Thursday, November 18th, 2010

What Fiona Did to Get Her Dream Job

A friend of mine recently graduated with a degree in public relations, minor in journalism. It was a pragmatic concentration balance on its face: one of these fields represented at least a modicum of investment toward gainful employment, the other did not. In a different time, my friend, we’ll call her Fiona, may have given herself over to the romantic notion of the well-traveled journalist, marrying her wanderlust and literary inclinations to a desire to do something in the interest of the public good. But she believed in realism and clear-eyed ambition. Cautious that the budgets to buoy any latent journalistic aspirations had gone the way of the dodo, she chose PR—a field that promised both a creative environment and corporate stability.

But despite her pragmatism, Fiona, like most graduates of ’09 and the surrounding years, found entering the workforce to be an uphill battle.

Even after mining her modest network and sending out numerous applications, job prospects remained anemic. She continued her old gig as a waitress for months after earning her degree, grinning at an endless churn of needy customers when not checking online career sites like a day-trader checks the Dow. Finally, she got a call about an internship. Though it paid modestly, and was only guaranteed to last a few months, Fiona began to think of the position as her dream job.

At first, the hiring process proceeded as normal; or at least in a way that any person hazarding first steps into the real world might have perceived to be normal: A resume here, a reference check there, followed by a first round of interviews. Fiona was nervous in the way that all post-collegiate twentysomethings are nervous—in seemingly a tick of the clock, she could suddenly feel the entire weight of her future balancing awkwardly on her shoulders. But she remained confident. An internship with a mid-level PR firm. Certainly it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

Then came the “Social Media Challenge.”

“Our industry is changing,” said the prospective employers explaining the twist. “Social media has become an essential front in stakeholder interaction. We need to see how skillful and creative you are with these tools.”

At first blush, the challenge sounded to Fiona, who quietly nursed a raging Facebook addiction like everyone else she knew, like fun: Log in to a special Facebook page and get as many people to “Like” you as possible. But it wasn’t merely a game.

Fiona was told that she was one of two remaining applicants being considered by the company. The “Social Media Challenge” would not be conducted in some isolated spare office space at her potential place of business, but as a public, week-long contest between her and her competitor for anyone, including and especially her friends and family, to see. If and when she won the challenge, it would increase her chances of getting hired.

It hasn’t always been this way. Somewhere in the history of recruiter/recruitee relations, between the advent of “The Apprentice” and the decline of the global financial industry, the rules of the game took a turn for the dramatic. Beyond simple supply-and-demand, securing a job today—even those of the less-than-glamorous variety—has become something akin to a tooth-and-nail fight to the death in the Roman Colosseum: a spectacle of personal desperation for audiences either real or imagined.

Fiona isn’t alone. You don’t have to look far for stories of some un-moneyed, highly-educated kid making an ass of himself to stand a chance. A friend who graduated in marketing went flying across the country for an interview, only to have it capriciously canceled before he even touched down. The stories’ subjects are unusual, but their dramas ring familiar—like the time Robin and Shannon faced elimination for not taking their clothes off; or when the band members had to walk to Brooklyn to get Diddy his favorite cheesecake.

It used to be that this kind of do-anything, fuck-anyone standard was reserved for society’s fringe dreamers who are by definition delusional, like musicians and models and actors. But with the level of unemployment teetering at the brim, and after a decade of television executives at Bravo, MTV and the networks milking every profession and aspirational desire for human drama, it’s no wonder that even white collar employers have begun to see their sudden wealth of applicants in a new light.

Anyone who’s ever been unintentionally unemployed knows that it doesn’t take long for the thorny spores of desperation to take root and self-propagate. Anything for an edge. Anything to stand out from the tired, poor, huddled masses willing to work for free. When others have no boundaries, one fears the need to take off their clothes or face elimination. It seems that many with jobs to offer have not only come to expect this behavior, but are comfortable enough to openly encourage it.

We’re told that the recession ended over a year ago. That unemployment is a lagging indicator. What we need now is a collective call for common decency: for job seekers to come up off their knees and unlearn the terrible demands of the downturn. Because a job is a privilege, but a post-graduate internship is not a dream. The longer HR departments and midlevel executives get to play Diddy and Trump, the longer we’re all screwed.

Fiona lost the Social Media Challenge. This was doubly offensive considering the social capital she had expended transforming herself into the kind of person who brazenly self-promotes on Facebook. But her talent had not gone unnoticed, and the firm decided to hire her for the internship anyway. Three blissfully employed months passed. Then, when the internship had run its course, Fiona was told that the company could not afford to offer her a job. In her exit interview, she complained about the hiring process, which she said reflected poorly on the firm. They bought her a chocolate good-bye cake.

O.C. Ugwu has held four cutthroat positions since graduating in journalism two years ago and is bracing for his fifth. He lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by David Goehring from Flickr.

