Labor Participation Rate: What Job?

I’m taking my afternoon break from piano practice.  After all these years, I’m still struggling with simple exercises.  I admit to being a slow learner.  Lately I have been practicing without a teacher.  I’ve had teachers before so I know pretty much what they would say on my weekly progress so I can emulate their suggestions as I struggle through the pieces.  I will go and find a teacher when I reach a point where I can feel more competent that I can make steady progress week to week.  I do think I am making progress so may be I’ll try to find a teacher this coming fall.

I learned about the interviewing process from my earlier experiences of finding an introductory piano teacher.   I had to audition my skills such as they were and the teacher gave a mini-lesson.   The real point of that initial meeting was to be sure we could work together.   It is a two way relationship.   I have to be sold on the fact that they can teach me and the teacher has to sold on the fact that he can teach me.

For now, I’m working on my skills to make a better impression when I audition for a new a new teacher.   Even though I’m offering to pay for the lessons, I want to show promise that I won’t waste his time or tarnish his reputation at a teacher.

I mention this little observation to contrast it with the interview process for a job.

Compared to employment scenarios, a piano teacher is a low risk proposition.  The one student fee (one hour per week) is small and all we are talking about is some hobby activity.   Despite that, the interview process for getting a teacher seems to be far more rigorous than that of taking on a full time job.

In earlier posts I imagined earlier times that I over simplified as an employer being primarily interested in filling a position with someone who is hard working, honest, and loyal.   An interview process is little more than the following exchange:

Employer: I’m looking to fill this position

Employee: I’m available to fill that position

Employer: When can you start?

Employee: When can I start?

In between there may be a little chatter to get to know each other, but in terms of discussing the actual demands and skills it didn’t really go much beyond that because those details were expected to to be worked out later.

Today employment process has a lot more steps but most of these steps are to weed out the rejects instead of clarifying the specifics for the selected candidate.   These steps occurring before the interview include the appropriate prior credentials and experience, a relevant resume and cover letter, good references who can be contacted, and an agreement to the basic duties and assurances that nothing was misrepresented.   Then comes an interview that usually is less than an hour or even much less than an hour.   Sure there is chit-chat about things and they then to be about work experience but the only information exchanged is roughly that I suggested in the above exchange.

There is no real information about what exactly the person will be doing from either perspective: what the employer expects or what the employee expects.    They only know that the opportunity is there to get what they want.   The actual details are worked out after the start date.

My experience is in the information technology field where the work was usually something involving the software development process.  The interview process can be quite technical to judge ability in a broad sense.   Some of the topics may be drawn from examples of actual problems the employer is facing, but the examples are highly simplified or sanitized.   The interview process is primarily to verify the skills expressed in the resume or considered representative of the job.

There is insufficient time or approvals to permit more detailed discussion of the job.   These details are left to be discovered after the new hire starts the job.  There is always substantial portion of the actual nature of work that can only be observed after joining the team.   While certainly the pre-hire process may involve some technical challenges and technical questions and answers from both sides of the table, these are generally superficial to the actual day-to-day job.

In the job interview process, there is rarely anything comparable to that audition process I described in picking a piano teacher.   From personal experience, I have never encountered anything like an audition.   Even when I was a hiring manager, there were numerous barriers preventing that from occurring.

A piano skill audition is simple enough to accomplish in as little as 10 minutes.  A comparably informative job audition would take a full day if not longer.    In today’s IT world, it would take at least a week just to set up the necessary computer accounts and mandatory training just to start the audition process.   The only way that can occur is when the job has already been offered and accepted.

Also, the modern employment process involves a considerable investment to get to that start date.   That investment discourages the employer from considering a concept of a probational or provisional period of employment to see if the job is a good fit.   Similarly the the negative impressions of a resume reporting a job that was too short in duration discourages the employee from quitting after finding out the job is not a good fit.

Very often the first few weeks at a job are a revelation on both sides.   More details about the job duties and description emerge and often these stray far outside of the areas discussed in the job description and interview process.   These are usually things that are just taken for granted and not needing special qualifications.   But that information could have influenced the hiring process if it were known earlier.   Either the candidate will recognize he is uncomfortable with the requirements or the employer will recognize that the abilities he normally takes for granted do not apply to this candidate.

Similarly, the actual work habits and personality of the new hire emerge during the initial period.  These may expose a fundamental incompatibility between the new hire and the internal culture.    It may be work related such as the new hire’s preferences for organizing his work is not compatible with the team’s preferences: the team does things differently here.   Or it may be non-work related.   For example in virtually every place I’ve worked there seems to be some group who prefers to keep the overhead lights off.  If they are the first in the office they don’t turn on the lights.  When someone later enters and turns on the lights, they are greeted with a growling sound.  A less trivial example is where there are extreme political opinions that are not easily suppressed: either the team is united in out-loud expression of support of a particular political view contrary to the new hire’s more moderate positions, or the new hire has trouble suppressing his own views in contrary the team’s moderate position.  Examples like these would have been much more useful to work out before accepting the job.

In a number of earlier posts, I explored some ideas of alternative explanations for a decline in workforce participation rates over the years.    I am motivated to offer alternatives to usual suspects of poor job markets, mismatched skills, or readily available entitlements.   I wonder whether the earlier times with higher labor participation rates may have had a job culture that was more attractive for participation.

In this post, I’m suggesting an explanation that there may be insufficient information available to describe the job duties and environment to make an informed decision to commit to a particular job.  Perhaps it is not a result of changing work culture, perhaps work culture always was a proposition of finding out after starting.   There may instead be a change in the overall culture.  Workers may be wiser of the stakes of joining a potentially incompatible job.   In either, the individual may see a new job opportunity as a gamble with unacceptably high uncertainty of the risks of disappointment.

I have been paying attention to the recent controversy with Mozilla’s short-termed CEO Brendan Eich.   Irrespective of the issues surrounding the controversy, I think it is a vivid example of a job audition, a probationary period at a new job to confirm it is a good fit.   He had the position for a week or so and everyone mutually agreed it was not going to work out.

Unfortunately, only CEO-level positions can get away with that kind of probation.   Most lower level positions would have resulted in a considerable period of painful adaptation.

Also this particular example illustrates the problem of the exaggerated national political debates spilling over into open cubicle work environments.   A person with moderate views and no interests in these debates may find them unavoidable in workplace.   The open collaborative environments designed to facilitate productive exchanging of work-related ideas also makes it impossible to avoid the non-work related politically tinged discussions that are tolerable only if everyone in the office shares the same views or enthusiasms.

Political views and enthusiasms are not permitted to be discussed during the interview process.   It is instead a surprise to learn after starting the first day.  The increasingly likely possibility of falling into a firestorm as illustrated in the Mozilla example may discourage potential job seekers from joining the labor market.

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2 thoughts on “Labor Participation Rate: What Job?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on recruiting the unconscious mind | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Labor force participation: thoughts on hard to fill vacancies | kenneumeister

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