The Job Hustle

Posted on June 6, 2012 by


We get a lot of comments on here from young people trying to figure out how to make their way in our awful employment market. As those of us a bit older have already been through this cycle, some of us weeding our way through similarly bad markets, we’re going to offer you some gratuitous advice on:

How to get a job when you’re not as dumb as a rock

  1. The first and most important step in getting a job is getting over yourself. Stop thinking about how smart you are, how talented you are, how good looking you are, how educated you are, and how everybody owes you something for being so wonderful. Nobody owes you anything except the fruits of your labors, and you don’t have a job yet.

    People can smell a snob from a mile away and they know that snobbishness is next to laziness. Every job involves some drudgery, so acting like you’re too good for drudgery will keep you from getting hired. So clean up your act, or at least learn to hide it more effectively. You love to work! You’re not too good for any job! You are grateful to be there! Repeat until you believe it.

  2. Pick a path. The first path is to stay in college for 4-12 years, rack up enormous amounts of student debt or just get old in school, and then battle it out in interviews with a gazillion similarly-qualified people. Generally, the more qualifications are required to enter a field, the more crowded that field is, and the more competition you’ll have. Good luck with that, and may the force be with you.

    The reason for the crowding is simple — if a field is so mature and overpopulated that there are enough applicants for the employers to become picky, they start increasing the minimum qualifications to lower the number of applicants and raise the barrier of entry. This also increases the wages of those already in the system.

    Most jobs aren’t actually that hard if you have above-average intelligence. There’s a pattern to everything; you just have to learn the pattern and repeat it (that’s why everything is eventually formalized and automated). If you’re one of the first, then you’re an artist in a rare craft. If you’re one of the last, then you’re just another drone, and you better have some credentials to distinguish yourself.

    If you’ve already done this, don’t despair, just hone your strategy. If you’re almost done, finish it. If you’re just starting out or are halfway there, think long and hard about jumping ship. It may be a good idea, it may be a better idea to stay put or change your major.

  3. The second path is to get your high school diploma, associates degree, certification, etc. Then start out at the lowest level and work your way up. This is so cheap, so fast, and works so reliably well that I don’t understand why more people don’t do it.

    The key is to go into a field where nobody else is. That’s where people mess up this path. If you read a list of “fastest growing career fields”, take it with a grain of salt. Everybody reads those lists, and everybody piles into those careers simultaneously, so only the first to jump in get a job in the end.

    Some of the best fields to get into have the most-crappy work at the lower level, so they don’t have many people of high quality feeding into the system at the very bottom. Wade in the muck for a bit and you’ll shine like a diamond, and then you’ll have the advantage of “having learned the ropes”.

  4. Some things to avoid now: anything in IT even if you’re a woman (you missed that boat, sorry), anything in the health field unless you’re a man or you work in a nursing home (everyone and their mother is a nursing assistant or a pharmacist tech or whatever),  airline steward unless you’re a man (men are going to overrun women in this field soon), anything to do with education unless you’re a man (they’re pushing people into education while they fire people at the other end), and fitness trainers (again: too late, too bad).

    If you’re a woman, go into fields where there are few women. If you’re a man, go into fields where there are few men. If you are of a certain race, go into fields where your race is less common. You don’t need affirmative action to benefit from the novelty-effect. If you’re old, concentrate on fields where everyone is young, and vice-versa.

    Play against type and be remembered. People will inflate your abilities and performance because of their low expectations. They’ll also be impressed by the very fact that you’re taking the risk, as it shows guts. Everybody likes guts. Everyone feels virtuous for promoting the underdog. Everyone wants to be known as “the person who saw the potential in an unlikely candidate”. If it fails, they’ll look stupid. But if it works out, everyone will think they’re a total genius.

    They say, “You can’t make a hooker into a housewife”, but the man who manages to do so will be famous and everyone will want his advice. Just like the man who discovered the white rapper, the female fighter pilot, the black opera singer, and the cute girl who programs in Assembler. Make them look good by being merely competent. This isn’t a pointless thing on their end either, as filling a position with an unusual hire tends to lead to uncommon results and shakes up industries — that’s where crossover happens.

