I have never not been looking for work. Even during my longest tenure, a twelve-plus-year stint at a publicly traded utility company, I kept sending out resumes and cover letters. Three in 2000. Five in 2006. Thirty-one in 2011. So I have a good understanding of the ins and outs of job hunting–and I have been on the other side several times. Here is what I have learned:

  • Companies rarely send out acknowledgment of having received your materials.
  • Interviews, whether by phone or in person, are not promises of employment.
  • If something is going to pan out, it’s going to pan out quickly.
  • It can take weeks or months to make decisions and to communicate those back to applicants–though again, in most cases a response will never come.

Having played this game for so long I keep my expectations in check, but recently I started subscribing to a service that posts questions and comments from job hunters. These posts tell me, first, that a lot of people out there need work more than I ever have, and without the luxury of looking for a job while having a job. However, they also tell me that people entering the job market often have no idea what to expect. Here are some samples:

  • “I would like to know, why is it when you know a company is looking for help, and I am trying to deal with you all, you have the job posted, I have placed an application, but you guys give me the run around ! What’s up with that ?”
  • “I’m an 18 year old girl with a disabled mom and two younger brothers. So of course that means its time to go out and get a job. Its so devastating when you put out applications and attend many interviews and still no luck. I’m not sure if its something I’m doing wrong but why is this so hard? Gosh we definitely need another income and it doesn’t seem like employers care about that. I’m not going to give up though.”
  • “Have finally thrown in the towel. Have been unemployed for 9 months. First registered with around 6 agencies, it came to only two finding me work, but nothing tangible, like long-term. Too date I have been on numerous interviews, one part-time job, which lasted a week. Another one gave me the job, then went with someone else because I couldn’t start until two weeks. What next? I will have to relocate. This is a new year and I am frustrated and have given up, sorry to say.”
  • “I’m soooo tired of putting apps online and no one calls you back. What’s the point? It’s really frustrating to get no feed back on any of them. I have valid driver’s license, no bad background, Clean system. So what’s the problem employers?”

Well, there are a couple of problems. First, employers get a lot of applications from applicants who aren’t qualified for the position. When people get desperate enough, they’ll apply for anything, which wastes their time and energy as well as that of their prospective employer. Second, a lot of people are looking for jobs even though the unemployment rate is low. Currently the rate is 4.1 percent, but that translates to 6.6 million people. Finally, I don’t think people know how to present themselves to potential employers. Granted, an online message board is not the best indicator of a person’s grasp of grammar and communication skills, but employers have high standards because they can. 6.6 million people!

The problem transcends statistics. This week I interviewed for a position with an international, privately held company headquartered in St. Louis. Here are some of the instructions I received for the interview:

  • Clothing must be cleaned and pressed.
  • Shirts and blouses should be freshly laundered and tucked into pants or skirts.
  • Sunglasses should be worn outside the office only.
  • No jeans, denim fabric, or casual slacks.
  • No shorts.
  • Undergarments should be worn.

I am sure that each of these items is on the list because it is something the employer has actually seen–and in some cases now is desperately trying to un-see. Maybe it only happened once, but the fact that it happened at all indicates that many applicants don’t understand the cold realities of the job market–whether because they aren’t around people who model job-appropriate behaviors, because no institutions have helped them learn those behaviors, or both.

Like so many things in contemporary society, I think it comes down to social class. The irony is that the same economic forces that make jobs so competitive perpetuate the conditions that keep people from moving up financially. Individuals can temper their expectations. They can tuck in shirts and blouses. But they need help from all of us to climb the ladder.