Employers sifting the labor pool for new employees are a funny lot. They adopt what I call the Interviewer Rule: You Can't Do It Unless You've Done It.
I should know. I've run face-first into such adamantine logic plenty of times. When I was younger, I thought you could land work merely by convincing your prospective employer that you were a knowledge-absorbing workaholic. I have since wised up. In real life, if you want work -- full-time, part-time or contract -- you had better convince any future boss that you have bent your back at exactly the same kind of work as the kind he wants doing. Not just work like it, but the very same. Interviewers are, of course, oblivious to the conundrum you mull as you attempt to sustain a breath of life in your chances for the job: "How can I have done it if no one hires me to do it?"
Employer myopia knows no class or trade. Back in the '70s I had garnered some experience building houses and so went looking for a job as a general carpenter. I scanned the classifieds. No dice. You had to be a framing carpenter or a finish carpenter or a concrete-form carpenter, usually of several years' experience, ranging from 5 to 10. So if you called an ad's listed phone number and said you were a carpenter, your telephone inquisitor asked, "But are you a finish carpenter?" or some such, and you would have to say, "I am a framing carpenter, and I can ... " but by then there is only a click and a hum on the other end of the line.
Let's take another example, this one in an office where you are trying for a white-collar job. After your interviewer has asked if you have done such-and-such work before, you say, "Well, no, but I have done something quite similar and, besides, I am a quick learner."
Thumbs down. Although your interviewer has heard the word "no," he has tuned out the word "but," and by this time, he has either 1) coughed, shuffled his feet and fidgeted with a drawer knob in search of words to dismiss you or, 2) given you the kind of look that Perseus saw reflected on his shield. The next thing you see is the door.
Offshoots of interviewer sophistry abound, as well. A friend of mine, for example, worked as a writer and editor in one of the world's most prestigious publishing houses and then left to attend business school. As the award of his MBA degree neared, he discussed prospective jobs with corporate recruiters making visits on campus. Many of the recruiters, however, having glanced at his re'sume', told him bluntly that they would never think of hiring someone who had spent several years writing. Presumably, such corporate scouts feel that arts and letters so pollute a man's mind as to make him ever unfit for making business decisions.
The flip side of the Interviewer Rule is equally infuriating: "If you have done it, then you must do it." For some reason, employers think that if you once performed a task you are both expert at it and incapable of any other.
I have had the opportunity to see some re'sume's after they passed beneath the beady eyes of employers. Some reflected remarkable achievement, talent, versatility and intelligence. All of that is often ignored, however, for the barest hint of ability in a task the employer seeks. "Put her in the typing pool!" is scrawled over the work history of many a magna cum laude who has been so imprudent as to include the simple phrase, "Typing: 45 words a minute."
The question remains: How do you pierce this employer logic? Solutions are bleak. One is schooling. It has been the path for millions. Unfortunately, it is costly and time-intensive and next to impossible for those who must either support themselves or their loved ones. Also, to an employer, a scholastic degree merely reflects interests, not experience.
Another solution presents itself -- lying. This tactic springs to mind during interviews. All you have to do is say that you have done the work before, bask in the glow of the employer's smile and then hope that on your first day at work you don't, so to speak, jam your foot into the water bucket.
More often than not, perjury as a tactic manifests itself in the shady act called re'sume' padding. Normally, lies on a re'sume' are not whoppers. Rather, they are embellishments of experiences past. Work as a short-order cook may become represented in print as "chef." Someone who has hosted a convention booth may describe himself as a "public relations specialist with extensive travel experience."
Lamentably, this sort of fibbing infuses job-switchers when they write re'sume's. Still, their justification is difficult to dismantle, for unless they say they have done something they never have, an employer will stick them with the very thing they are trying to escape.
There is a third solution, of course. If you want an interesting job, look to your birthright. Employers love giving you the same kind of work done by your mother or father. Was your father a lawyer? Fine, join the firm. Was your mother a doctor? Good, medical smarts probably run in the genes, and you can work in our hospital.
Employers have to have justifications, no matter how spurious. If they cannot convince themselves of an applicant's worthiness by virtue of work history or schooling, they will bolster their doubts by hiring the son or daughter of a proven success. That is why, despite the discouragement and outlawing of nepotism in this country, dynasties are on the rise. Bosses need hooks on which to hang their hats -- they think if a parent could do it, why, the child can, too.
In some societies, such reasoning may have held its benefits. For example, Egyptian tomb painters taught their sons, and the paintings improved for generations. But America rose to greatness on just the opposite premise -- your career was the stuff of which your father only dreamed. What would this country be if Benjamin Franklin had been a soap-boiler, Abraham Lincoln a farmer, Thomas Edison a shingle-maker and Dwight Eisenhower a dairy-worker?
Nowadays, the children of lawyers become lawyers, and those of mechanics become mechanics. You can say the same of scientists, professional athletes, farmers and laborers. These are signs that a society is either timid or mature or both, but certainly not adventuresome.
So employers, do your part. Make America robust again. Open your doors to the eager, not merely to the strictly qualified. Break the tyranny of the Interview Rule. A world will benefit.
Brooke Stoddard is his own boss in Alexandria.