Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

More on the gentle art of career counseling

Career counselors recognise Bernard Haldane (1911-2002) as the founder of their profession. It was with the firm he founded that I had my first round of job coaching 27 years ago.

First, I call the reader's attention to the dates of Haldane's chief influence: 1960-1977. Second, I suggest Googling just Mr. Haldane's name, which brings you to the firm he founded (and left in 1977) and the many, many pages of consumer complaints against it. Just hold those thoughts.

When Haldane coined the expression "hidden job market," he meant nothing more or less than the jobs one finds using friends, contacts, or business networks. When I was a Haldane client, no one pretended otherwise. You were set on your feet and given some tools that allowed you to live by your wits. Anything that was hidden, one had to tease out for oneself. If you browse some of the consumer complaints, you'll get an idea that times have changed. So they have, and what has changed, I think, reflects some of my misgivings about today's career counseling/coaching/job pontificating in general.

The Haldane methodology was developed in and for the business world of the 1950s and 60s. There was no Internet, no voicemail, no key card access to office buildings. There were no mass layoffs at the first sign of economic trouble until the early 1970s. At most times, the number of people in the job market was manageably small. If you needed resumes, you had them printed. I mean printed: offset usually, but maybe even with hot lead typesetting. Telephone screening was a receptionist whom one could get (hopefully) on one's side. Building security was the night watchman.

It was very much an old boys' club, with a relatively finite number of industries. In the upper levels, the old boys belonged to the same clubs and were only a couple of degrees separated from every other old boy in the country. The very informal networking taught by Haldane worked very well in that world. His business model saw to it that only people affluent enough already to have some entree to those power networks became clients. Those people, in theory, needed only encouragement and coaching to pull strings they already had.

It was also a world of sexism and segregation, not only by race and gender but by religion and ethnicity. No manager ever had to worry about provoking a lawsuit by circumventing equal opportunity laws: there weren't any.

By the time Haldane sold his company, there were signs that the world was changing. By the time I was a client in the early 1980s, the social attitudes were under pressure, word processing had appeared, the phenomenal growth we've seen of industries, not just businesses, had already begun. Today, the climate in which and for which the Haldane model was created has vanished almost completely. I suspect the company's business model did not keep up. In the early 1980s, for example, the firm's well-compiled lists of companies who were hiring, and hiring managers, were valuable to clients, because the only other like tool a job-seeker had was the print want ads. Today, such lists must be obsolete the minute they're generated. Somehow, the mantra of the network being hidden inside you, the client, seems to have collapsed in response to the naive people who expect they are going to get a medicine show elixir of secret formulae. That's a pity all around.

What can we say of the hundreds of career authorities (feel free to pick your label) whose business model is still Bernard Haldane's? For one thing, it's no wonder the present has them stunned and confused, to use Lincoln's simile, "like a duck hit on the head." In a field that requires a continuous show of unfailing optimism, these people simply cannot say "I don't know what to do next." What do they do in an employment environment in which job vacancies must be posted, are posted globally in nanoseconds, and may have a quota of finalists (from 1000 candidates) within 24 hours? How can job-seekers trumpet a prepared list of their strengths to HR departments whose sole interest is whether a candidate fits ten qualifications out of ten without having to apply any lubrication? What if the majority of a job-seeker's actual network of friends and colleagues are either retired or themselves unemployed?

These are questions never conceived of 50 years ago. My personal cure for my native pessimism is to make a joke of it, ("I'm a Celt: I think optimism is a social disease.") but I am exasperated and amused by turns by the pervasive denial shown by so many of the people who have the damn gall to give advice when they truly don't know what the questions are anymore.

Show us some imagination, pundits, then perhaps we'll give you some confidence.

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