Monday, August 22, 2011

Shovel-ready jobs: what do we really expect?

President Obama has promised a major "jobs" speech in September when he returns from vacation and Congress is back in session. In speculation as to what the president may propose, the term "shovel-ready" is floating around again as it was in President Obama's early days when federal stimulus was being proposed as a way to jump-start the economy even though stimulus under GWB clearly did not work. Somehow this president and his Democratic-majority Congress believed the previous stimuli were not sufficient, so they went bigger still. Their intentions were noble, of course (remember "too big to fail"?), but it has rarely been proved that doubling down on a bad bet (artificial manipulation = gov't intervention) is a good way to recover. Whether the stimulus worked or not, I suppose, is a matter of one's perspective and party affiliation though in real numbers, there are still millions of unemployed Americans who do not wish to be unemployed.

Having lost my own job in early 2008 when things began to unravel, the housing bubble was about to burst, and employers were running for cover; I can attest to the reality of how difficult it is to find work. It is more difficult still for those whose specialty may be industry- and/or task-specific and that industry is especially hard-hit. After a couple of months, however, when it became clear I would not find exactly what I was looking for, I began to look in other directions even while keeping an eye on the industry from which I was so unceremoniously dumped. What is worse and more humiliating that this, however, is what happens in the job search.

Another company had been talking to me about a position while I was still employed. Because I was pretty sure job losses were only a matter of time at my place of employment, I began putting out feelers and testing the waters. The position being discussed between me and this other company was a high level management position, and I was led to believe I was among the finalists for the position. At this point there was no offer or guarantee of employment, but we were still talking about the job and the future.

After it became known I was no longer employed, the high-level management position was no longer available nor was the corresponding salary range we had discussed. Suddenly the position and salary now on the table were not even close to what had once been discussed. And the hiring authority was quite blunt: "Your situation has changed. I no longer have to offer you a higher salary because I am not competing for you, but what I do offer you is higher than what you are current receiving."

Good point, of course, and he was perfectly within his right to do what he did, but it became clear that this person was little more than a predator that smells blood and senses weakness. He was ready to pounce and exploit the weakness (my need for a paycheck) to his own advantage. It became clear this person was not to be trusted. The lower level job and salary were offered, but I declined not only because of what this person had tried to do to me but also because I felt the position (and salary) were somehow beneath me. I was not yet that desperate. In the back of my mind, however, I really was that desperate, but I could not allow this man to see it. I was sure that sooner or later this man and his 'modus operandi' would come calling again as it suited him if I were to accept his offer of employment. Again, his perfect right to do so - and my right to stay as far away from him and others like him for as long as I can stand it.

The job search did not get much better. I came to discover that hiring managers - at least those I experienced on the search - are incredibly condescending and downright disrespectful. Some may well be that way because they are just jerks while others may simply lack the maturity necessary for that level of responsibility. Regardless, searching (if begging!) for a new job, trying to sound interested without sounding desperate is a tough act and difficult balance and is perhaps the most humiliating experience of my life. Had it always been this way? I had been with my previous employer 15 years. The few interviews I had with other employers during those 15 years were more like discussions among professionals - all while I was employed and not really looking. I was treated like a human being, an equal, a professional with something substantial to say.

Suddenly unemployed, I was no longer so sought after nor treated so well. During the few interviews for posted positions I did manage to land, I was treated like yesterday's trash rather than as tomorrow's potential. I felt I was treated like a bum who could not hold down a job. Companies decide to open a position and publicly advertise this position, and the HR person acts as though those who dared to apply had quite the nerve disturbing their normal routines, and I was made to feel every ounce of that disdain while trying to smile and remain positive - as all the "experts" suggest. It may well be that I walked out unemployed because I felt the "contest" and had decided I would demand - and accept no less than - fundamental respect. I refused to blink. Besides, if these people are indicative of the corporate culture and personality of that particular company, who would want to sign on for more of the same?

I use these short stories and personal experiences only to make this point (as well as maybe blow off a little pent-up steam??). "Shovel-ready" jobs are not going to be pretty. This country's infrastructure is old and well used. There is a lot of construction and repair work that will require a lot of "shovels". Will all those MBA's we keep hearing about who have been reduced to flipping burgers be "too good" or too qualified for such positions? Will these "shovel-ready" jobs be somehow "beneath" this nation's unemployed workforce when they will be forced to take jobs that may pay well enough but will not be quite what they had hoped or trained for? Indeed will those who receive public assistance be "forced" to take such jobs as they become available, or will they be given the opportunity to opt out?

There is more than meets the eye to such an anticipated "jobs" speech and if this president is going to move beyond the perception that he is no leader, he will have to bring the message home with substance and concrete proposals. No more platitudes. No more accusations against a willful Tea Party. Stand up and stand out, Mr. President. You have the mike.

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