The Roadrunner Cartoon Job Market

Ever see one of those frustrating Roadrunner cartoons? The persistent Wile Coyote keeps running around the desert, trying to catch the Roadrunner; but he is always unexpectedly foiled in his attempts at the last minute. Just as he is about to catch the scraggly, elusive bird, huge boulders roll over on him, squashing him; deep, dark canyons open up in his path, swallowing him; mysterious ropes fall around his neck, hanging him; smoke belching freight trains run over him; clanking steam rollers chase him only to flatten him; and strange lightening bolts hit him from a clear blue sky, turning him into a living light bulb … but, smoking and choking, he unrolls and unfolds himself only to try, try again.

I am convinced that finding a job in this Great Recession – which is what the future historians will call it – has been much like a Roadrunner cartoon where the job applicant has been the persistent Wile Coyote, the elusive job position has been the ‘now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t’ Roadrunner, and the exacting, extensive, specific requirements for each job have been the unexpected natural and unnatural obstacles that most certainly have gotten in the way, creating multiple Catch-22’s for the job seeker.

With so many unemployed and highly qualified applicants for each position, the Wile Coyote job seeker has had to maneuver his or her way through the maze of maddening men and women who have also been running from steam rollers, jumping out of the way of freight trains, dodging lightening bolts, diving away from falling boulders, leaping over gaping crevasses, and avoiding the deadly noose of a money driven mine field, engineered by the bottom line mentality and created by the hiring company as well as the financial challenges of the recession itself on so many businesses.

Take it from me. It has been insane … and painful with the occasional grinding of teeth and the hidden clenching of fists when the next business boulder falls. Various psychological studies have shown that anyone watching Roadrunner cartoons one after another for long periods of time will experience immense frustration bordering on insanity because the Coyote never wins, although the viewer wants him to. Navigating this new job market – which has been unlike any job market I have ever seen during my thirty-odd professional years – has caused similar frustration and angst to the point where many of my unemployed friends have dropped out altogether because they just can’t take it anymore. 

In 2009, the mainstay of the Phoenix business market – housing, followed by construction – took a nose dive, shaking everyone up pretty badly, myself included. Since my work was affected, I decided to move back to the greater Los Angeles job market which had proven itself to be somewhat resilient through many a recession in the past when I had lived there before. Unlike many other cities where jobs became scarce to non-existent, there were still jobs to apply for in Southern California and thank god there were. Unemployed and looking for work, I stepped unknowingly into the Roadrunner cartoon job market which had suddenly encompassed the whole country.

In the years between 2009 and 2012, I applied for over 2500 accounting and finance job positions (at least that’s when I stopped counting) in an area that included Los Angeles County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, San Diego County, Ventura County, and sometimes Santa Barbara County. For possible positions,  I used the website which pulled jobs from all the other large sites like Monster, Career Builder, Jobs, and, to name a few. The site would send all open accounting position listings for the last twenty four hours to me via e-mail every morning. I also used Craig’s List daily for each of the counties listed above and would spend between four and six hours day applying for work. In essence, it became a full time job looking for a job. The endeavor took persistence, patience, endurance, and focus … as well as a positive, hopeful attitude. 

On top of that, I went on more than 80 interviews for accounting and finance positions. Interviewers told me that they had received hundreds – sometimes thousands – of resume applications for one position (with the average being about 500 applicants per job opening.) I found those numbers to be truly daunting and some of my friends still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the true reality of the situation. Those that have not had to walk the cyber pavement looking for work  probably do not comprehend the depth or breadth of this recession nor do they grasp the full effects of it   I soon realized that the job market was a pure numbers game, whether I liked it or not. If I wanted to work, I had better pay attention to those numbers and satisfy the requirements for landing a job, no matter what it took. 

