references and all that, going through all these steps just to find out that it’s all about the company updating its talent bank, can obviously be very demoralizing to you as an applicant. And yet it seems to be a very very standard practice among the recruiters and the industry.


Image of Joyce Hersh and Paul Solman by the PBS NewsHour.

Joyce Hersh has a PhD (in botany) from Cornell, worked as a research biologist while attending law school at night, became a biotech patent attorney. We interviewed her this summer when she’d been out of work for about six months.

Joyce Hersh: I am a bit surprised that it’s been so difficult to find another position. I think that one of the problems is that nobody wants somebody who has too much experience, they want someone with one to four years of experience, and I have 10. So, I think they make the assumption that I’ll somehow be dissatisfied in the job. But I never have the chance to discuss that with anyone.

Paul Solman: Age discrimination?

JH: That’s part of it. I’ve been advised to present my résumé in certain ways to sort of disguise how old I might be. I mean I’ve got a lot of good years left, so I don’t know why that would be a problem.

PS: How do you disguise how old you are?

JH: Well, you can drop a few jobs off, but there’s only so much you can do….I’ve also been told to leave off my dates of graduation.

PS: So they’d have to go back to the college records to find out how old you are from that?

JH: Right. They could ask. But they’d have to talk to me… I’ve come to believe that coming out of this economic downturn, the future is going to belong to those companies that can skim off the best off of this talent pool.

PS: Because there’s so much talented idle labor out there?

JH: There are a lot of talented people here who are not even being looked at by companies.

PS: So correct me if I’m making too much of a leap, but even at the top of the job ladder which is more or less where you are, there’s a race to the bottom? That is, there are so many people out there looking for jobs, that even in the higher echelons of the job world, they can still be looking for cheaper rather than more expensive?

JH: Oh yes, that’s definitely true. I’m fairly certain that’s why I was laid off. But I think that it’s rather shortsighted. I mean, yes, salaries during the boom times went up pretty high and I know that salaries have come down. But I think most people who are looking for jobs accept that. But again, we’re not given the opportunity to say: It’s okay, you know, you can pay me less than before. We’re not even given the opportunity to try and negotiate our way in with a lower salary…It’s hard to even get an interview, it’s hard to even get past the software … you send your résumé in and it’s a black box, and all you know is you never hear from them again.

If you’ve been rejected for a job at a company, when they put in a new requisition for a new position, the software goes through the database of résumés that have been submitted in the past months or years, and if your résumé matches one of the new positions, it pops up and it says: There’s a candidate right here in the database. But then under history it says: Rejected. And at that point, human bias kicks in and the person thinks: Well, we rejected them. And you’ve just become a dented can of beans.

PS: So, the fact that you were rejected for a different position entirely is a stigma that stays with you.

JH: Could very well be stigma if someone in HR is not careful and not affirmatively working against that bias….if you have an HR Department that’s overworked … and really isn’t given the tools that they need, the time and the energy that they need to carefully evaluate candidates, they fall prey to bias. And in extreme situations you can apply to a job at a company and if you’re rejected, you’ll never work that company.

PS: Even though you might have applied…

JH: Even though job might come up that you are perfectly qualified for.


A happy post-script from Joyce Hersh:

I got a job!

It’s a “real” job, in my field, as the in-house patent attorney at a small company. I’m not at liberty to name the company, but I’ll be starting in a week. A friend recommended me to the company, and they contacted me. I don’t think an ad was ever placed. Certainly no
software was involved.

This note came a relief to both her and us. As producer Lee Koromvokis and I said to one another after interviewing her, if Joyce Hersh can’t find a job, who can?

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions