How hard could it be to find a job?
A writer goes undercover to explore a dark and lonely corner of the corporate world
At some point, every workplace in America is going to have to post a photo of author Barbara Ehrenreich on the bulletin board with a warning: Head for the hills if she turns up.
First, Ms. Ehrenreich went undercover as a waitress, a maid, and a Wal-Mart employee to unveil the struggles of the poor in the bestselling 2001 book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." Now she's back in disguise again, this time to expose the dismal world of "white-collar downward mobility."
In Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich reverts to her maiden name and turns herself into a middle-aged public relations consultant who needs a full-time job. She spends hours in coffeehouses and dreary hotel conference rooms, enduring tedious spiels from incompetent career coaches and money-hungry résumé gurus. She even gets an image makeover to change her from "authoritarian" to "approachable," complete with a mandate that she never wear black again.
Ehrenreich's sharp observational skills make a return appearance in "Bait and Switch," along with her trademark dry wit and righteous indignation about the unfairness of the American economy. But she has trouble stoking reader interest in jobless white-collar workers, members of a class she had previously written off as "too comfortable and too powerful" for her attention.
Many of the job seekers she encounters are in a state of despair, but few seem to have appealing personalities or interesting life stories, and Ehrenreich doesn't help matters by being mystified by job titles like systems architect and account manager.
Ehrenreich fails in her own job search. Success isn't to be found in "mind-over-matter" spiritual exhortations (that in passing she incorrectly likens to Christian Science) nor in limp motivational speeches, both of which are offered by lackluster career consultants who seem only too happy to pick her pocket.
But is it any wonder that she can't find someone to hire her? Ehrenreich can't turn to a large network of former clients for job leads because her imaginary PR consultant doesn't really exist. In another potentially fatal flaw, it takes her forever to realize that it might be a good idea to hobnob with actual PR people instead of a hodgepodge of the jobless.
Most amazing of all is Ehrenreich's naiveté about the job market. She's surprised that white-collar workers massage the truth out of their résumés, that they focus intensely on what they wear, that they must deal with bosses who care more about people skills than job skills. She's even taken aback when someone suggests she delete the date of her college graduation from her résumé so she won't come across as too old.
This stranger-in-a-strange-land attitude wears thin, especially coming from someone who should be more aware. Where has she been?
And while she's quick to rip on the evils of corporate culture, Ehrenreich doesn't stop to consider potential weaknesses in the jobless people she runs across. Are they overqualified for the positions they want? Underqualified? Or simply as clueless about job seeking as she is?
Ultimately, though, Ehrenreich's rich sense of humor saves "Bait and Switch" from being an annoying downer of a book.
In one chapter, she hilariously recaps an empowered meeting with her sad-sack career coach: In a delicious speech, she declares that he himself needs to hire her to boost his image.
Elsewhere, she provides a fascinating inside look at a consultant's advice to PR people in a seminar on crisis management. Their biggest initial obstacle in an emergency, it seems, won't be the media. Instead, it'll be grabbing the attention of an oblivious CEO.
But the most powerful passages are far from funny. In them, Ehrenreich details the unhappy fates that face many of the white-collar jobless: the dehumanizing job searches that often lead to low-paying service jobs, high-pressure independent contractor positions, and permanent part-time employment. And forget about benefits like health insurance.
Ultimately, most of Ehrenreich's readers already know more about the demeaning aspects of corporate employment than they do about the struggles of the lower classes, so "Bait and Switch" won't have the impact that "Nickel and Dimed" did.
But at least, thanks to Ehrenreich, someone is telling the stories of the unemployed who are too rich to be poor - and desperately struggling to stay that way.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.