Monday, October 30, 2006

Job Fair Fandango

With the specter of a Christmas at the Spendorama Department Store looming on my horizon, I have spent many a recent day off jumpstarting my errant job search. Trolling the want ads and job search websites has been as productive as it’s ever been—i.e., not at all. I did, however, spy a listing which gave me a sliver of hope to cling to. “JOB FAIR!” it screamed in block letters. “OVER 70 POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS! BRING YOUR RESUME AND FIND YOUR FUTURE!”

The idea of a job fair appeals to me. There’s a refreshing cut-the-crapness to it all. It bypasses the tedious resume/cover letter tango and fast-forwards straight to that heavyweight championship of bullshitting, the job interview. Or more accurately, the pre-interview. Nobody actually gets hired at a job fair. Companies use job fairs to identify and separate the Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street” candidates from the Charlie Sheen in Real Life candidates. Those whose backgrounds most resemble that of the “Bud Fox” character get penciled in for a sit-down with the HR person. Those bearing a likeness to Sheen the Machine himself walk away with the company extension of the weird-smelling fat chick in the secretarial pool, hardy har-har.

And so, once more into the breech. A few days later, your intrepid correspondent showed up in his best bib and tucker at the designated locale of the job fair, a local junior college. Many years before, the English Department of this same school had been the scene of a few academic triumphs of mine. A couple of my instructors there had predicted Big Things for young Johnny in the near future. I hadn’t been back to the campus since then. But many of those teachers had had tenure, which meant they hung on there like barnacles to the side of a battleship. For those reasons, I studiously avoided the Liberal Arts building and proceeded directly to the job fair in the Student Union.

The job fair itself, I found, was no big deal. The easy chairs, couches and tables that usually constituted a Study Area on the Union’s main floor (I remembered, circa 1990) had been removed. They had been replaced by a series of folding tables and chairs, arranged along the walls in a giant “U” shape. At each table sat 1-2 representatives of each company, along with some company brochures and promo materials. Each table displayed a big white card on which a number had been scrawled in black marker. Each number corresponded to a company’s listing on a photocopied map every fair attendant was handed at the fair entrance by a pair of bluejeaned, T-shirted twentyish girls who were bored with a capital ‘B’ by all us old farts.

For the sake of time and space, I’ll ask you now to imagine this scenario as a segment from one of those lighthearted, upbeat comedies of the late 1980s/early 1990s, the kind that would’ve starred a young Rob Lowe or Michael J. Fox. Envision me winding my way through the crowd, map in hand, stopping at various tables to kiss ass and drop off my resume. Imagine, also, an appropriate song playing in the background—“Higher Ground” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff” or John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” would fit the bill. Yes, Kindred Souls, it’s the infamous “musical montage” scene, with one new wrinkle—me ducking into the men’s room, at the end, to pound my head on the sink in frustration.

Why, you might ask, was I frustrated? I’ll hit the highlights:

• It would be a nice touch, doncha think, if the company representatives could actually describe the job openings for which their employers were seeking applicants? I asked one woman what duties the “customer service representative” position entailed. Her face contorted into a mystified mask. “Um, well, helping customers, I guess. That’s Deidre’s department and she’s running late today.”

• Company representatives should view a job fair as the networking opportunity it is for them, as well as the job seeker. That means they shouldn’t immediately set fire to the bridges behind them. I attempted to give a copy of my copyediting resume to a guy representing a major suburban newspaper. He refused. “Editorial hasn’t had an opening in at least six months,” he said, pushing the page back at me. “Probably won’t for a year.” That doesn’t mean that they won’t. People quit, retire or go on personal leave every day, dude. Way to crush any and all semblance of hope I might have. With an attitude like that, no wonder that stack of subscription blanks sitting on your table seemed to be so thick.

• In every job search book or class that I’ve read/taken, the importance of collecting business cards whilst networking has been stressed in them all. Why: collect cards, follow them up with handwritten “thank-you” cards and make an impression on potential employer’s memory. But you can only collect business cards if the company reps have business cards on hand to distribute. The ratio of business cards to names/numbers scribbled on Post-It’s I collected there: 1-3. Job seekers are expected to be prepared; company reps should be, too.

• When choosing a person to represent their company, bosses should pick experience over youthful enthusiasm. When scoping out a potential employer, I’d rather talk to a battle-tested veteran than a raw recruit (see first bullet-point above). At most of the job fairs I’ve been to, the average age of the fair attendant was 35. At this fair, tables manned by monosyllabic Gen Y’ers slouched over Blackberries were left pretty much alone. Captains of industry, it looks bad when you farm the task of recruiting out to the newest, lowest-paid drones on your payroll. Give a damn, huh?

• I know this is an election year. I realize that, frequently, the majority party foots the bill for these sorts of activities. But the last thing on the job seeker’s mind is the partisan issues du jour. On the way in to the fair, I met three caffeine-amped fat cats up for reelection who shook my hand too hard and loaded me down with handbills, free pens, coupons for fast food restaurants and campaign slogans. On the way out, I met a couple more. For being such pains in the ass, I will make a point of NOT voting for any of them.

All in all, I spent about an hour there and handed out a half-dozen resumes. That was almost a week ago and I have yet to hear back on any of them. I did, however, meet a young woman representing the fine people at Best Buy. I rarely shop at Best Buy. Hell would freeze over twice before I’d work there. But the young lady bore a resemblance to Helena Bonham Carter in non-creepy mode and she was a lively conversationalist. I guess it was the suit I was wearing, as I was able to weasel a cell phone number out of her. It wasn’t, I later found out, her cell phone number. But she thought enough of me to make an effort and that’s what counts.

