Thursday, 17 February 2011

Inflexible Attitude, Hates a Challenge

There is currently a job vacancy in my department. We need someone, employed part-time, to apply ownership stamps to the new books, make and stick on the spine labels, carry out running repairs to damaged stock, plus a few other "processing" tasks. It's a vital role, but like most vital jobs on which the smooth running of an institution depend, it's also a very junior post and composed of rather repetitive manual tasks.

For the right person, though, it can be a good match. For over a decade, the job was done by a pleasant, placid and dependable woman who sat enthroned behind piles of books, and contentedly worked with her scissors, tape, rubber stamps, and sticky labels. When she retired, we employed two rather adventurous women to share the job, whose frequent and exciting holidays in places like Nepal and Peru became the stuff of legend. The most recent postholder was an artist, who has now left us to beef up her qualifications and concentrate on her "real" career (I hope, for her sake, she doesn't ever need to come back).

So, we advertised the post. And got 327 applications. Which is a record. By some margin.

Now, I don't want to seem ungrateful. It's nice that so many people want to work for me in this humble but vital capacity. But it's a real Sign o' the Times that so many people have applied, clearly without much thought about what the job involves. With our new online job application setup, all the applicant has to do is to attach a CV, tick a few boxes, and write some words about "why I want this job". My favourite application, in its entirety, reads "Looks like a nice job". Really? So glad. Next!

For me, reading through these applications is a rollercoaster mix of hilarity, sadness, incredulity and, at times, anger. Obviously, you get a very skewed view of someone's life just reading their CV in combination with a self-promotional puff. But, after a bit, some typical trajectories emerge that have led 327 people, often highly-qualified by any standards, to apply for a job stamping and sticking labels on books. I have sympathy for them all, as I can see a bit of myself in all of them.

There's the degree in an exciting subject -- archaeology, say -- followed by an MA and maybe a PhD, then a little unpaid or part-time teaching, then a string of McJobs in wine-bars and restaurants to pay the rent. Sadly, the world has a diminishing need for humanities academics, archaeologists, and similar trades. Being "over-qualified" can quickly come to seem a curse, rather than the blessing it ought to be.

Then there are the steady careers, often in IT, cut short after 15 years by redundancy, and potential high-flyers in professions like accountancy, law or teaching, burned out by depression or some other unstated but probably stress-related illness. I imagine they anticipate a nice recuperative period in a library from Central Casting, an oasis of whispered calm, surrounded by leather-bound tomes. Sorry.

I see lots of highly capable women, short on qualifications, and frustrated by serial "glass ceiling" jobs as temps and PAs, and a male prejudice against career breaks for childcare. Perhaps rightly, they hope a female-dominated profession will be more sympathetic to their aspirations. Wrongly, they imagine this job as a foot on a ladder that may yet take them to the top.

Next up, the genial slackers, waking up to reality a decade or two too late, and the compulsive job-hoppers, with CVs long enough for three normally-restless people. Hey, how hard can it be to get a job in a library? Reading all day -- cool! No, really: people actually fantasise out loud about looking forward to getting down to some serious paid reading. In your dreams.

Then there are the applicants who have taken a degree, then postgraduate professional library qualifications, but can find no professional post in a stagnant job market. They know this is not a professionally-graded job, but apply anyway. At least it's in a library! This is like an aspiring footballer taking a job as a groundsman, or a would-be journalist working in the newspaper canteen -- a strategy that may have worked in 1951, but not in 2011.

It's hard not to be affected by the unwitting foolishness, the glum despair, and sometimes the bitterness, displayed by many of these applications. But in 25 years I have only once shortlisted somebody because I felt sorry for them. So, based on those 25 years of experience in recruitment, here's my Idiotic Guide to Job Applications:

1. Apply for the job on offer, not some other job you'd rather have.

2. Take the trouble to find out what the job is before applying.

3. Decide whether you really want the job that is really on offer before applying.

4. Are you:

a). A highly motivated individual who is willing to try new ideas, and who responds well to pressure?
b). A good team player who is also capable of working on your own initiative?
c). In possession of a proactive, enthusiastic and flexible attitude, and do you enjoy a challenge?

