Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stop all the networking

The last few months of being a thoroughly jobless individual has raised my awareness of some of the weirder features of the culture of unemployment, circa 2013.  Among these, perhaps nothing is as weird as the obsession with networking, as exemplified by the totally ubiquitous, and, to the best of my knowledge, utterly useless LinkedIn.

I didn't even have a LinkedIn account until relatively recently, when I was told in no uncertain terms by a former professor that I must get one, shaming me into creating a profile.

But I still don't really understand what's happening here.  On my profile is my résumé.  While there's nothing wrong with my résumé, and I'm more than willing to show it to anyone that wants it, I can't think of circumstance where I felt that someone wanted to see my résumé, but wasn't able to.  In fact, I suspect that I, like most job-seekers, have the opposite problem: I frequently want to show people my résumé, but no one really cares to see it.  So why does it need to be posted on the internet, again?

My intuition that LinkedIn isn't really helping me get a job was all-but-confirmed by Ann Friedman's excellent article for The Baffler recently.  It casts the site as, in essence, a slightly scammy attempt to promote useless self-help pieces:
LinkedIn’s architects are self-aware enough to know that, even in the age of social-media following, some of us must be leaders. In October, the site enabled users to “follow” a handpicked set of “thought leaders.” LinkedIn has given this “select group” permission “to write long-form content on LinkedIn and have their words and sharing activity be followed by our 187 million members.” So far, 190 leaders have made the cut. The “most-followed influencers” are familiar names to anyone who’s ever killed time in an airport bookstore: Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington, Tony Robbins...
[M]ost of the thought-leading counsel on offer at LinkedIn boils down to search-engine-friendly, evergreen nuggets of business advice. An article titled “Three Pieces of Career Advice That Changed My Life” is illustrated with stock photos showing street signs at the corner of “Opportunity Blvd.” and “Career Dr.” At this very promising intersection, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explains that readers can do anything they put their minds to, that technology will come to rule everything, and that changing lives is a better goal than merely pushing paper around. This set of warmed-over management nostrums is one of the all-time top five “influencer posts” on the site.
Really, though, there's a bit more to LinkedIn than that.  The site predates its "thought leader" pieces, and the networking craze predates LinkedIn.  The idea that networking is the foundation of the job search is endemic in university career offices, for instance.  My law school sponsors an unending stream of networking events, where desperate students can rub elbows with employers.

What's strange about the emphasis on networking is that it leaves out an incredibly important step: the part where someone gets hired.  It's employment through osmosis: it relies on the inexplicable logic that the knowing of people with jobs will eventually transmute into a job itself.

How that happens, no one seems to be able to say.  I know because I've asked.  Career specialists who give very clear, very straightforward advice on where to go, what to say, and how to act in order to make connections starting speaking in vague generalities when you ask them what to do with those connections.  Massage them, apparently.  It's the final and most crucial step in the process, which is a very odd time to suddenly get circumspect.

It's not really their fault, though.  The right way to get hired is obvious, but as the Friedman article intimates, no one wants to hear it.  The most direct and reliable (though by no means foolproof) route to employment remains the same as ever:
  1. Find an employer with an available position.
  2. Apply for that position.
  3. Be the most qualified applicant and give a good interview.
The problem with this, from a career advice perspective, is that it places a lot of importance on factors outside the job-seeker's control: employers, competing job-seekers, macroeconomic policymakers, etc.  That's not very heartening for people who want jobs, and not very helpful if you want to sell services teaching those people how to improve their employment prospects.  As a result, the career industry has placed undue amounts of emphasis on a handful of factors that influence hiring indirectly, factors that only increase the odds of finding a position marginally.  

Over time, the industry's laser focus on factors within the job-seeker's control has taken on a life of its own, with huge expenditures of time and effort on almost comically narrow aspects of the process.  Consider résumé writing, something for which you can currently find services, courses, and other guidance.  Lost in the barrage of tips, tricks, and techniques is the simple reality that a résumé is just a list of qualifications and those are what are ultimately being judged, not whether the applicant is correctly performing a ritual of composition.

LinkedIn and networking services are just another manifestation of this.  Making connections--particularly offline connections--isn't useless, of course, but it only helps at the margin, and like most marginal improvements, there are diminishing returns.  A person with 900 LinkedIn connections isn't a compulsively employable juggernaut who employers deny at their own risk.  In fact, at some point, one has to question whether the time spent getting to know potential employers or finding job leads might not have been better spent just learning some substantive skills.

But to a person who wants a job in an economy where jobs are hard to come by, learning substantive skills  feels, ironically, like a pretty circuitous path to employment, and one with little guarantee of material reward.  By contrast, networking feels like leaving no stone unturned.  Small wonder that so many pursue it so relentlessly.

(As an aside,there are a lot of parallels in this respect between the career industry and the personal finance industry.  As described in Pound Foolish, Helaine Olen's indictment of personal finance, most people's long-run financial outlooks are determined by large-scale factors thoroughly out of their control: market performance, national employment trends, the inner workings of the pension and retirement industries. But that's discomfiting to average Americans with no control over the financial landscape, leading to the emergence of a booming advice industry, with endless financial self-help books, gurus, and courses. In these, investment celebrities like Suze Orman preach, essentially, a variant of the prosperity gospel: be smart with your money, and you will inevitably prosper.  The problem is that even smart use of retirement accounts can't save you when the stock market tanks six months before you retire, so in many cases this advice amounts to little more than a mystical belief that financial prudence will result in karmic rewards.  Even in optimistic cases, the cost of the advice will usually outstrip any predictable gains it could produce, and even the best advice can't protect working men and women from economic calamities outside their control.)

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