Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Donkey Kong economy

Since my return from Denmark in February I have enjoyed the dubious pleasure of the modern job-hunting process. It's over now; in two weeks I'll be going to work as a municipal planner for the downtown core. It's exactly the kind of thing I got into planning to do and I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm keenly aware of how fortunate I've been and how easily it's gone; three months, thirty CV's, seven interviews, and at least two offers (one has yet to get back to me.)

Considering there's a Great Depression on, not too shabby.

Nonetheless, it was a miserable, hateful experience that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I have been told that people who survived the first Great Depression were forever scarred by the experience and I believe it. Being out of work for even a couple of months makes you question every decision you've ever made. Granted, I'm generally an anxious person but I also had some savings in the bank, no debts, cheap rent, no kids and minimal overhead. I had it easy and still it was tough.

The worst aspect of job-hunting, at least in the modern economy, is the completely one-sided flow of information. You find a posting, tailor your resume and write a punchy cover letter, make your application and then you wait. If you're lucky, there's some kind of signal that your application has in fact been received. Often, however, there is no such signal. Silence, emptiness, a black abyss with the occasional tumbleweed.

To the extent that anyone even wants a resume anymore, they usually want you to apply electronically--i.e. to send your CV by email. This raises a whole host of interesting compatibility issues. I'm running Mac OS X, which means that the version of Microsoft Word to which I have access is a buggy, crashy mess that can only be relied upon to screw up your formatting. Send someone a CV to be opened on Windows and God knows what it will look like. Alternately, you can print to a PDF but again, the results there are uneven. If formatting matters, the process of applying electronically offers no guarantee that even your best efforts will count for anything.

That's if you get to send a CV at all. I found that a lot of places I applied now use online application forms. First and foremost, they make everything you've ever learned about writing an eye-catching resume almost completely irrelevant. On these forms it's about shoehorning as many keywords into the text field as you can, because the initial short list will be created by a computer program that looks for resumes that seem to be most congruent with the job description. (Perversely enough, we're back to where we were in high school, where the jobs you'd apply for were in the form of... well, a form. We learned to write CV's because "real" jobs require it. Now it turns out that even senior management positions want you to fill in the blanks, like they were applying to run the shake machine at McDonald's...)

That's assuming the application even gets received. Half of the online forms I used were glitchy. If I backed up a screen to change something and then tried to go forward, I found that all my information had been erased. If I tried to start again, the software informed me that I had already applied for that position. The problem wasn't that my information would vanish--that was annoying, but I could deal with it. The problem was that I didn't know where it went. Did the information I just lost end up in the file before it was erased, or did I just submit an application with a big blank field where my work history is supposed to go? Often there is no way of knowing, no way of finding out.

I thought of the old video game Donkey Kong, wherein a working-class schmuck has to run an obstacle course while trying to outsmart a computer-simulated ape. If he gets to the end of the course, his reward is to be kicked to a new obstacle course where he has to beat a slightly faster version of the ape. This continues indefinitely, until Mario is killed one too many times or the player runs out of quarters. But Mario never reaches his goal; the game is not programmed for that eventuality.

I realize that the human resources field is fraught with its own challenges. The various online applications, electronic submission processes, text scanning and even the deafening radio silence are all deemed necessary to manage the flood of applications for various positions--especially now. HR people are as overworked as anybody.

But I really question whether the technology is helping or hindering the process. The more hoops you make people jump through, the more you are selecting people on the basis of their ability to jump through hoops. Like an IQ test, job applications test an ability that is sort of related but not the same as the thing you really want to know, namely, can this person do the job? Just because someone can get the high score on Donkey Kong, does that mean they're qualified to take care of apes at the zoo? It seems to me that these are two very different skill sets!

By extension, I wonder what happens when most of the key responsibilities in a civilization are held by people whose essential skill is successfully applying for jobs. We have some serious problems to deal with. I worry that the best people might not be in a position to deal with them because they've put too much effort into e.g. learning how to adapt to climate change, and not enough into the art of evading the flaming barrels of the HR department.