Halfway through the first year of job hunting, I watched television as the local news reported that, nationally, it took an average of 17 to 20 interviews to get one job offer in all fields. In a good job market years ago, I used to assume I would get hired after maybe three or four solid job interviews, but apparently those days were gone. With such a low probability of getting hired with each interview no matter how much experience or education a person had, I could no longer put my heart into each company meeting like I had done in the past when the economy was good. Expecting an interview to develop into a valid job offer would have flattened my ego much like those boulders flattened Wile Coyote. Knowing about those figures helped me detach, so that I no longer blamed myself for failing to land the job. I approached each interview as an opportunity to learn about the company and to enjoy the communication with the interviewer. If they happened to call me back with an offer, then I was very pleased.

I did keep count of my interviews because the closer I got to that magic number of 17 interviews, the greater my chances of getting hired. In the worst part of the recession, I was sending off maybe 5 to10 resumes a day for all those counties and as many as 10 to 25 or more a day when the economy started recovering.  My experience was that it took an average of between 20 and 40 resume submissions to get one interview. Since no one can ‘walk in’ to that many businesses in a day and most businesses have discouraged walk-ins and callers anyway because the sheer volume would jam the phone lines or fill the reception area, those kinds of numbers could only be satisfied with online submissions which has been the desired method – the only method – of applying for work. 

With having gone on around 80 interviews in a three year period, I should have been hired for only four jobs according to the figures – but was hired for six jobs, some of which were temporary assignments, some of which were permanent positions that ended up being temporary due to falling revenues and budget cuts, some were contract jobs that ended, some were part time and some were full time. It did not matter. All of them were good jobs – not ‘blue-chip’ jobs with benefits of which there were fewer and fewer out there – but good jobs anyway. I worked in a private education entity, in public accounting, and in a number of corporate businesses, both large and small, using numerous accounting software systems and dealing with many different types of products and services as well as people.

And the stress did not end with the hiring, by any means. Because the economy was acting so erratically, most companies, large or small, did not know what their revenues would be like month to month … and, by necessity, falling revenues one month invariably led to job cutting the next. The rule of thumb was that the new hires got the ax first, leaving those seasoned workers intact and largely unaware of their uninterrupted salary and wage blessings. The worker turn-over has been similar to a form of inventory control in accounting called LIFO or ‘Last In, First Out.’

Employment could not be assumed to be permanent either even though that’s what the hiring contract said. Business owners and managers were under as much economic stress, if not more, as the workers with many grave financial challenges just to keep the business solvent. If they had to cut workers, they had to cut workers – pure and simple. The uncertainty itself has been the greatest stressor because long term planning has been largely impossible for many, many people … especially those without resources in the bank to cushion the recessionary effects.

It has definitely been a numbers game where the early bird catches the worm. I usually got up at 5 am and started submitting resumes online by 6 am, so that my resume would be in the first batch of submissions received on the other end… and I would get calls to come in for interviews. Reviewers actually told me that they would pull out good applicants to call from the first 100 to150 or so, and would delete the rest without reading them because going through the resumes of 300 to 500 people applying for the position would have been too overwhelming for them, not to mention time consuming and costly. 

Like a Roadrunner cartoon, it became crazy out there and the Old School rules of applying for work did not apply anymore. A job seeker has had to think in terms of the company’s viewpoint to be successful with applying for and landing a job, not to mention being successful at surviving the multitude of rejections. Just imagine for a minute if you can a job market where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people applying for one position in any field. The traditional job seeking practice of walking in the company door to fill out an application will not work. Many companies have been demanding there be no walk-ins. In fact, they have begged job seekers not to show up in person because the reception area would be swamped with applicants and there would even be a line out to the street.

Also, imagine what would have happened if each applicant were to do a follow up phone call to the company to check on the status of their resume submission. The phone lines would be jammed, interfering with normal business operations. Many job listings have stated ‘absolutely no phone calls’ and ‘no walk-ins please!’ Some businesses have accepted e-mail inquiries, but the responses to those e-mail inquiries are few and far between due to the sheer volume of e-mails from well meaning, unaware applicants. The reviewers at the company have had to deal with hundreds and hundreds of resume submissions and they literally have not been able to read or respond to each of them, let alone respond to follow up inquiries. It truly has very little to do with the qualifications or competence of the applicant.

