Thursday, August 4, 2005

49. No fairy godmother for jobless

The movie, Cinderella Man, engages in the romance of a boxing comeback, as a one-time contender cashes in on the chance of a lifetime to become an unlikely heavyweight champion. More than that, the movie takes place during the Depression, and details the difficulties faced by those that lost their jobs, those whose lives spiraled through unthinkable challenges to just survive. It is about reaching a point of desperation in which pride and dignity are no longer a factor in the face of opportunity.

What should have been a very special day for me, not only turned out to be quite the opposite- it also taught me a very valuable lesson in the nature of business. For, on this particular day, I was to sign for my first house. I was working a construction job while attending school- very uninterestingly, like many young adults. Suddenly, things changed. I remember the moment almost in slow motion as my boss called me to his office. I barely got in the door, and without asking me to sit down and void of any compassion, he said, "Friday will be your last day." I could hardly believe my ears, and, of course, asked, "Why, what did I do?" My boss simply answered, "Nothing, the development is nearly finished and we don't need you anymore." And that was that.

Not so coincidentally I found out, two weeks prior, one of his contractors offered me a job that included a significant pay raise. I wanted to prove my loyalty to the company I was working for- so I declined. In my naivety, I did not see it coming and, in actuality, the contractor that offered me a job did so, not only because he liked my work, but also because he knew I would lose my job. When I called him, after receiving the news, it was too late.

The business world is different today in that many people have multiple careers and end up working for several companies throughout their lives. Though the experience of losing a job, on a societal level, is not comparable to the Depression, it is obviously quite significant to the person who no longer has a means of income. And the business world of today, for many reasons such as free trade agreements, globalization and the mere nature of capitalism, lends itself to downsizing, mergers and plant closings- all which put significant number of people out of work. Nothing hits me harder than hearing of someone who has lost his or her job.

Regardless of how one loses his or her job, whether it is because of downsizing, outsourcing, or plant closings- the consequences negatively influence financial stability, family unity, and self-esteem. In short, the loss of a job can ruin a person's life- as well as that of his or her family. The stress placed on that individual can test the resolve of even the best of men (and women).

The fortunate ones may begin to market themselves immediately, though they are likely to find the competition arduous. If the industry itself has collapsed or if the person losing the job no longer has a marketable skill, then often retraining is the challenge brought upon them. In fact, I did interview a few applicants who had lost their jobs after a number of years in a factory, and had gone on to become a nurse or nurse aid.

For most, reentry into the job market means a lot of time, effort, and disappointment. One must become immune, and not take personally, the number of doors that will be slammed in his or her face. Unfortunately, many who have jobs and who are involved in the employment process, either human resource managers or hiring administrators, seem to have forgotten or have never experienced what it is like to be looking for work. They often have the power to change a person's life, yet some exercise arrogance and dismay at the process in general- and the applicants in particular.

If that is not depressing enough, applicants must then fight through the nepotism, favoritism and discrimination that inevitably factors into many open positions. While most only want a "fair chance" at a job opening, the score is often settled based on personal connections and relationships. Through a number of methods, and because it is so difficult to prove otherwise, the most capable candidate may not always get the open position. Through the interview process, and underhanded tactics such as rewriting job descriptions or revising professional qualifications to suit certain candidates, the employer is generally free to hire whomever it desires- except in the most blatant cases of protected discrimination (age, race, etc.). However, just as in the example of losing a job, the employer seems to forget that they are playing with these people's lives. Ethics should dictate equal opportunity, an American meritocracy; however, reality and American aristocracy often prevail.

Nowhere is the importance of opportunity better documented than in the movie, Cinderella Man. Like those that suffered through the Depression, many people work very hard and endure through numerous hardships waiting for that one chance, that one opportunity. However, in a society in which caste increasingly decides who gets the opportunities, even at the microcosmic level, one cannot help to think how many stories like the Cinderella Man will never be told.