• Interviewing in the sea of joblessness

    by Sunny Schlenger

    I’m sitting in the local bakery/bistro waiting for my next job interview candidate to arrive. It will be interview number seven in what has become a very sobering experience for me.

    I’m on the board of directors of our small town’s performing arts association, a performance and educational non-profit, and we’re looking for our first regular employee after two years of utilizing contract labor. We put an ad for the new administrative assistant position in the newspaper and hoped to hear from a few qualified people.

    We were inundated with responses.

    My task is to screen the applicants, select the top ones and interview them before passing on my recommendations to the executive director of the association. It’s been years since I conducted interviews — well before this recession hit — and I’m stunned by the depth and breadth of hard-luck stories I am hearing.

    I can conduct a tough interview if need be, but now I mainly want to hug people. I just finished speaking with an overly-qualified middle-aged woman who is looking for an additional job to help her provide for her pot-bellied pig rescue operation. She is passionate about her pigs and willing to work for far less than she’s accustomed to.

    And that’s the general story. There’s too little work available for too many people. Not that this is news. It’s just that I haven’t experienced so much of it sitting across the table from me. Statistics tell a story, but nothing like the one you see in people’s eyes – people who are trying too hard to please because they’re desperate.

    I find myself trying to reassure, trying to find positive things to say so they can smile and feel good for a few moments. I want to hire everyone because I’m bleeding inside and that will make me feel better…

    My next interview just left. He’s a dynamic young man, well-qualified, who needs this job to establish employment in order to get custody of his 5-year old son. I tell him that I will definitely recommend him for the position. And I will.

    It seems that I’m recommending two out of every three people I see. How can I not?

    I want to recommend the older woman with years of Easter Seals community experience but she doesn’t have enough social media skills. She’s intelligent and caring, but the position requires that the candidate hit the ground running and she can’t do that.
    But I could feel her anxiety and it hurt.

    I guess I’m too much of a softy to do this work with the edge it requires.

    If you’re a performer, I imagine you get used to going to auditions. After all, you’re feeding a passion to put yourself out there. But a job applicant, trying to survive on anything you can get? How do you find the stamina to keep on keeping on after so much disappointment?

    I would make a lousy casting director, for sure. I’d find roles for everyone.

    Every applicant who pulls out reading glasses to go over the job description apologizes for it. They look over at me as if to say, “I’m sorry I’m old.” Even if their energy is vibrant, they’re apologetic. I make a joke to assure them that I understand and it’s alright.

    OK – here’s one I can let go of. She seems very impressed with herself and I don’t think she’d be a good fit with this position. But then the vulnerability creeps into her voice. She says, “What do I do when I’m over-qualified for the $10 an hour job and there’s 150 people applying for the $48,000 one? I’m responding to almost every opportunity I hear about, but it’s getting real scary.”

    I still don’t think she’d be a good fit, but I try to be comforting. I compliment her on her portfolio and encourage her to stay tough. I feel helpless.

    By narrowing down the field to 10, I’m choosing the best candidates. The director will then take my top recommendations and select the best match for her needs. So is it wrong for me to allow all 10 to think they have a good shot? Is it misleading for me to give them all hope for a few days?

    I’ve now interviewed the final candidate and this last one is probably the strongest of the bunch. She was laid off from her last two jobs but has a very well-rounded resume and a lot of relevant experience.

    I feel good about my selections, but sad overall. The guy working on his PC at the next table asks me how I made out. “Too many good people out of work,” I said.

    He replied, “But at least one person will walk away with a job. You should feel good about that.”

    He’s right. It’s not enough, but it has to be, for now.

    • This must have been so difficult. Between giving encouragement and sometimes false hope I would go with encouragement. I would choose someone who really needs the job to feed their family (not a pig) and can fit into the organization. I would pick someone who is sincere and needs the job to survive. Sounds like some you mentioned were looking to help themselves more than their family. I think I would go with someone who needs to work and has a family because that way you would help more than just one person. Hard job anyway you look at it. Definitely food for thought.

    • Unemployed at midlife is a scary thing in this country. So many people with so much experience that should be getting respect and reaping the benefits of a lifetime of employment… just tossed aside like so much junk. It’s so wrong.

      • Judy N

      • January 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm
      • Reply

      AT least you were kind and encouraging. I wonder how much of that unemployed people get. A lovely column.

    • Thank you Sunny, it’s refreshing to see such a positive angle on our depressing economy. Instead of reading the snarky remarks from someone who was lucky enough to get the last job, and now has the dreadfully boring task of flicking away the line of jobless whiners, we hear your compassionate perspective.(And my run on sentence.) Thank you. Your writing, as well as your job performance remind us that although the economy might be poor, the people can still be rich–rich with laughter, hope and resolution.
      Your story, as written, gives us hope that out there are other employers out there who truly do care, and that we still are individuals in a society that likes to fit us into geometric statistical shapes. I’ll have mine ala mode’.

    • Sunny,
      Two yeses! Yes you are a softy and Yes you did get someone a job. Yes Yes Be proud of yourself-you earned it. Feel good about today because in the future these might be the good old days. Today I got a package from Omaha Steaks, tomorrow I might be eating my neighbor’s dog and trying to hide it so I don’t have to share.

    • Thank you! Follow-up…The new hire is incredible and is revitalizing the operation of the program. I am delighted with my part in the process and am reminding myself that yes we all have an opportunity to help — one person at a time.

    Leave a Comment