I Just Need A Job: Errors of the American Career Search

How our focus on "finding a job" has distracted us from "creating a career."

Posted Aug 23, 2013

Every month the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation Summary-- "the latest jobs report." Analysts and pundits claw each others eyes out upon hearing the figures and more often than not the President takes the hit. But what does it mean for us as individuals? These are the jobs we're applying for, but do the statistics affect how we conduct our job search? Probably not for the average worker, although it appears millions have stopped trying and exited the job market altogether.

Here's the first paragraph of this month's report (the next one comes out September 6th): 

"Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 162,000 in July, and the unemployment rate edged down to 7.4 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Employment rose in retail trade, food services and drinking places, financial activities, and wholesale trade."

So Americans are buying more food, booze, and clothes; does that information somehow influence where they're looking for jobs or how they write their resumes? Few of us read the jobs report or alter our job search as a result of its findings. When we're unemployed we just want a job (preferably one we won't hate) and we tend to follow a pretty standard method for getting one.

Working with a diverse demographic of job seekers, I find that most have tried a similar job search strategy: 1) update resume 2) write a good enough cover letter 3) spend hours poring over the big job boards and click submit on as many jobs as they have patience for.

They then call me, downtrodden and exasperated, because their job search strategy isn't working. And who can fault them? This same 3-part job search is what most of us know because it's the standard everywhere we look. The government, for its extensive lists of online career resources, is limited to providing moderately helpful but ultimately superficial career resources. The resources don't offer a whole lot of suggestions for how we can set ourselves apart as individuals competing for those 162,000 new jobs. The message has been the same forever: search more job boards, write a better cover letter, and update your resume. Oh, and don't forget to take a slew of career and personality assessments.

I remember taking one of the common high school job assessments and scoffing at its suggestion that I was most suited to be a bowling alley attendant. No disrespect to bowling alley attendants, but I've never scored above 120 and I wanted to become a chef. We're all asked what we want to be when we grew up, but unfortunately that question comes long before we're taught how to conduct the kind of self-inquiry that will lead to the answer.

If I sound aggravated, it's because I empathize with the millions of career seekers who are feeling tired and defeated. They're doing what they were taught on high school career day, in college career offices, and on all of the big corporate job search engines. Yet if those methods were truly working, I'm confident far fewer Americans would be underemployed or unhappily employed. Not just looking for a job, but creating their careers.

As a nation we are failing on this fundamental level of how we approach our career search. We rarely encourage students and job seekers to first and foremost identify who they are and what makes them thrive as individuals. Creative explorations of in-depth self-inquiry. Yet these important discussions inevitably tend to show up at some point in our careers. When the great click-and-send resume send-off yields no interviews, when a string of bad jobs leads us to career desperation, when the ubiquitous midlife crisis strikes-- we head to the therapist, career counselor, or life coach to find the answers to our unhappiness. So why haven't we introduced a better process at a younger age before students are shuffled off to career day to learn resumes 101?

A truly helpful career exploration is going to look more like a life exploration. It's an identification of core values, strengths, interests, passions, family and personal commitments, ambitions and goals, physical abilities, personality style, psychological resilience, support network, financial stability/viability, learning style, learning new and effective habits, and understanding the human change process. A career exploration ought to highlight individual uniqueness as an asset and pair exploration with education. An education on which factors influence how people thrive and live meaningful lives vs. those which tend to be less satisfying pursuits over time.*

Early in my first year of social work grad school I applied for a part-time opening at a busy student career center. I arrived for my first day of job orientation with the mindset that I was embarking on my own career of helping eager students identify the course of their lives. But that first day of training was my last day on the job. I was told I'd be helping students 1) update their resumes 2) write a good enough cover letter and 3) spend hours poring over the big job boards. I was to keep the revolving door spinning, and that was not my mission.

Don't get me wrong, there are guidance offices and career centers with amazing counselors who are dedicated to nurturing relationships with students and honoring their individuality. There's just nowhere near enough of them and it's not happening early enough in our education/career stream, or in the home. Too many students are walking out of those offices with only a few resume templates when they should be walking out with a big blank journal and the homework assignment of conducting in-depth career-focused self-discovery.

In my upcoming follow-up, I'll go further in depth into the components of an effective career exploration. Click the "subscribe by RSS" on the right side of the screen to be notified of my new articles.

*Additional reading for understanding what makes us thrive and how to deeply get to know ourselves as we embark on our career search:

  • Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener
  • The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does by Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Flourish by Martin Seligman
  • The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer
  • Live The Life You Love by Barbara Sher