Will I get all the okra I can eat? The absurdities of job-hunting in the digital age

Back when I was job-hunting in 2009, I signed up for all sorts of services that would give me tips on openings — CareerBuilder.com, BusinessWorkforce.com, AmericaJob.com, TheLadders, and various others.

And I continue to get email alerts from all of them. They are sometimes a source of amusement — although I wouldn’t think it was funny if I were still unemployed.

Today, I’m told of 25 hot prospects, a list supposedly tailored just for me. CareerBuilder assures me that “These recommendations are based on the content of your resume.”

My favorite from today’s list is “Okra Strut Administrator:”

REQUEST FOR QUALIFICATIONS Description: Okra Strut Administrator Location: Irmo, SC Pre-Requisite: References that validate past festival coordination / management & certified by the South Carolina Festival Events Assoc. Overview: The Town of Irmo is seeking qualifications for a Festival Administrator. Interested parties should have a background in festival planning, coordinating & management. Scope of Work: Involves planning / managing of parade, street dance, amusements, craft show, food vending, safety & security along with grounds maintenance. Prepares recommendations & provides interpretations for the Okra Strut Commission & manages / coordinates financials with the Town Staff. Meets with the Town Council & other civic organizations as needed…

Yeah, that’s right up my alley. After all, I’m quite fond of okra. Unlike most people, I even like it stewed and slimy. The puzzle for me is that I don’t recall having mentioned my love of okra in my resume or any other materials that I’ve ever submitted for a prospective job.

There are one or two jobs on the list that someone who was really reaching to establish a connection to my background might see as suitable, if they sort of squinted and didn’t think about it too carefully. For instance, amazingly enough, The State is hiring a sports copyeditor. Yep, that’s a job I could easily do, although sports is probably the last department you’d want me for. It’s the sort of job that I might have done when I was 22 years old and right out of college, and would have been fully qualified for then (I covered prep sports part-time for a while for the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar at about that stage of my career). But if you drew a huge square that described the universe of logical jobs based on my abilities and experience, and put this one in the bottom right-hand corner, the jobs that would be a good match for me would be in the upper left-hand corner.

In the last couple of years, on the rare occasions that I’ve actually looked at these emails, I’ve seen one job that was sort of almost kind of a good match, although it would mean moving back to news from the opinion side: The Tennessean in Nashville needed a new executive editor. That would have been something, being a successor to the legendary John Siegenthaler. It might even have provided me with a challenge, since I had not served in news at that level. But no, I didn’t apply, not least because I had no interest in moving the Nashville.

Not that jobs have to be a good match to my resume at all, since the way forward for me involves reinvention, and getting way, way out of my beaten path. From the moment I left the paper, I was more or less determined that I wasn’t looking back, but moving on. But the thing is, these tips are supposedly based on that resume. Here are some of the others I received today:

  • Executive Director of Instructional Technology
  • Loss Prevention Manager for Kmart
  • Junior Systems Performance Engineer for Windows and UNIX
  • Insurace Sales Agent
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Dentist — DDS/DMD
Really. Dentist.

All of this pointless mismatching would be pretty harmless except for one thing: I discovered during my sojourn among the unemployed that an awful lot of the hiring process these days is done by algorithms rather than people — at least in the initial stages. You submit your information electronically, and if the software doesn’t see in your resume what it wants, you don’t get to the stage of talking to humans.

This is unbelievably frustrating, because I found that these software applications have tapioca for brains. There was this one job with a major corporation that was by no means a perfect match, but any human looking at my background and qualifications would at least have been intrigued and wanted to have an exploratory chat.

I submitted my stuff electronically, and the next day received an email (the “do not reply” kind) congratulating me and saying that I looked like a very good match for what they needed, and I would be hearing from a human soon. This was on my birthday, and I was very encouraged.

Two days later I got another disembodied email telling me that the first one was wrong, and that I wasn’t a good match, so goodbye and thanks for applying.

This infuriated me to the point that I determined that I would talk to a human whatever it took. I started with NO contact information — no email for a human, no phone numbers. I just started talking to people I know who knew people who might know people who would know. My thought at the time was that the job called for someone who would do just what I was doing. A person who would take a brush-off from a machine wasn’t qualified for the job.