I believe that an applicant who has been able to see themselves as one of hundreds of highly qualified people applying for the position without losing self-confidence has been ahead of the game because they have been able to depersonalize rejection. If they have been a believer in being in control of their lives and having direct  influence on others to promote their own interests, chances are that they have probably had a very difficult time surviving this Roadrunner cartoon job market intact because personal control over situations like finding a job has been at an all-time low. 

In a good economy, a person can risk living in the myth that they each have created their own life’s blessings because everything around them would suggest that very thing. If they do this in a bad economy, they would probably end up flagellating themselves for every missed opportunity and each failed interview, ultimately leading to depression and a trashed ego. The problem with this Great Recession has not been the job seeker or their experience, education, and competence. It has been the sheer volume of unemployed people competing for the same job, which has had a negative influence on the effectiveness of their job search and that has sadly driven the wage and salary scales through the basement, among other things.

I have found that a job seeker can have some influence before the interview through a number of avenues. Interviewers have told me that they had pulled my resume out of the tall submission stack because it was well-written and had a strong first and second paragraph listing my major skill sets. They also have told me that the good grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like made my resume stand out from the crowd. Apparently, many resumes are sent out with spelling errors and incorrect punctuation. One interviewer for an accounting services firm made the comment: “You would not believe the sloppy nature of so many of the resumes I am receiving. It’s appalling.”

Also, a cover letter can summarize matching skill sets to the published list for the job position, but this avenue has also been touchy.  A few years ago, companies were actually asking people not to send cover letters with their resumes because they did not have the time to read them all, so I have been sending cover letters only to those companies that ask for them and just my resume to those who do not. I would advise job seekers to use their own judgment in this matter and to keep the cover letter to a few lines, out of deference to the time and attention of the reader on the other end who has hundreds to pour through. Only the actual interview with a face to face encounter and personal communication will have strong influence on the company reviewer. Until that point, the applicant is merely a number hiding behind a Word.doc or PDF, which has been hard for many job seekers to accept. Hopefully, that Word.doc or PDF resume has been edited to a polished, gleaming shine.

An interviewer located in Sherman Oaks that I talked to three years ago said he listed the company’s accounting job online at 6 am and had over 300 submissions by 10 am the same day, to the point where he had to delete the job ad because he was afraid his computer would crash. He told me he knew it was bad out there, but he had no idea how bad until he started receiving the overwhelming volume of resume submissions. He chose his potential interview candidates from the first fifty or so because that’s all he could handle. Because I started sending out resumes early in the morning, my resume was one of the first ones he received and he told me that’s why called me to come in. Jobs that have been listed online for over twenty four or forty eight hours may have already been filled but not deleted, so applying for those positions posted days ago may be a waste of time and energy. Companies have been operating short-handed to keep within budget and may not have the personnel to delete all filled job postings immediately.

A few years ago, I talked to a lawyer in Glendale that said he could only read the first couple of lines on the resume to decide whether to save it to his possible interview computer file or to delete it, so those first two or three lines had better count. He told me he had received so many resumes that he just deleted all of them after the first 100 without even opening them because reading all of them would take up more time than he had in a day. By and large, I found that the people listing open company positions were just as overwhelmed, shocked, and confused as most of the job seekers were at the sheer number of unemployed people looking for work. 

Anyone searching for the ‘perfect job’ has had to adjust to the new reality as well because most of those jobs have all but disappeared across the wide expanse called the Pacific Ocean and they have lost their ‘blue chip’ status in the process, dropping benefits and pensions into a watery grave. Such has been the new global market whether we like it or not. The ‘blue chip’ jobs that are still located in the country offering full benefits and forty hour work weeks have had the most applicants of all because people need healthcare coverage, want pensions, paid vacations, stock option plans, and on the list goes. Competition for those types of jobs has been extremely fierce. With so many people not being able to afford private healthcare insurance in this country, you can easily see why.

