December 12, 2013 | Contributor Articles

Mistaking Your Arm for a Branch: What Sloths Can Teach Us About the Labour Market

Shortly after I graduated university, the economy fainted. My generation represents perhaps a first wave of grads whose expectations of higher learning did not include the new labour realities being constructed by a gathering storm of complex, interwoven, global financial dramas. Work in culture and the non-profit sector is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in public spending and policy. As a result, I’m “job promiscuous” – moving from opportunity to contract to organization – continuously looking for meaningful work and resisting the erosion of decent work that seems so characteristic of this time. In watching job postings over the last seven years, I’ve noticed the language and character of job descriptions radically shift, especially with respect to professional positions in my field.

Increasingly, labour is characterized by short term, contract, part time situations “subject to renewal” without the safety nets of health benefits, union membership, flexible schedules, training, professional development or even a posted salary. This is a hyper competitive job market that demands work experience specifically tailored to precise job qualifications, usually a Masters degree or higher, multiple internships, focused and ongoing volunteerism, and sometimes additional languages. Specialized credentials or memberships, often not widely recognized or even created as moneymaking schemes from supposed professional organizations for specific skills, are on the rise. Who would agree (and pay) to obtain these kinds of micro credentials, when reading a candidate’s resume or having a brief conversation could quickly ascertain competency? The expectation seems to be that you come to the job fully qualified and exactly qualified to do a specialized job. This discourages people from other disciplines or backgrounds from applying and bringing in outside ideas or slightly mismatched experience, which can add diversity and risk to the workplace. It also takes responsibility off an employer to train you or be flexible in how they integrate or interpret your skills. Jobs that have multiple interviews with weird psychological tactics, overly lengthy interview processes and tests, or ask for project ideas and free work like making a power point presentation or logo used to be the mark of a scam. With decent positions so scarce, young people are actually falling for this stuff. This is why labour got organized in the first place – to protect workers from having their ideas and time stolen.

Recruiters and HR managers often skim dozens of resumes looking for exact fits between posted qualifications and work experience in an effort to process hundreds of applications. This kind of correlating is about expediency. I’ve watched job descriptions being drafted at many institutions. Often, employers are listing their dreams – an accountant that will also do marketing, a grant writer with corporate connections and a background in volunteer management or an outreach coordinator who will launch a comprehensive social media plan, trouble shoot the website, give tours in French and maintain a database, all while building new community contacts. These postings reflect institutional fantasies of solving multiple in-house problems in one position in an effort to economize, rather than properly remunerate several employees and offer them a focused portfolio that plays to their strengths. In a job market over-saturated with capable, educated candidates, the scary thing is, they will actually find people who check multiple boxes as job seekers scramble to amass any certification or experience to get hired, regardless of how exploitative or crooked the means. Entry-level arts administrators that can’t find work out of school are now entering MBA programs to gain an edge. Many are also using the tried and true tactic of “creative lying”. Take a quick, covert tour of your connections on LinkedIn and tell me you can’t find clusters of pages padded with whimsical elaboration, particularly from profiles with little real job experience.

Candidates with tons of skills should be prioritized, I won’t argue that. These unicorns exist and can add much to organizations. What I’m advocating though, is a return to testing out promising, but less conventionally trained candidates, people from outside your industry, people who are self taught and self employed, people whose story is just a little bit offbeat or people who have designed their own path either because they didn’t have the resources or advantages of education or who have actively rejected it to explore alternatives. I’m also advocating a realistic appraisal of what employers are actually offering and a caution that as workers, if we accept the demands of this narrow job market, we should acknowledge that we are actively shaping labour. In many cases, this will not work in our favour.

The way students approach their time at school is becoming ruthlessly pragmatic. This is natural; education is expensive. I wanted my education to be cost effective. I didn’t believe as one professor suggested, that “Wasting time can be subversive.” Students know there’s not much cake out there, and can limit their experience to courses and activities most likely to be careerist. What many are missing by succumbing to this kind of tunnel vision is that the kinds of skills that can assist you most in this new labour scenario are best built through experimentation, risk taking, play, failure and tons of hard work – precisely the activities being avoided in an effort to just “get a degree and get out in four years.”

Managing to stay consistently employed in the field I’m trained in is the secret young people interested in art careers would most love to pry from me. In many ways, my educational experience was typical – I went to class, I had work study jobs, I amassed debt that would colour my decisions and curtail my options for years to come. But I also put on my own shows, applied for grants, started countless short lived clubs, asked cool people for jobs, wrote for the student paper, turned my flat into a gallery, became a board member, started an art crawl, grew a garden, did inadvisable things, made mistakes, volunteered and stayed up all night. In short, I had a big life outside school and those experiments created my network, gave me work experience, paid my rent and humbled me ahead of graduating. My connections and projects got me hired. My degree was a bonus.

Shoehorning your way into opportunity will become increasingly necessary, but there’s more than one way to go about it. Learn to talk convincingly about your work. Explain how your skills are desirable and transferable. Hone your writing skills. Start your own projects, don’t wait for institutional recognition or official vetting. Insist on your value and find people who respond to you. Have fun – social activity keeps stress low. Get rejected and get over it. Hop some fences. Have some ethics.

When you do get a solid job, spread wealth and spread power. If you’re a manager, promote capable employees, negotiate raises when deserved, offer recognition and new opportunities, connect people, share resources and information, support interesting and struggling initiatives. Nominate exceptional people for awards or internal opportunities. Be a space maker and give employees some agency to direct their own jobs and organize themselves. Grant employees time off to pursue personal projects or great opportunities, particularly travel. Stand up for labour protections within your own workplace. Resist the urge to replicate power structures you may have worked under.

Being successful in this bonkers economy requires continual improvisation and often, sacrifice. I explain my patchy CV by describing myself as a parachutist. Weathering long periods of unemployment taught me how to plan for scarcity. Moving a lot helped to build a national network. A trim lifestyle has kept me mentally and materially uncluttered and appreciative of what I have. Creating side hustle enabled me to quit unrewarding jobs while learning business skills. Using any resource at hand demonstrated how extensive and committed my community is. Holding out has been professionally worth it.

Douglas Adams is responsible for circulating the following entertaining, though completely disproved “fact”: young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees. This is supposed to illustrate how stupid sloths are, which is unfair in addition to being untrue, because their diet makes them sluggish and their eyesight is poor. Regardless, it’s a useful thing to be able to recognize an opportunity (the branch) from a non-opportunity (a body part). In navigating your education and later, the work world, keep this wisdom from the animal kingdom in mind: If you reach for something that closely resembles, but not altogether represents what you want, you may find yourself grabbing your own arm. You may shortly find yourself eaten by eagles.


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