Sunday May 07, 2017

Job hunting in the digital age

 Changing assumptions about company loyalty are making it harder to find work today.

Changing assumptions about company loyalty are making it harder to find work today.

Listen 14:03

How do people find work in today's job market? In her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy, anthropologist Ilana Gershon set out to answer that question.

Ilana Gershon book

Anthropologist Ilana Gershon's new book

She went to employment workshops, talked to job seekers, HR people, job-hunt startups and more. She finds the underlying problem is that the relationship between employers and employees has changed.

We used to think of ourselves as "property" renting ourselves out to an employer for a fixed period. "That allowed us to think that at the end [of that time] we got ourselves back," Ilana explains.

Whereas now, we tend to think of ourselves as businesses. "We are imagining ourselves as a bundle of skills, of assets...that we're constantly having to manage, and we're also supposed to be continually enhancing them."

This 'self as business' idea crops up in the advice given to job hunters. While it's particularly prevalent in white collar jobs, it turns up in the advice that blue collar job searchers are given, too.

This shift happened because many workplaces no longer see the importance of company loyalty, and are more interested in hiring a temporary pool of workers, Ilana argues.

Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon, author and anthropologist

Employers are also less likely to provide on-the-job training, to the chagrin not only of job hunters, but also recruiters. "Recruiters were frustrated because they often couldn't find people who matched the exact specifications," she says. "The job seekers were really frustrated because it didn't take into account the ways in which they could easily learn on the job."

To compound matters, the 'self as business' advice people get doesn't actually seem to work that well. For example, job searchers are routinely told to work on their 'personal brands' but Ilana found no evidence this was effective with hiring managers. "They never seemed to reflect on...any of the techniques that people were told to have in terms of personal branding," she says.

"Think about what exactly is happening in the situation you're applying for. What is that industry like? And think more critically about what the advice is that you're getting" - Ilana Gershon

So, what do you do if you're trying to find a job in this new economy? Ilana hasn't written an advice book, but there are some tips. "61% of people [in her statistical study] were getting jobs through workplace ties, through people who could vouch for them as workers," she explains. So Ilana advises her students to "be really nice to everyone you're working with and stay in touch with them."

Ilana also stresses the importance of understanding the culture of companies you're interested in working for, and knowing the right questions to ask in informational interviews.

"How does the hiring work in this company? And what matters to people when they're looking at job applicants? And what kinds of conversations do people have in the company as they're talking about who they should be hiring," she says. That should give you a better sense of how to present yourself, Ilana argues.

Ultimately, though, Ilana's advice is to have a healthy skepticism about...advice. "As a job seeker, you're surrounded by advice. Some of it is really good advice, but some of it is crappy," she says.

"Think about what exactly is happening in the situation you're applying for. What is that industry like? And think more critically about what the advice is that you're getting."