'The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

A reader, Les, takes stock of our series so far:

I principally want to say thanks for your reader stories on financial insecurity. It reminds me of just how plain lucky I am. It is too easy to feel holier-than-thou, but many decisions I’ve made were done with no more or less foresight than your contributors. Neal Gabler's article was excellent. I cringed at the cost of upholding some of his values, but was appreciative of his candor; and saddened (though not surprised) at the awful comments.

Several worrisome recurring themes are present in your readers’ stories. I just cannot believe that secondary educational costs and the consequent debt are sustainable. And somehow finding means to support independent journalism seems imperative to me. Lastly the whims, the slings and arrows, of corporate careers seem only to worsen, with more and more victims falling by the wayside.

These stories almost provide me an understanding of the success of Mr. Trump’s presidential run.

Our next reader, Ben, hasn’t completed college yet and is struggling to find a job. This line is pretty gut-punching: “I had hoped to find my way to something resembling a career before my kids were old enough to notice that their father was a failure, but it’s looking more and more like I won’t meet that deadline.” Ben’s full story:

I grew up working in a family business. When my dad retired, he split the business up among his kids. I was a little too young and a little too ignorant to keep it going for long, and after four or five years it fizzled out. After that I spent a couple years doing freelance writing/other stuff, but most of that work dried up eventually as well.

I settled into a stable but dead-end retail clerk job for three years, but I’m topped out at barely-surviving levels of income in my job and have started looking for other work. This is my first real job search, and I’ve discovered something terrible: I’m completely unemployable, at least at anything that pays enough that we could technically survive on it. I’ve sent out a little over 80 applications in the last month or so, and only managed to get around five interviews, none of which led anywhere.

As bad as the realization that I’m soon to be without work is, it’s not the worst part for me emotionally. Worse is the demoralizing process that job searches have become. Recruiters for large companies will call you in for “sure thing” interviews that turn out to be jobs you can’t get. I’ve learned that many of them need to meet a certain threshold on interviews to secure bonuses and will get you in by any means possible.

Interviewers ask questions that reward liars and punish the truthful, but it doesn’t matter; your answers aren’t important if the next guy has a degree. Ditto work experience.

The worst are online assessments, by far. I have dozens of hours clocked taking complex logic and multitasking tests. I’ve aced them left and right, but the purpose of them isn’t to make sure a person without a degree is smart; it’s to make sure the degree-holder that HR demanded isn’t stupid.

And these aren’t great jobs, either: $25-30k a year with no or shitty benefits, in a lot of cases. The bachelor’s degree they want isn’t related to the work; it’s just something they can expect to get so it’s something they ask for. It’s the new high school diploma.

I’m looking into completing my bachelor’s, but that’s terrifying in a different way: How do you afford college if the best job you can get is Lyft? If I sink myself into $40-60k worth of debt to get a $30k-a-year-job, will I ever be able to dig out?

Update from a reader, Amanda, who points to some potential help:

Ben’s story immediately made me think of Mike Rowe’s foundation, as he seems to be exactly the kind of person Rowe is trying to target with his foundation's “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign.  They’re currently taking applications for a scholarship program for the purpose of, in Rowe’s words, getting people the training they need for jobs that actually exist. I myself went the college route, but I appreciate Rowe’s efforts because, as Ben’s story illustrates, going to college to get a job doesn’t always make sense.

All recipients of the scholarship money have to sign the “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo). From the list of 12 points:

1. I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.

2. I believe that I am entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.

3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.

4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.

5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.