October 2005

Barbara Ehrenreich

Help wanted: job-hunting in corporate America
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Urged on by pleas from middle-class readers of her best-selling book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich launched a new book project that she hoped would do for white-collar work what Nickel and Dimed had done for low-wage work. In Nickel and Dimed, which has remained a bestseller since its publication four years ago, Ehrenreich posed as an unskilled, recently divorced homemaker, took a series of minimum-wage jobs, and then wrote an insightful, morally outraged portrait of the lives of low-wage workers.

For Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, her second foray into "immersion journalism," Ehrenreich sought a job in the corporate world as a public relations professional – not a huge stretch for someone who has published thousands of articles and a dozen nonfiction books. Her plan was to find a job that paid $50,000 a year and offered health benefits and then write about her experiences as a white-collar worker in corporate America. A problem soon developed, however: Ehrenreich had an almost impossible time finding a job.

"I was shocked," Ehrenreich says during a call to her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. "I expected to go to work somewhere and I really thought that would be the most interesting part of the project. Now I realize that that was unrealistic, because I was meeting so many people who had been out of work for more than a year."

Bait and Switch soon morphed into a book about white-collar unemployment and the peculiar "transition industry" that has emerged to assist the job searches of employees cast off by American corporations in the growing trend toward "delayering" (getting rid of middle management). With the same rueful wit, passion and skepticism she brought to Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich here relates her sometimes-comic, often exasperating experiences with career coaches, résumé consultants, networking events, personality tests and job fairs.

Among the most amusing and chilling of these is an account of her makeover. "Oh, my makeover," Ehrenreich says with a laugh that quickly turns into a sigh. "I had naively imagined at the beginning that the way I dressed to give a lecture at a college would be all right for an interview. But, no, there’s an entirely different way of dressing for success. So I decided to pay for a face-to-face encounter. I was wearing a very conservative brooch. It was silver and circular. But I was told by my makeover guy that it shouldn’t have been circular; it should have been a swoosh. But I have to wonder, when you’re judging whether to hire a person on the basis of . . . a detail like that, are you really picking the best person for the job?"

This, in fact, is the challenging question that surfaces throughout Bait and Switch, whether Ehrenreich is exploring the so-called Christianization of the workplace through evangelical job-search networks or the inordinate reliance of human resource departments on the pseudo-science of personality tests. What does any of this have to do with finding the most skilled person for the job?

In that regard, Ehrenreich says she was most surprised by the sort of mystical mumbo-jumbo that permeates the corporate world. "Because I am a journalist and was educated as a scientist," she says, "I operate in the fact-based world. I expected that the world of the corporation would be like that. To make money you’ve got to look at facts, at the bottom line. You can’t be deluding yourself. So it’s appalling to find what I can only call the delusional idea that your thoughts can go out there and alter the world. I just read a dozen business bestsellers and I found it over and over this idea that if you just think about money and success they will come to you."

The same sort of thinking pervades the transition industry. "All my coaches emphasized the importance of being positive and upbeat at all times," Ehrenreich says. "All right, you don’t want to be surly when you go into an interview. But the advice extends to mean that you cannot have any negative thoughts . . . because negative thoughts will poison you and will be visible to whoever encounters you."

The result, Ehrenreich says, is a group of cowed, isolated middle-class workers who are unable to get together and make changes that would enhance their work lives and cushion the blow when they are unemployed. With the publication of Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich says, "I hope to stir something up."


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