Well, oddly enough, so are 80% of the other applicants, apparently. Why am I supposed to care about or believe in these groundless, formulaic claims? Don't assert your qualities -- give evidence for them. Evidence speaks for itself. Next!

5. Don't just submit a CV. I'm not going to do the interpretive work for you. But also please don't make me read yet another cut'n'paste celebration of your magnificence (see 4). A little thought about what sort of employee the employer is looking for and how you might match this goes a long way -- usually all the way to the interview shortlist. (But see 11).

6. Don't self-sabotage. I don't need reasons not to shortlist you ("I know I'm probably not the best candidate", "You should know I'm going on a trekking expedition from June to October this year", "I will definitely consider moving to the area if you offer me the job, but my spouse's job is very important, and my kids are about to start their GCSEs").

7. Any candidates who tell me they are "an avid reader who has always loved books", or that they have either a "clean driving license" or a "good telephone manner" have taken a big step closer to the reject pile. What do you think we do in here? Read books while driving round the campus, drumming up tele-sales on our mobiles? Next!

8. Proofread your application. I have to assume that anyone who clicks "Go" after typing

"I belive i have experiance in a similar so of sorting role at [employer deleted] and would welcome the oppertunity to learn some new skills to assist the running of the library"

either can't spell or doesn't care that I might think that they can't spell. That's a real example, by the way. Next!

9. Don't make jokes, self-deprecatory or ironic remarks, or use inappropriate language. Don't patronise me, or tell me why libraries are important. Don't put down or belittle your previous jobs or employers. You may be bitter, you may be hard done by, but your next previous employer may be me. Attitude and tone are important.

10. Never use exclamation marks or WRITE YOUR APPLICATION IN CAPITAL LETTERS or in unpunctuated lower case throughout. To write "i cant work saturdays lol" might be OK in a text, but... Do I really need to say these obvious things? Apparently, yes, I do.

11. Don't gush, exaggerate, lie, misrepresent or leave out vital information. I really do want to know when, where and in what subject your exams were taken, probably more than I care about the actual grades, though leaving these out is prone to misinterpretation. Be realistic. To have grade B GCSE French does not reinforce your claim to be a fluent and talented linguist. A couple of years working in a shop or office doing what you're told does not make you "a highly motivated individual who is willing to try new ideas ... etc." (see 4). But, listen, perhaps we're not looking for someone like that, anyway? See 1-3 above.

12. Above all, don't say that the job in question would be the perfect stress-free little earner that would enable you to get on with your real mission in life, which is sky-diving, getting a recording contract, writing a novel, doing voluntary work for the homeless (OK, I might buy that one), or generally putting off getting a life. None of these are actually an obstacle to you getting the job, but please don't tell me all about it on the application. Don't even tell me about it at the interview, or during the first month of starting the job. I'm the only fantasist allowed round here, and I'm the boss. Did I tell you I do a lot of photography?

Enjoy every minute, guys... Nothing lasts forever

Actually, what I really miss most in this new online job application system is getting to see people's handwriting, and how well they were able to complete our appallingly badly-designed application form, with its inadequately-sized boxes and mystifying questions. How often must applicants for gardening or catering posts have blinked uncomprehendingly at the box requesting "Publications (if necessary, continue on a separate sheet)"? How many academics know their typing speed?

That form was a real test of character and patience -- I know, I've filled it out a few times myself. But, in those days, we'd get 50 applications for a job, tops. Did I say we've had 327 for this one?


Dave Leeke said...

You should be standing there outside the library with a megaphone as the hopeful candidates line up for their interview, in full resplendent Alex Harvey mode screaming, "Next!"


Mike C. said...


Hmm, interesting suggestion. In the past I have had to do at least one round of recruitment a year, and livening it up is always a priority (my secret weapon is the infamous "Norwegian book" round, always good for a laugh -- I can't go into details, it's a secret).

Perhaps rather than carefully panning through the applications for gold, we should take a press gang down the town centre -- "Now who'd like to take the Vice Chancellor's shillin', me bully boys?"


Unknown said...

What discouraging signs of the times we live in:
1) 327 applicants for a clerical job;
2) the low quality of the applications you received.

What happened to education and opportunity?

Dave Leeke said...

Well, for starters we currently have a Tory Government . . .

Mike C. said...

Much as I'd like to blame the current government, I think there's probably more to it than that.

