2011-12 may well have been my formative year. A year spent chasing the elusive promise of a graduate job in science, then any graduate job, then any job at all. A year filled with frustrations, broken promises, betrayal, fear, persecution, and insecurity. This was the year when many of my political views crystallised; when the “real world” in all its ugliness impinged on my previously centrist naiveté, persuading me left-wards.
Contrary to what the right-wing tabloids and politicians will tell you, unemployment exists because the number of job hunters exceeds the number of job vacancies. When the former tops two and a half million and the latter barely reaches 500,000, it is a mathematical inevitability. Imagine how crushing must be the disillusionment when, after years of being told that you live in a “meritocracy”, you suddenly find your fate so utterly out of your own hands.
It wouldn’t be quite so bad if there were a level playing field in the job application process. Sadly we know that isn’t true. To quote the University of Birmingham’s own careers advice page, the link to which recently popped up on my social media feed:
Not every job vacancy is advertised; it is thought that around 70% of job vacancies are not advertised.
[Incidentally I’ve tried on several occasions to find an original citation for that 70% figure. A direct enquiry to the University’s careers centre met with the response along the lines “oh well everyone else uses it, its a commonly accepted figure…”, which shows a disturbing lack of academic rigour for a Redbrick University.
A quick Google search brings up “Most jobs aren’t posted or advertised publicly. At least 70 percent, if not 80 percent, of jobs are not published” from National Public Radio, “It’s thought around 70% of the job market is hidden i.e. not advertised” according to Bright Futures, and “It is said that only 30% of job vacancies are openly advertised to the public. This leaves an amazing 70% of jobs that are left to be found in the ‘hidden job market’!” from UCCF: The Christian Unions. None of these carry citations, which rather suggests that this is one of those “bloke down the pub said…” kind of unsubstantiated factoids.]
But let us for a moment assume that this 70% figure is true. What does this incredible lack of transparency tell us about the job market? None of the references above find anything objectionable about it – its merely another exciting challenge for the initiative-taking individual. Apparently a system where who you know and who your contacts are matters more than what you know isn’t a problem.
If you’ll permit me a moment the indulgence of anecdote, I can give my personal experience of what this means. In the eleven months or so when I was officially unemployed I must have sent of over one hundred job applications. Each one was for a position which I was on paper qualified for, and each one was individually written tailored to a person specification or advertisement. From all of these efforts the most success I got was nine interviews, all of which were then unsuccessful.
Since that time I’ve had three jobs. For two of these I didn’t even have to apply or interview. One I got by word of mouth from a house mate. One came direct by invitation from the employer. The final came from a strong recommendation by friends within the company. In all of these instances cronyism played heavily in my favour, and it would be odd of me to grumble were it not for two factors.
Firstly, the times where personal connections have swung it for me are likely outnumbered ten to one by the times when I’ve been disadvantaged in competition with someone else’s personal connections, meaning that I am probably a net loser in this set-up. Secondly its wrong on principle. If we are to put merit at the heart of any society, then genuine hard skills and qualifications have to count for everything. The subjectivity of “soft skills” only allows for employers to fiddle the selection process in favour of a stitch up, allowing them to employ a less qualified favourite.
The elitism embodied by the hidden job market and by “networking” excludes the vast majority of applicants from contention – in favour of the well connected, the sharp-elbowed, and the narcissistically self-promoting. It entrenches inequality and closes of huge sectors of society from those less privileged. It undermines the value of real qualifications and results in an economy and a society run by mediocre people who know mediocre people.
I don’t expect a full blown empirical technocracy overnight. It would be nice however if our own University careers centre, it its next article of churnalistic fortune cookie advice, decided to not only have some factual basis in its assertions but also to challenge a set-up which makes a First in a STEM subject worth less than an uncle in the City.