In the end, I had coffee with the person who was vacating the position, who told me the applications were closed at that point, although she would see if she could get them to reopen the process. This went nowhere, but I was satisfied. I had not accepted “no” from the stupid machine.

32 thoughts on “Will I get all the okra I can eat? The absurdities of job-hunting in the digital age

  1. Marilyn Hemingway

    I had the same experience. Finally, I have reinvented myself and created my own work. The process of applying for a job is broken.

    I entered a retail establishment (a national brand clothing store) to apply for a job and was told to go to the website to complete an application. How do they know what they are getting? How would they know about my appearance? So I went home, took off my professional outerwear, slipped on my sweats and applied electronically…unsurprisingly I never heard from the company.

    This happened to me with most companies I have completed application online. There is an Job Application Black Hole on the Internet where millions of resumes are disappearing.

  2. Steven Davis II

    “The State is hiring a sports copyeditor. Yep, that’s a job I could easily do”

    You could add a statement on your cover letter about how you collect football bats and hockey balls.

  3. Brad

    Exactly. I’m not a sports fan, even though I covered some sports back in my reporting days.

    But the perfect person for a job like this would be kid right out of school who lives and breathes sports and thinks about nothing else (I was surrounded by some people during my stint covering prep sports, way back in 1975), and would be thrilled to do it for next to nothing. Which is what he would get.

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    My brother, erstwhile Sports Copy Desk head at the Philly Inquirer, would not agree that you likely could have handled it right out of j-school. Sports copy editing is the toughest, since all the copy comes in right before deadline.

    Now, The State’s standards have slipped notably in recent years, as I have had to coach some of my favorite writers on the difference between “home in” and “hone” and “compose” and “comprise,” to name a few.

  5. Brad

    And Marilyn — absolutely.

    It was particularly frustrating for me, because I was looking for something different. There simply were not any jobs in these parts that matched my experience. There were only a handful of such jobs in the whole country. Not only did I want to stay here with my kids and grandkids, but how smart would it be to relocate for a job in a dying industry?

    From the beginning, I knew that my best prospect would be somebody who KNEW me, either personally or by reputation, and was able to make the leap of intuition that while I might never have done a certain job, my skills were transferable to that.

    If I was applying blind to someone who didn’t know Brad Warthen, I was probably going to be out of luck.

    Of course, people thinking they knew me was also a drawback. Because people had read my columns for year, they thought of me as a writer. I had not been primarily a writer since 1980. I was someone who had hired and trained and supervised people who wrote, and edited, and analyzed political issues, for all of that time. My column was something I did on top of a 60-hour job as a senior executive.

    So even with the people who “knew” me, I had to start from scratch in getting them to understand what my strengths were. Sometimes, doing this, I worried that my frustration would show like with that poor guy in “Office Space” who lost it talking to the consultants about his job: “Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?”

  6. Brad

    Kathryn, I was a very, VERY good copy editor. A real grammar Nazi. And while my first paper out of school was a good deal smaller than the Inquirer, I did rise in a matter of months to become the slot — before moving on to the writing job I really wanted.

    But I’ve spent so many years since then in senior positions, empowered to break the style rules that were religion to my fellow desk editors, that I’m pretty much ruined for that work now…

    Most people who are really, really into copy editing wouldn’t even want to look at me now.

  7. Brad

    What I did in those days, in an extremely compressed time period (it was a PM paper), exceeded anything I’ve seen any desk people do since then. In the slot, I managed the copy flow — handing out copy for others to edit and checking behind them — chose all the wire copy (which required a comprehensive understanding of national and international news) and laid out the entire A section.

    In my years working at much bigger papers since then, I have seldom run across anyone who could do two of those jobs, much less three. People specialize too much at bigger papers. And they certainly wouldn’t be able to do them all at once, as fast as I did. I was young and malleable, it had to get done, so I mastered it.

    There are SOME who can do all that, of course. Mike Fitts is one. One of the reasons I brought him onto the editorial board was that I wanted someone on the staff besides me who could put out the pages in a pinch. The other associate editors (Cindi, Warren, Nina Brook, Claudia Brinson, John Monk) were all career writers, and not that much use at desk work (which was second nature to Mike and me), although they did pick up some production skills over time — especially as the staff shrank.

