Sunday, August 23, 2009

FPH visits a Job Fair

posted by Free Press Houston @ 12:13 PM


by Joe the Columnist

Recession porn—it’s everywhere. You’ve heard the stories about how everybody’s scaling back and getting by with less. It’s the hottest topic on TV, on the radio, in so many conversations. Corporations are sharing or leasing jets instead of buying them outright; rich folks are abandoning their yachts because they can’t keep up their maintenance, and having to choose between keeping the nanny or the gardener because they can’t keep them both. The middle classes are cooking mac and cheese at home rather than going out to Applebee’s, and young singles are packing thermoses of home-brewed coffee rather than splurging on Starbucks. And the unemployed? We’re having to attend job fairs in search of cheap entertainment.
I got the email about a week earlier. A forward about the Behemoth.com job fair from a helpful friend of my mother’s. They touted it as some kind of rock concert—a local stop on the Roll Up Your Shirtsleeves Tour. Yeah, right. I laughed.
Not that I’m above that sort of thing, but the kind of people who find workers at job fairs are the kind of people who don’t call workers “workers”—they’re more likely to call them Senior ASSociates or Junior ANALysts or Customer Branding Administrators. The kind of people who, despite how “interesting” they might find us, don’t hire people like me. But I didn’t delete it, and every time I checked my email (which, as an unemployed procrastinator, I am not ashamed to say is pretty often) it became more and more attractive.
It’s not like I had anything better planned for Wednesday morning. It would be like that time I woke up early on a Sunday to check the mega-church in the former sports arena—I still tell stories about that. I pictured myself at a party, surrounded by a cluster of people—them laughing and hanging on my every word, urging me on—as I regaled them with tales of my epic hero’s journey across the toxic bog of new carpet smell, through the cubicle labyrinth of florescent light sameness with it’s minotaur of a manager, his blinding cardboard smile and firm handshake that’s rendered countless, once proud, warriors impotent. Plus, it’d get my mom and girlfriend off my back for at least a week.
So, I updated my resume to include my latest job. I posted it on Behemoth.com and registered for the job fair (I mean the “Roll Up Your Shirtsleeves Tour”). I considered what sort of answers to give if somebody asked me about the gaps in my resume, why I move cross-country so often, and how much information to volunteer about that felony and that misdemeanor without appearing cagey or defensive. (They are both entirely unrelated to work!)
I tried on different outfits. Would a suit come off as trying too hard? I opted for slacks and a shirt, ironed them, flossed and brushed, and went to bed early. In the morning, noting the importance of a balanced breakfast, I had coffee, cigarettes, and cereal instead of the usual (just coffee and cigarettes). Then I had a nice drive down to a fancy hotel near the Galleria.
* * *
At registration, I’m handed a fancy, space-age, Velcro-clapsed folder bearing logos for Behemoth.com and the Roll Up Your Shirtsleeves Tour.
“And here’s your drink ticket!” The enthusiastic young man at registration is all exclamation. He raises his eyebrows and maintains sincere eye contact as he beams a broad smile at me. “It’s good for one free drink at the Behemoth.com bar!”
This might not be so bad after all. I slip the drink ticket into my shirt pocket and tap it once as I stride towards the entrance. The first booth I notice is from Merrill Lynch. That’s right, Merrill Lynch, one of the main “Too Big to Fail” juggernauts that led us into this mess. They’re recruiting “Financial Advisers” at the Roll Up Your Shirtsleeves Tour. Makes me feel safer about the “recovery” already. I think about applying—I’m sure I could do better than whoever was calling the shots there a year ago—but then the blonde woman in a headset delivering a PowerPoint presentation catches my eye. The four rows of chairs set up in front of her stage are all occupied, so I take my place at a standing-room table near the back (beside the “bar,” which, alas, is serving only tea and lemonade) to dig her message and check out the crowd.
She gestures dramatically with her hands as she talks about streamlining the career search to integrate, optimize, and leverage your value-added customer-oriented solutions in this risk-averse environment. You have to be proactive and maintain an active network, she says. You have to check the right boxes to prove that you think outside the box. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all, and, at the end of the day, the only way to break through the clutter and get the your foot in the door, to get the face-time needed to make your case in person, to take it to the next level, if you will, is to utilize the best-practices expressed through action-packed verbs, thereby convincing your prospective employer that hiring you would be a win-win situation. It’s just that simple.
There’s a dingy, faded sadness hanging in the room, despite the fine wallpaper and ostentatious chandeliers. Everybody’s sporting their Sunday best—starched shirts tucked in to pleated khakis and women in power suits—but a glance at their scruffy shoes brings everybody back down to earth. A thin, mullet and mustached young man in an ill-fitting, double-breasted suit is talking to his similarly attired buddy about Worlds of Warcraft. I look through the fancy folder, which is mostly empty, containing specially designed pockets for business cards, resumes, and these oversized index cards bearing helpful, bullet-point advice on how to hype up your boring old jobs for your resume. There’s even a blank “Thank You” note to serve as an example of a way to continue groveling to your Human Resources overlords even after the interview has ended. There’s list of employers represented at the fair—some big names, no doubt—but most of them seem to be seeking entry-level, telemarketing kind of sales jobs.
I spot my buddy Jack, a former coworker, and we head over to the bar to catch up over lemonade. He’s been out of work since March, but he’s got the kind of “diverse skill set” that insures he won’t be jobless for long. I notice that the middle-aged lady serving lemonade—a hotel employee—is sporting braces, and I’m jealous of her dental plan.
Jack and I swap resumes just for kicks and he tells me he left out one of his degrees, the Bachelor of Science, in favor of listing more work experience. I tell him I had to leave some BS off my resume, too. We’re having too much fun hanging out so we make plans to meet up later and part ways to do what we came here for.
I notice that the longest lines are for people waiting to talk to temp agencies. Only half the booths are occupied, like the organizers had expected a lot more employers to show up. I talk to people in line.
I meet Debra, who lost her job of 16 years last January. She’s also lost her house and car, and had to move in with her parents. She’s 42 and has three kids. She’s signed up with more than ten temp agencies already, goes on five to six interviews per week, but hasn’t got a call back. I wonder if she’s sending out the wrong kind of thank you card.
I talk to Wei, a seven months pregnant Chinese woman, whose husband’s company wants to transfer him back to China. They don’t mind going, but with her about to give birth to their first child, it’s not a good time. They’re here on his L-1 visa and hoping to find a new job that will let them stay here a little bit longer, until they can make the move more comfortably.
I meet many more people with similar stories—cooks, engineers, graphic designers, EEG techs—and a slew of hiring managers who are thrilled to shake my hand and assure me everything’s going to be fine. The whole thing strikes me as a masturbatory exercise in cheap feel goodism, but then I take a look around at the hordes of people and all the literature they’re exchanging and realize what’s really going on. Think about it—the folders, the displays, the schwagge, the catering, the a/v installations, the promotion—this whole job fair must have put hundreds of copy writers, designers, printers, collators, greeters and administrators to work. Even the recruiters and head-hunters on the other sides of the booths might have been sitting at their desks twiddling their thumbs and brainstorming ways to justify their continued employment if they didn’t have this fair to come to today. They are not here helping the unemployed find work, rather, the unemployed are here to give the recruiters something to put on their own timesheets!
On the way out I’m handed a business card by a short Asian man wearing cargo shorts and Wayfarers who reminds me of Frank Chu or that mobster from The Hangover. I ask him what it’s for but he says he doesn’t know, he just gets paid to hand them out. It’s for a website called kookoo.ws, so I check it out when I get home. It’s for a pyramid direct-marketing scheme. His honesty is refreshing.

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