It was watching again ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’ that set me thinking. In the old film, starring Richard Burton, Burton’s character Alec Leamas goes under cover playing a washed up ex-spy on the skids.
As part of his cover story, Leamas lands a job in a local London library. Set in the late 50s or early 60s, Leamas simply turns up at his local labour exchange, is told about a librarian job, and is given the address of the local lending library.
After a two minute meeting between Leamas and the head librarian, he is given the job and starts the next day. Simplicity itself. No complicated CV, no covering letters to draft, no interview as such, no presentation to give. A straightforward job gets filled.
Contrast this with today’s – supposedly flexible – labour market. Instead of matching candidate with job in a day or so, the process now takes at least a couple of months for even basic clerical positions.
With maximum fuss, the job has to be advertised, job specs and descriptions drafted, CVs reviewed, interview dates set aside. For the employer, this involves a great deal of time and probably quite a lot of money. And as any employer reading this knows, with no guarantee of success.
For the candidate, it’s also a pain in the neck. There’s the dreary task of sending off a CV and accompanying letter, filled with fake enthusiasm about the job and how it matches their career aspirations.
Or worse still, there the even drearier task of filling out an application form. If an interview is landed, the candidate has to devote time boning up on the position, the company, its clients, market position etc. In short, it’s a lot of work usually for no return.
But has this palaver led to better results? Are candidates more properly matched to jobs? Or rather are we kidding ourselves that with the pseudo-science of interviews and candidate character profiles, we have actually turned a relatively simple process into one filled with unnecessary complications?
The essence of the problem is the ‘professionalisation’ of the office job. In Leamas’s time, clerical jobs were not fluffed up as career advancement. They were what they were: simple jobs that could be done with a little application and training, nothing more.
Surely this was a truly flexible labour market? Jobs and candidates matched by the labour exchange quickly with little fuss and certainly no pretensions. Leamas wasn’t called upon to fake interest in the job.
Let’s face it, most jobs are just jobs, not vocations. How many people can you honestly say grew up with a burning desire to work in a call centre? Or in a shop, a petrol station, a fast food chain, or most other offices?
Of course, some jobs, the professional ones, do demand a level of interest and dedication that goes beyond the average. But most jobs don’t. Most are jobs that pay the rent, generate some spare cash and are forgotten on Friday night. These are the staple of everyday life: boring day jobs that are necessary, dull and have no career progression built into them.
They are jobs people do until they tire of them and do something else. In the old days, it seemed to me this basic honesty was built into the labour exchange process.
Today, we have the ghastly rhetoric of ‘human resources’ – the very term is pretentious and smacks of euphemism – that demands that even the most basic office jobs ape those where CVs must be drafted and updated, and candidates are drilled to give pleasing answers about motivation and character.
For almost seven years I ran a business. I hired staff. I set hurdles, and tests, and tried to screen the good from the bad. In all honesty, I have no idea whether any of the effort was worth it. Some employees turned out to be hard working and good at their jobs. Some, probably the majority, were somewhere in the middle, subject to good and bad days and times when they were clearly more interested than others. The rest I hired were pretty much disappointing from the off.
I suppose it could be that I didn’t go far enough. Perhaps I should have introduced more screening, maybe some psychometric testing, and a further battery of tests that could have revealed how they would actually perform in the work place. Who knows? Certainly the longer I seemed to go on, the more likely it was that the candidate I wanted would find a job elsewhere.
But the bigger question pertains. Aren’t we over-egging it when we expect most ‘day’ jobs to conform to the requirements of professions?
Moreover, employers will tell you that employees are much more likely excel if their role truly matches their interests and ambitions. By getting rid of unnecessary job application processes, candidates will spend more time thinking about the job and its requirements, rather focusing on the process of getting the job. Therefore, if candidates and employers get what they actually want, better results should naturally follow.
Also, wouldn’t it be lovely, to have the freedom to junk a job, go and travel a bit, then come back and start something without having to concoct a story of career advancement which is in fact a tissue of lies?
We could go to the labour exchange, see what takes our fancy or what they have in, and give it go. It may lead to job hopping, but in my experience, it’s better to have a few false starts than to end up in some sort of accounts function, forever wondering if life and work had more to offer.
By Neil Boom