A year or so ago, one of the more well known corporations in the country whose name escapes me right now listed about 30 job openings and received 22, 000 applications for those 30 job positions. Now, there is no way that a corporation can sort through all those resumes unless they have employed Supermen with x-ray vision, so they must have just deleted thousands of resumes from highly qualified applicants because of the sheer numbers involved. Contrarily, the part time jobs, contract jobs, project jobs, and those positions that do not offer any benefits have had fewer applicants and less competition.

Another new development with the Roadrunner cartoon job market has been that companies have wanted resumes that go back at least ten years, which have detailed each job duty worked, each software system used, each skill set learned, and every special job contribution for each company. Some companies have wanted to see the salary or wage history for each job worked as well, making the new resume format much, much longer. The Old School single page resume has truly become obsolete. Many companies have not wanted an applicant to ‘sell themselves’ in the resume itself anymore either, preferring ‘nothing but the facts, man, nothing but the facts.’

I had an interviewer at a distribution company who preferred to go back beyond those ten years to the beginning of my work history, inquiring about jobs started during my college days … and that is ancient history! She pointed out a gap in employment between 1972 through 1980 and asked me why I was not working during those years. Wide eyed and biting my tongue before I said something stupid, I told her I was working … as a homemaker with a husband and three children, but could not list it on my resume because that type of work was not considered work back then … and still isn’t in many circles. She just stared at me, fumbling with her next question. She may not have known that homemakers didn’t work second outside jobs in those days like they do today and was puzzled. With a silent sigh, I chalked it off to a big generational gap in understanding and kept my mouth shut.

At the end of another meeting, I had the interviewer randomly ask me if I had any family responsibilities and I did a double take. Legally, I knew that  I did not need to answer that question; but I needed a job, so told her I was self supporting, divorced, and an emancipated homemaker because my children were all independent now … and added that my parents were both dead, in case she thought I had to care for them. She just smiled and nodded, mumbling something that sounded like ‘that’s good.’ The fact that I was speechless was maybe a good thing because who knows what I might have said in reply.

It has been illegal to ask those types of personal questions, but I swear the State Labor Department has been looking the other way in deference to a company that has been at least hiring some of the massive numbers of the unemployed out there. If the state had stepped in to fine the company and had taken them to court, they could have lost a few job positions during the legal process, so they may have chosen to ignore infractions. That type of question led me to believe that this specific company had wanted whoever they hired to be on call day and night, ready and willing to work long and late hours as well as weekends with no personal obligations besides work.

I had another interviewer tell me that, even though she knew I could do the job and do it well, she would truly have trouble telling me what to do as my immediate supervisor because she knew that my accounting experience and education were far greater than hers and I knew more than she did – to which I thanked her for her honesty and wished her a good day; then walked out the door. I had been thinking the same thing and appreciated her candor. It did not land me the job though.

At a bead company, I had an interviewer fall into the Old School default method of asking me the usual questions about corporate ambition, such as where I wanted to be in five years. I could not pass this one up, so I answered “Alive,” to which she gasped and stared like a deer in the headlights. At my age, I could be six feet under in five years. I just wanted to do my job and take home a paycheck – period. No climbing the corporate ladder. No competing for someone’s job position. Those games are things of the past… for me anyway.

One major factor has been difficult to accept – that companies have been checking an applicant’s credit history before they hire them. It’s not right. Most positions have demanded a good credit record in order to be qualified for the job. If a person has  lost a job due to downsizing and their home went into foreclosure because of non payment of the mortgage, they probably would have lost their good credit score as well, making it hard, if not almost impossible, for them to get hired at any job again or even to find a rental to live in. Unfortunately, bad credit has almost forced a person to fall through the cracks in society. It has been a Catch 22 where getting hired at a job would solve the credit problem and the living situation, but a person cannot be hired if they have bad credit nor can they rent a place to live. So what is a person supposed to do? Sit on the street corner with a tin cup? Or stand at a freeway interchange off-ramp holding a sign asking for work? Or live in a motel which does not conduct a credit check before they will rent a room? Many have done just that.