So the job fair wasn’t a total loss. Almost, but not totally.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Syrup and Sprinkles

Once, this was common. It happened every day and you didn’t even think about it. You walked into a store—any store—and selected some merchandise. You proceeded to the checkout counter. There, you and the cashier had an exchange much like this one:

CASHIER: (Rings up your merchandise.) Hello. Did you find everything you needed today?

YOU: Yes, thank you.

CASHIER: (Bags your merchandise.) Wonderful! With tax, your total is $XX.XX.

YOU: (Reaching for your money.) Here you go.

CASHIER: (Takes your money, makes change, hands it back to you. Hands you your bag of merchandise.) Your change is $XX.XX. Thank you for shopping with us. Have a good day!

YOU: Thanks, you too. (You leave the store.)

Even on the busiest day, it took no more than a couple of minutes. You got your stuff, the store got your money and everybody was happy. Plain n’ simple as that.

Think: when is the last time you had an exchange like the above when you bought something at a store—any store? Doesn’t matter if it’s books, groceries, fast food or that funky lotion your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend buys at the Adult Toy Shoppe. It’s NEVER plain n’ simple as that anymore. Not even close.

Take, for example, my recent experience at the Dippy-Whip Ice Cream Parlor. It was around 11:30 on a Saturday morning. Passing by and nursing a sugar jones, I stopped in. The place had just opened; I believe I was their first customer that day.

I walked in and was immediately struck by the sweet smell of fresh sugar cones. Everything—the walls, the floor tile, the counter, the tables—seemed to be white and/or silver and sparkling clean. Three employees, all clad in Dippy-Whip’s trademark red aprons and caps, stood behind the counter in front. All guys and all of maybe twenty years old. One guy’s cap had the word ‘Manager’ printed on it in white script letters. As I neared the counter, I stumbled on to the following conversation:

MANAGER: (Sorted through a big milk crate filled with bananas.) Hey, there’s only two dozen in here! Which one of you phawkers was supposed to count bananas last night?

EMPLOYEES: (They looked at each other and shrugged.) Dunno.

MANAGER: You lazy cock-knockers! Can’t you even count? What if we have a run on ‘nana splits? Well, you can bet your ass I’m not the one running to Dominick’s if we run out! Is the shake machine up and ready?

EMPLOYEES: (They looked at each other and shrugged.) Dunno.

MANAGER: (He smacked his forehead.) What the phawk?!? You guys have been here for an hour! You were supposed to open—‘open,’ a verb, meaning ‘action,’ as in ‘do something besides stand around and scratch your balls ‘til I get here!’ I ought to fire both of you bitches! You worthless mother—

Then the manager noticed me standing there, smiling politely.

MANAGER: OOOOOOhhh, hel-LO, sir! Lovely day, isn’t it? How may we serve you today, sir?

Turning 180° on a dime, he’d transformed from Gomer Pyle’s raging, ball-busting Sergeant Carter to the grinning, buttsmooching Eddie Haskell. In other words, a typical retail manager.

I scanned the menu. Lots of good stuff, as usual. Someday, I’m going to work up the nerve to try an “Old-Fashioned Sundae”, whatever the hell that may be. But I’m a creature of habit, so I went with my old stand-by.

ME: I’ll have a Hot Fudge Sundae to go, please.

Now, I had exact change. All Eddie Haskell had to do was ring me up while his two minions scooped and dollopped and sprayed and sprinkled all the appropriate stuff in all the appropriate quantities in a paper cup. And to their credit, once they’d heard my order, the two minions set to work doing just that. Surprising industry for Gen Y’ers, I must say. But Eddie Haskell wasn’t ringing me up. Young Edward had other priorities in mind.

MANAGER: Excuse me, sir, but do you have a Dippy-Whip Card?

ME: No.

MANAGER: (He smiled so widely, the edges of his mouth touched his ears.) I respectfully urge you to allow me to sell you one today. With a Dippy-Whip Card, you get a 5% discount on each and every purchase. And with every purchase you put on your Dippy-Whip Card, you earn 3 Dippy-Whip Credit Points that—

ME: No thanks. Just the sundae, please.

MANAGER: Would you like a free sample of our new Halloween pumpkin-flavored ice cream, sir?

ME: No thanks. Pumpkin makes me puke.

MANAGER: Sorry to hear that, sir. Then how ‘bout an advanced free sample of our special Christmas cinnamon and nutmeg milkshake? Starting in November, it’ll be available in quart and half-gallon bottles. It’s the perfect treat for those holiday get-togethers with loved ones!

ME: No.

MANAGER: Need any milk? Butter? Eggs?

ME: No.

MANAGER: (He pointed to his red cap.) Like our caps? Now, for a limited time only, the world famous Dippy-Whip caps are being made available to our valued customers for the low price of $19.95 each! $17.95 for Dippy-Whip Card holders. . .

ME: The sundae. Only. Please.

My ice cream finally arrived, nestled in a crisp, white paper bag. Only then did young Edward surrender and ring me up. We did the cash-change-receipt square dance. I thanked him and headed, quickly, for the door.

MANAGER: (He called after me.) Sir, do you have a long way to drive? That sundae might melt. For only $22.50, you can buy a special Dippy-Whip insulated vinyl bag. It handily keeps cold stuff cold and warm stuff warm! Sir? Sir. . .

I was already in the parking lot and halfway to my car. I had no time for Eddie Haskell’s bullshit.

Weekend days were prime times for hooking suckers on new Spendorama credit cards. We’re “required” to open at least one for every 20 hours we work. I hadn’t opened any in over a week and my name had been posted on the “Nonproductive” list in the employees’ lounge. Already, two Spendorama employees I hired on with had been fired for “Nonparticipation” in the New Credit Account Program.

I had to get home, eat my sundae and get ready for work. I had syrup and sprinkles of my own to shovel.