Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Job-Hunting in the New/Old South...
I've been looking for something approaching regular employment recently here in Charlotte, and I'm convinced, convinced mind you, that the 21st Century still has not reached certain parts of the South.

Maybe it's just me, and perhaps I'm not acquainted yet with every southern ritual and custom (to be fair, "perhaps" is the wrong word), but one would think that the process of applying for a job would be pretty straightforward; someone has a job to offer, people apply for it, the prospective employer interviews qualified people for it and decides which one to hire. Seems simple enough to me, but apparently that is not the way things actually work.

Yesterday I had an appointment with an "employment specialist" here in Charlotte. The "employment specialist" in question is a former Yankee too, and she explained to me the sometimes maddening, almost-glacial pace with which these searches are typically conducted. She also filled me in on the finer points of networking here in the south, which when it comes to employment, seems more like a courtship than it does a straightforward business proposition.

Apparently, it is not enough to be qualified. It is not enough to be competent and to have a wealth of experience in your field. One must play a certain game here, first to get noticed, and secondly to inch ever-closer to the Holy Grail of full-time employment in someplace other than Wal-Mart. It's been said that job seeking is not so much what you know as who you know, and never was it more true than here in the south.

The way this has been explained to me is that an individual seeking employment must make an effort to bring himself to the attention of the who's who of the local business community, making contacts and then playing a "scratch-my-back/I'll-scratch-yours" game which might, might, get your foot in the door. An applicant must be willing to do things such as attend local job fairs solely for the purpose of meeting people, not necessarily applying for jobs. One must never show too much eagerness in the pursuit of a position, as it is considered rude and pushy. Above all, one must make a pilgrimage to those that hold the keys to the castle , rather than the other way around, whch is how it works up north. Membership in clubs is recommended in order to try and ingratiate yourself to a prospective employer. Having belonged to a fraternity, for example, at one of the bastions of Southern education (UNC, NC State, Auburn, Clemson, etc) is considered a major plus.

In other words, find the right people, kiss the right asses, and perhaps you might get an opportunity out of it. You may have all of the qualifications. You may run rings around the people presently doing the job now. But without the dance, the ritual, if you will, you will get nowhere. Talent and intelligence only count for something after you've stroked the proper egos.

Unfortunately, I'm not one to play these kinds of games and I wonder just how much I'm going to suffer for it. I don't like bending knees, kow-towing or getting involved in politics and popularity contests. I like to work. Well, I don't really like to work, I just like the paycheck. Unfortunately, work is part of the bargain.

Running down the list of things I've been advised to do, it suddenly struck me that if I have to do all the work, what the hell do I need an "employment specialist" for, and how the hell do they stay in business? They're obviously not placing very many candidates by themselves if the candidate has to do all the work, correct? It also struck me that it sounds like something I'd always heard about, but didn't quite believe existed. For lack of a better term, I'll refer to it as the Redneck Brotherhood.

It appears that the purpose of this secret organization is to keep the "wrong kind of people" out of the employment market. What kind of people are the "wrong kind"? That's a good question. If I had to guess, it would probably be pushy, loud-mouthed Yankees who don't play by their rules and who need to be brought down a few pegs before they're tossed a bone. I swear (I should say "I swannee", as they say here) this is the first time in my life that I've ever walked into a personnel agency and had an "employment specialist" tell me that they can't hook me up with a job, or even give me any contacts, but they can tell me where else to look for one. This conversation consisted of 30 minutes about the ritual, 30 minutes of bullshitting about how Southerners know nothing about pizza and bagels, and 30 minutes of rolling off a list of other "employment specialists" that can do a better job. However, they did ask me to fill in 600 pages of forms, including tax forms and a personality test, just in case they might be able to get me temporary work.

Incredibly strange. The job market in New York may have been a jungle, but it was at least an intelligible jungle.

Many years ago people complained about the "Old Boys Network" and how it kept folks on the outside looking in. I never really saw much of it in New York, and didn't actually believe it still existed anymore, except maybe in the very upper, upper reaches of the corporate world, which I will never reach and never had any desire to join. Here, in the 21st century south, not only does it exist, it thrives, and the old bonds of school, class and nepotism are no longer as strong as is the bond of having been born (anywhere) in the former Confederacy.

It probably won't be long before another transplanted Yankee decides to pester his Congresscritter to introduce a bill identifying "geographical origin" as a new classification of discrimination, to join "race, sex, color, religion, disability and sexual preferance".

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