Another Catch-22 has been that the longer a person has been out of work, the less likely they have been to get hired. I am convinced that companies have assumed most people are brain dead to have forgotten software used for years within a few months of getting laid off. Logical or not, that’s why the companies defer to those applicants who have recently been laid off and can still remember how to do their job … or even candidates who happen to be working at a job they do not like and want to switch companies. Some job ads I have seen have stated they want applicants that were still employed and would not consider those that have been laid off. I don’t understand their reasoning here at all because it has compounded the problem and punished those who need work the most. It’s sad, but true.

Also, it has seemed that the higher the degree held by a candidate combined with a lengthy experience over the years has not helped them to get hired, but has actually interfered with them landing the job due to the assumption that the salary expectations on the part of the well educated and experienced applicant are higher.  Because the bottom line has ruled for many years, companies have been looking for people who will work for much lower pay or people who will even intern at the job for nothing, like recent college grads, who may have family financial support … and people who will be loyal to their jobs over a lifetime. If the business were to hire an overly qualified applicant for a position paying less, the interviewers have assumed that the higher educated workers would bail out on them when they found a job that offered more money and prestige … and maybe they have been right. So they have overlooked the person with the higher degree and more lengthy experience by default.

The Mickey D’s fast food and Wal-Mart retail companies have had a similar attitude toward the higher educated and experienced applicants because they have also assumed the overly qualified worker won’t stay at a low paying job for very long and these businesses want loyalty over a life time as well. There have just been too many unemployed people applying for the job who do not have the education and who will work for minimum wage for the company to even bother with a college graduate. These people will easily be hired under the assumption they will stay with the company because they have no other options. The days when a person could find a lower paying, easy job to fill in the financial gap until they found the position of their choice are gone.

A friend of a relative of mine was working at a high paying job a few years ago and she was laid off. After looking for work for months to no avail, she decided to apply at Costco for a minimum wage job to bring in at least some income. She had to wait in line with hundreds of other potential applicants just to pick up a paper application. Apparently, those types of jobs have not been listed online and have been specific to the Costco location, so a person has had to stand in line with everyone else. When she filled it out, she sent in her application which joined hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications at the Costco corporate office. Her application must have gotten lost in cyberspace because she never ever heard anything from the company… or it was trashed because she was overqualified for the position.

A frustrating Catch 22 has been the fact that learning curve and job training do not exist anymore. The new hire has had to hit the ground running with the computer software system as well as with the job duties, and has had to be almost psychic as to what the company procedures and paperwork handling methods are. This has made it hard for the unemployed to change career direction because most, if not all, listed jobs have required at least two or three years experience in that field, with the same number of years using the specific company software, and executing at least 80% of the position’s job duties. An applicant has had to be an expert in the use of many software systems as well as business fields to be half decently successful at getting interviews, let alone obtaining the job.

Another unexpected Catch 22 has been the requirement that applicants have had to live within a ten mile radius of the work site to be considered for a specific position. Los Angelinos have always taken pride in their long commutes to work and where they had chosen to live has never been a deterrent for getting hired before … but it definitely has been in this Great Recession. For those who had bought a house or condo out in the Inland Empire where the unemployment rate verged on 15% plus and where most of the manufacturing jobs were almost completely eliminated, this specific requirement has left many laid off homeowners in limbo. If they have needed to find work, they have owned a home in an area where there have been very few jobs … but their resumes sent to where the jobs are 30 miles away have been discounted by companies with open positions because the applicant lives too far away. How are they going to find a job? The truth is they probably have not been able to … unless they have sold the house and moved to where the jobs are.