12 Comments / Post A Comment

Rw (#1,458)

The saying "If you Don't want to get screwed, don't bend over" seems to fit here. When given the choice between destitution and prostitution when you choose the latter you can't really be mad that the trick doesn't offer a hankey to wipe the jizz from your chin at the completion of the transaction. The good news is that there are always more than two choices in life if you can widen your narrow avenue hopes or dreams or what the hell ever you call it, at least in terms of being the kind of sycophant who has some sort of timetable of achievement in life. College kids can Kiss my ass. That last part was a joke… sort of. Don't be a pussy, don't compromise your personal integrity (if you learned any in college hahaha), get kicked off the show and give the panel the finger on the way out the door and/or for fun stick your, in my case, dick in the chocolate cake on the way out the door, after enjoying the first slice of course.

pemulis (#903)

The saying "smug, semi-incoherent old people are the worst" seems to fit here.

Rw (#1,458)

It's called a rant kiddo.

metoometoo (#230)

Smug, semi-incoherent rants are the worst, then?

Rw (#1,458)

Oh you self serious kids are no fun. No wonder no one wants to hire you. Also, semi-incoherent, this is a compliment right? maybe I should add LOL so y'all will relax, I know that's hard when you're not sure how you're gonna pay the rent… lol?

TheGreatHoudini (#8,676)

Goddammit, Great Uncle Wally, who let you into the liquor cabinet?

Rw (#1,458)

There's a comment with some spunk, now come sit on your favorite Uncle's lap.

TheGreatHoudini (#8,676)

Only if you promise not to stick your dick in my chocolate cake.

Word to Rw. The fact she didn't step out at the very mention of something called a "Social Media Challenge" indicates that Fiona's journalistic instinct/bullshit meter is faulty, or perhaps was incorrectly calibrated during her years on the Strat. Com. track. In any case, she is destined for failure. Thanks for sharing.

a not-old person who went to journalism school and feels no sympathy for this Fiona character

pemulis (#903)

I was in charge of hiring a new editor recently. While we didn't have them do any "Social Media Challenges," we did have some of the best candidates do a writing test, which took about 4 hours of their time and we paid nothing for.

If we were a print magazine, we would have just had them do some freelance and give a kill fee if what they turned in was truly unusable. But new media, the margins are so low, and we have so little budget to toss around, we can't do that. But not one of the candidates balked for even a second at giving us half a working day for free.

Fiona's journalistic instinct/bullshit meter probably told her that a "Social Media Challenge" was horseshit. Her experience in the job market probably told her that this was still going to be one of the few chances she would get to find gainful employment. We got over 400 resumes for the entry-level editor position. We will not be hiring another in 2011. Things are rough all over. The least we can do is have a little sympathy for those that are still struggling to find a job and pay rent, and a little anger for dipshits who would compare them to whores.

Rw (#1,458)

First of all, I did not compare anyone to a "whore", I compared the person in the story to a "whore" who was angry at a John who did not offer a kindness that fell outside of the agreed upon business transaction for effect, I think there is a difference and by the way I don't look down on "whores" as you would seem to based upon the resonance of your last sentence, where is your empathy now? The metaphor was used playfully and I figure that pains you. Sorry.
It's your right to find my comment tasteless or not at all funny and You are entitled to your opinion about me as a person based on a comment on the internet. I know that in the haze of your self-seriousness and self-importance you feel empathy for the 399 poor souls you've run through the ringer for naught, but you have misplaced your self-righteous anger. In actuality if you knew me at all you'd know I have nothing but empathy for those struggling in this economy, more than you could ever know. It is the stink of entitlement that would make me grimace and feel that jokes in the neighborhood would be acceptable.
Simply because someone graduated with a major in whatever, it does not mean that they are promised work in their chosen field or work at all, because that is not the world we live in now and really never has been a world anyone has known. I love the story at the top of your screed Here's another story:
Imagine fielding countless phone calls from seasoned producers, camera people and other techs nearly twice your age looking for work because networks and other outlets are offloading them wholesale for the much cheaper and younger one man band options after decades of dedicated work, these people have children and mortgages fuck rent. And they have these things in a world where freelancer work harder at longer hours for less pay. Sometimes they are thrown to the wolves with severance packages or sometimes nothing at all. Over the phone and sometimes in person I must dismiss them with a worthless apology that truly comes from somewhere near the bottom of my heart. It has been me and can be/will be me again.

Indeed Things are TOUGH all over. I'll see your dipshit and raise you a sycophantic (because it worked so well the first time), status quo worshiping, assumptive prick who's panties bunch when the wind blows. You want to pay the rent you hustle that's how it goes for everyone. You don't always get your dream job right out of the box, in fact, that rarely happens to my knowledge. Real life is a bitch and I don't think it's out of bounds to be playful about it when confronted with wave after wave of stories about soft handed new grads bitching about practices that they participate in and regret later on.
I should say that I wholeheartedly agree with the idea presented in the article, in terms of,a call for a "return" to decency in regard to Hiring practices, not just within the job field discussed here, but across the board. Your comment structure was beautiful. Stay serious.

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