  8. Brad

    I wonder… is The State’s staff now as small as the one at my first paper, which had a circulation of about 37,000? If not, it’s getting closer and closer…

  9. bud

    I was a very, VERY good copy editor. A real grammar Nazi.

    I’m sure that’s true but on this blog even a self-professed “grammar Nazi” has issues with the English language. But that makes me feel better about my endless grammar/spelling lapses trying to enter comments on this blog. Some of the stuff I end up posting is just unbeeleevubul.

  10. Brad

    Same here, Bud. But I realized early on that I could either take the kind of care with copy that I did for print, or I could blog. It wasn’t possible to do both. I TRY to do both, but I know I’m going to fail.

    Aside from the time element, the fact is that everyone, even the best editor, needs an editor. And here, I don’t have one — except for y’all.

  11. Silence

    @ Brad & Bud,
    Why is it OK to be a “grammar Nazi” but not acceptable to be another kind of Nazi?

    Maybe it’s time to retire the term, and replace it with something less potentially offensive? How about:
    grammar bigot
    grammar Klansman
    grammar mass murderer
    grammar national socialist
    “Axis of Grammar”
    practitioner of the final grammar solution
    grammar Hun
    grammar fascist
    I could go on, but I should probably stop before I go the way of some recent ESPN writers.

  12. Susanna K.

    I’m totally sending this job posting to my SIL in Wisconsin. She’s a big okra fan – once managed to include a nod to the Strut in a Volvo commercial she helped make.

  13. Kathleen

    All y’all are correct. The world, or at least the USA, needs more grammar Nazis, a better job placement mechanism, and okra in every pot.

  14. `Kathryn Fenner

    Hear, hear, Silence.

    Expert dialectician and grammarian am I, just like Professor Henry Higgins.

  15. Brad

    I thought it was ‘enry ‘iggins.

    Just you wait…

    I went to a performance of the USC Philharmonic the other night, and they did some tunes from “My Fair Lady,” and my mind wondered, as it does, and it occurred to me that I think I could do a good job playing that character on stage. Not the Rex Harrison version, the nonmusical Shaw one, played by Leslie Howard in the film — Pygmalion.

  16. Brad

    I was such a stickler in my early days that a friend in the newsroom used to call me Percival Pedant. Which I did not appreciate. I much preferred another nickname she had for me — Citizen Arcane.

  17. `Kathryn Fenner

    Rex Heddison was hardly musical–you sing better than he did. My parents saw the original cast on Broadway–Julie Andrews! and had the Playbill and original cast album. I know it by heart–I think Julie Andrews taught me to sing.

  18. Brad

    My Dad and some other naval officers ran into Rex Harrison once on the Riviera, sitting in a cafe reading The Wall Street Journal. It was the late 50s or early 60s.

    They were looking for some tour guidance from an English speaker, and he was most gracious about being interrupted. He recommended a place for them to eat, if I remember the story correctly.

  19. Steve Gordy

    My wife and I saw Rex on stage in a revival of “My Fair Lady”; it was 1979, IIRC. His voice was pretty well gone by then, but his grammar was still impeccable.

  20. bud

    I prefer my okra fried with a thin cornmeal batter, not the heavy battering you normally get in a restaraunt. But I’ll settle for slimy, boiled whole pods. My wife likes hers cut up then boiled then mushed to the consistency of pudding. My Brooklyn son says it is impossible to find in Brooklyn. I suggested Harlem for some southern cooking treats. Maybe we can research that together this summer if I get up that way.

  21. Karen McLeod

    I have a good recipe for pickled okra, and I like it ok. in soups and stews, but other than that, please take another serving; I don’t care for any.

  22. `Kathryn Fenner

    Lizard’s Thicket okra and tomatoes is about all I can go for, and it is good. Kind of like a gumbo.

    My mom used to try to convince my brother and me that boiled okra was just like green beans. Well, they’re both long green vegetables….

  23. Silence

    @ Kathryn – The aitch is also silent in ‘ilton ‘ead and ‘ardeeville.
    And what become of the new straw ‘at that shoulda come to me? Somebody pinched it, and what I say is: them ‘as pinched it – done ‘er in.

  24. Silence

    How bout this one: The corruption in Columbia stays mainly at the corner of Main and Laurel. Say it 50 times every night before you go to bed.

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