In a good economy, it can be who a job seeker knows that can get them the job. In this  recessionary economy where potential candidates park out overnight along the walkway leading to the corporate door, many companies have been frowning upon nepotism to the point where attempting to get hired for a position by going through a friend or relative has actually worked to the applicant’s disadvantage, not to mention to the employee’s disfavor. Because there have been so many applicants for one position, companies have not had to deal with hiring personal connections anymore and, in some cases, have even told their employees that it is against company policy to consider friends and relatives for available jobs. They have been assured of finding a good candidate for the position from the hundreds of highly qualified applicants lined up outside the front door, so why bother with friends and relatives? That can get messy.

Many job listings have also required Linked In pages or even Face Book pages in the past few years. I have both, and have actually listed my Linked In page on my resume. From a positive stance, businesses have wanted employees that have been social network savvy and requiring those sites has been an easy way to determine if the applicant is just that. From a negative stance, the companies have used the personal pictures on these sites to profile applicants. This brings me to another very important issue. Company interviewers have been literally overwhelmed with applicants and have had to eliminate resumes by whatever means they can in order to be able to handle them all, so they have done what any human would do. They go into what I call default mode, many times unknowingly, to eliminate applicants by profiling them – by race, age, and ethnic affiliation. 

In order to understand how this has worked in the job market, one only needs to research the unemployment figures for blacks and Native Americans to realize those unemployment figures are the highest in the nation. An educated, experienced acquaintance of mine told me he knew certain areas of Southern California tended to hire only Caucasian workers, so he would not apply for positions in those areas. And he said he could tell in the first few minutes whether the interviewer would consider a person of color for that position. I had to tell him that I had never had occasion to be concerned about the color of my skin when I applied for work and had never entertained the notion of having to deal with that type of stress as well as the stress of the interview itself. The color of our skin is something we have no control over and I can only imagine the frustration he has had to experience with his job search.

Ethnic considerations have been harder to pinpoint, but my first name has Persian roots and I have suspected that a few interviews I have had for Persian owned businesses were influenced by my name because the interviewer might have thought I was Persian … until I walked in the door and they saw I was definitely not from the Middle East, but was a Viking in disguise. The truth of the matter has been that people work best with other people like themselves and managers have tended to hire people like themselves as well, even in a non-recession. In a good economy, these issues will not be major issues and hiring managers generally have been more encompassing of differences (at least in the greater Los Angeles area); but, in this recessionary economy where everyone is over worked, overwhelmed, and fear-based, blatant discrimination has loomed its head high.

As far as age has been concerned, I think it has had influence on the mature worker’s ability to be hired by corporations especially. The normal corporate practices have been to encourage, if not force, older employees into retirement at a certain age, so they can replace them with much younger workers who will do the job for less than half the price. The companies have also preferred the younger applicant who will cost them less as far as their medical insurance coverage is concerned. It has become all about fitting the younger worker into the company mold, a reality that older workers are less likely to embrace. 

Another deterrent to the mature worker has been the corporate emphasis on ‘teamwork’ because a team works best when its members have a similar view of life and can co-ordinate their viewpoints into one goal. A team where the median age is 35 would have trouble functioning with a person who is 55 because their experiences both with work and life differ drastically and they do not even like the same music. An older worker will be also less likely to believe the myths generated by the corporate world whereas the younger worker needs to believe in them to function well.

So many job ads I have seen have stated they want a candidate who will grow with them. The assumption on the part of the interviewer has been that the younger, educated workers have the years left to ‘grow with the company’ and will choose to stay at that particular corporation for a lifetime. Recent studies have shown quite the opposite – that the younger workers desire challenge and change more than stability and longevity – but old assumptions die hard. 

Each of these Catch 22’s in the hiring process have been like the speeding trains, bouncing boulders, gaping canyons, chugging steam rollers, hanging ropes, and cracking lightening bolts targeting the Wile Coyote job seeker  when he has gotten close to catching the elusive Roadrunner job position. I truly think the economy is slowly getting better, but not fast enough to employ all those unemployed people who need work now. Until the economy recovers completely, it will be a Roadrunner Cartoon Job market out there. The one big difference between the cartoons and this recessionary job market is that the latter is not funny at all.