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McCallum: Out Of Work

12/15/10 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) These days finding employment is uppermost in the minds of millions of Americans.  While Vermont has felt the impact somewhat less than other states, commentator Mary McCallum reflects on how her own short job search compares to those who have been at it far longer.

(MCCALLUM) Vermonters heard some good news at the end of November when the latest unemployment statistics came out.  While the nationwide unemployment rate hovers at 9.6 percent, the Green Mountain State currently ranks fifth lowest in the country at 5.7 - just behind our New Hampshire neighbor across the river.

While millions of jobless citizens across the country search for work, I am one of the lucky ones.  Looking back over 2010 I realize that I've had not one job, but three during this calendar year.  And while I'm good at dealing with people and have adequate computer skills to get through the day, I have no clearly defined skillset to bring to the table. 

I'm not a plumber, electrician, web designer, massage therapist or dentist.  What I have to offer is mostly non-measurable, traits like thinking outside the box and being a team player - not things I thought would carry much weight in my search for meaningful employment.  

How I could leave a secure teaching job in July, land an interim position as administrator of a public library three weeks later, and then be offered a job in restorative justice just four months after that was  baffling to me - until I heard a news report about hiring trends in this down market, and it altered the way I thought about the disparity between the long term unemployed and those who land the jobs.  

The gist of the story was that for the six million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more, their job searches are made more difficult by a kind of bias shared by employers and hiring agencies for offering jobs to people who already have jobs.  In a world where perception drives reality,  the currently employed are viewed as more desirable than the legions of jobless, even if they were often at the top of their game when they were pink-slipped.  This has created a pool of  seekers whose entree into the prized job interview is often based on their how short their stay was on the gray planet of joblessness.

Although I was not without work for long, I did attend my share of interviews and even one job fair.   That event was less a fair than a polished advertisement about the company,with  lengthy power point presentation, product promotion, and scripted interviews.  The most authentic moment was when each hopeful applicant had to pick up a large box and guess its weight.  All this for minimum wage job stocking shelves and ringing up customers.  

It was a depressing exercise that left me with a heightened sense of how desperate it must have felt for those in the room who really needed that job.   And the powerful fact that I already had one and was just window shopping wasn't lost on me.

When it comes to landing a job,  who you know and the reach of your network can stack the cards in your favor.  But now it seems that  how long you've endured the hardships of unemployment may - unbelievably - stack them even higher against you.
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