The online application system is, in itself, responsible for inflating the number and low quality of applications -- people *world wide* apply for everything currently going in the university, because they can. And, because they have no investment in their application, they make a shoddy job of it. I had at least 175 applications from people with either no work permit for the UK, or who are still in full-time education!

What has always been depressing about recruitment since I started doing it in the 80s is the utter failure of most applicants to actually apply for the job on offer. It's astounding. I reckon anyone could walk into most job shortlists by reading the "further particulars" carefully, making a couple of phone calls and doing a bit of googling. They'd stand out a mile.


Gavin McL said...

I once had a clerical job at the Department of Transport helping to computerize their heavy goods vehicle licence records (quite frightening the number of HGV drivers with driving convictions.) After I got the job I asked why they chose me. The answer was that I filled the application form in very neatly.

Anybody in your pile of applications have significant experience in Inviscid Hydrodynamics? we're looking for somebody, ideally a two?


Dave Leeke said...

As an English teacher in a secondary school I spend a lot of time trying to get the point across that with the amount of people that apply for jobs nowadays they need to get past the first hurdle. I explain that if they can't understand what they're being asked and can't make themselves understood, then the only "filing cabinet" their applications are going in to are the round ones in the corner of the room where their chewing gum and crisp wrappers are going.

But, of course, I am an old git and know nothing of the world. They know far more than me. It is, of course, their world.

Brendini said...

It may be their world, but it's the old gits who make the selections.
They'll learn - eventualy.

May I just add that the word verification appeared to be an abbreviation of tumescent? I'm not shocked, just a little saddened.

Mike C. said...


That sounds about right. I've just read Charles Portis's "True Grit", and the funniest scene is where Maddie fills in Rooster's expenses forms. I'll check through for your hydrodynamicists -- must be a couple in there somewhere...


It is the job of teachers to give good advice, the wisdom of which only becomes apparent later (too late?) in life. I shall be posting about this shortly.


I'm afraid abbreviated tumescence is all you get at my age.


Paul Mc Cann said...

" I'm afraid abbreviated tumescence is all you get at my age."

On the short list then, are you ?

Mike C. said...


Ha! Not so much short as quick... I doubt most of my interviews last longer than 15 minutes. And six interviews in a day is my limit, with breaks for coffee and lunch.


Kent Wiley said...

Surely one of your more comical and depressing entries in recent times, Mike.

I like the photo pair at the top, though!

Mike C. said...


Ah, now I'm glad someone noticed that pair -- surely one of the star page-spreads from the "windows" book, and a perfect illustration for this post (from graduate to graduation tent sweeper-upper in three easy moves...)


Martyn Cornell said...

Twenty years ago I was getting 500+ applicants for not-very-well-paid junior jobs in trade magazine journalism: it wouldn't surprise me to hear that similar jobs now get applications in the thousands. What is particularly depressing is that the salaries being paid for those starter jobs are exactly the same now as they were then, simply because the demand for people wanting to do them is so huge.

Mike C. said...


Blimey. I think there's only one way forward with this -- auctions for unpaid internships, as demonstrated by the Tory Party recently. Let the blighters pay us! That'll cut the numbers down...

We might even get the odd public school applicant, then. Do you know, I can't remember the last time I handled an application from a privately-educated candidate, even for the professional posts.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

If only you could afford to get your dream former employee back out of retirement on a consultancy package, eh?

Yes, it's amazing how many bonkers and deluded people there are out there, though I would never automatically rule out someone just because they were over-qualified. And the law says employers cannot discriminate on the grounds of previous mental health breakdowns either, any more than if they'd had any other previous illness.

All the best though. Sounds like at least 300 will rule themselves out quite quickly.

Mike C. said...

Poet Laura-eate,

I hear genuine experience of these matters behind your comments -- very amused at the idea of getting a previous person back on a consultancy (trying to think how we could pitch this to the relevant committee, "Label sticking is an uncommon skill...").

Being over-qualified and a little, um, fragile are far from disqualifications in this line of work, I have to say...

Took a peek at your profile, and am delighted (if slightly awed) by the idea of being "twinned with Gwen Stefani". Now there's a good job interview question -- "If you could be twinned with a famous person, who would it be?" Trying to think who the best label-sticking celebrity might be.