  5. Be flexible, but not stupid. Unpaid training is alright, but don’t work for no pay, as that just gets you into the internship-slavery racket. Take any job you can get in the company you want to work for. Once you’re in, you can move around to different positions more easily because they’ll know you and you’re a lower hiring risk.
  6. Don’t get stuck moving toward a dead-end. If you see the cliff up ahead, turn around, even if you thought your strategy was a good one. Always look ahead and be prepared to change course! This is one of the most common mistakes. People just keep on keeping on, even if it doesn’t make sense anymore. I had to adjust my strategy over and over, as the situation changed.

    Sometimes companies fail — be the first, not the last, to jump ship. Sometimes better opportunities open up elsewhere — head that way. Sometimes you should drop out of the market completely and do something else for a while — get out.

  7. Move. Jobs are often located in places where nobody wants to live. Either the company moves out there for a tax break or the low cost of living, or they needed to be close to some customer or supplier, or they’re an extraction industry. Whatever the reason, Company Out in the Boondocks will take you tomorrow, but Company in Downtown Big City will just add your application to the stack they already have.

    You can always move back to the Big City later, once you have something to recommend you other than your desperation. Desperate sounds pretty good to the Boondocks guys because they’re desperate too.

  8. Stay put and work your contacts. Everyone says this, and it does work, but if you have contacts then you don’t need the advice because you’ve probably already got a job.
  9. So my advice would be to make your own contacts. Avoid human resources departments like the plague (except for the Boondocks Company, where you’ll get the job as long as you have a pulse). Avoid applying to anyplace where the application goes to HR unless you think you’re particularly perfect for that job. The people at HR are just matching up checklists and running queries, so they’re a Job Block. Applications go through HR in order to weed out imperfect candidates and slow down hiring.

    I’ve actually applied directly to the departments everytime, and my husband does the same, so that I get to the person who is actually hiring. At my last job, I applied initially to HR and got no response, so I searched the company directory online and sent my application to the hiring department with a personalized letter, and they called me the next week. They had not received my initial application, nor had they received any other application for over 6 months. They were tearing their hair out in desperation, but nothing was coming through. This is typical. My husband’s encountered the same thing repeatedly, as have other people I know.

  10. Don’t lie. Not only is it immoral, it’ll catch up with you eventually and you’ll look like a fool. But be positive. Even if you don’t know something, redirect to something you do know so that you don’t look clueless. Knowing related things is almost as good. It helps to read up on the company and their preferred tools and processes beforehand, so that you have a mental list of similar items you can mention. If they talk about  CMMi, mention IEEE. If they ask about C++, talk about Java. If they want some sort of certification, mention a similar one or a similar training you’ve received.
  11. And then make yourself likable enough that they’re inclined to take a risk on you over someone better-qualified. They’re going to have to work with you everyday, so being likable is a very valuable skill. Work isn’t usually fun, which is why they have to pay you to do it (otherwise it’d be a hobby), and it isn’t fun for the person hiring you either. They want to surround themselves with people who are both competent and pleasant company.

    It’s easier to teach a Java programmer C++, or a cook how to be a hostess, than to make someone antisocial pleasant to be around. But don’t act frivolous or like a walking party either, or they won’t take you seriously.

  12. If you have a good idea for your own business, that’s great. But financing is hard to come by, and people gotta eat, so your first step is getting a day job and saving up some money to kick-start your idea. Get paid first, then launch your business in your free time until it earns enough return to support your existence.

Now trust me on this: nobody is taking this advice. Nobody. People are like sheep, so they just do what everyone else is doing, as risk-taking is scary and staying with the herd is safer. It is safer, but then you’re fighting over the same patch of grass as everyone else. No risk, no reward.

That’s why it works — it’s counter-intuitive stuff. Being contrarian is a valid strategy — I know this from experience. What you’re fighting right now is quantity — a glut of qualified labor on the market. It’s harder to make yourself more qualified than everyone else, than it is to go into a market where nobody else is. So everything you do should be focused on making yourself a big fish in a little pond.

Posted in: Education