Thursday, June 18, 2020

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I came across a blog posting that offered the following definition of an entry-level position: "An entry-level job is a position that requires basic skills and little job experience to obtain." Later, it went on to say that: "Most entry-level jobs list two to five years of previous experience as a requirement." It pointed to an employer website, which, when asked if they had entry-level opportunities for newly-minted college graduates, answered: "For entry-level roles, we commonly look for 3-5 years' of work-related experience in a related field."

While I've seen people describe this as cynical corporate greed (companies wanting experience, but not wanting to pay for it), what I think is happening here is simply an evolution in business language. It's not as splashy or rapid as a new corporate buzzword bursting onto the scene, but in effect, we are watching "entry-level" shift from denoting a role that is intended as an entry into the workforce, or a given industry, to denoting an entry into a particular company. And, as might be expected with such shifts, it's confusing, as job seekers and employees are using the same words, but not with the same meanings. Eventually, I suspect, the language changeover will be complete, and the new definition of "entry-level" will become common parlance, and some new term will arise to fill in the gap.

In the meantime, there are plenty of suggestions as to what job seekers should do. And this is where we arrive at the heart of the matter.

The first common suggestion was to find internships. Note that "internship" also lacks a single, narrow definition. An internship can be either one where the intern is dong work for the company, in which case the United States Department of Labor says that the intern should be treated as an employee, and is entitled to minimum wage and overtime, or one in which the internship is effectively an extension of an educational environment. The expectation that people will work for low wages, or forgo the opportunity for other paid work to land an internship, will have the effect of selecting for people who have other financial support. Which is likely going to mean that they come from more well-off families. (And this doesn't consider those "internships" that are basically training programs paid for by their participants.)

The second common suggestion was volunteer work. This too, selects for those people who can support themselves, or have someone to support them, while they gain unpaid experience.

The third common suggestion was freelance work. The "gig economy" as it's come to be called, may be a better option than a very low wage as an intern, or none as a volunteer, but it also selects for those who have some other means of support. Freelance work often sees people competing for the available jobs by attempting to undercut other applicants for the work. A person who doesn't have to support themselves entirely with their own work can do this easier than someone whose living expenses place a hard floor under their bids.

While all of the above suggestions are well-meaning, they all favor those people who already have a certain amount of wealth, or have families that can afford to support them. This selection process would have the result of entrenching historical patterns of family wealth, as people who can afford to gamble on anywhere from two to five years of low, non-existent or precarious wages are better placed to attain better wages later than those who cannot.

Another suggestion, offered by an employer, was effectively: "Find someone else to hire you, then come over to us later." This has the societal benefit of not locking in current patterns of wealth distribution, but it's unlikely to be a workable strategy in the long term. After all, other employers are unlikely to tolerate being seen as a way for other companies, either complementary or competing, to outsource their training departments, and the costs associated with them. This is the whole root of the idea that landing a first job is a catch-22; no business wants to hire people and train them, just to see them leave for a more desirable employer. As a result, rather than remaining the preference of a few élite employers, the idea is likely to catch on, and employers in general will seek to avoid training, which will mean that it will fall to employees to seek out their own training.

One interesting suggestion, and the last one I'll deal with here, was to simply ignore the requirement. The idea here is that employers always ask for the perfect, candidate, so job seekers should go into the process with the idea that since this perfect candidate doesn't exist, they may way well go for it. According to an often-quoted Hewlett-Packard internal report, while men will apply to roles when they meet only 60% of the listed requirements, women tend to only apply when they can check off all of the boxes. But when Harvard Business Review surveyed people as to why they didn't apply for roles when they didn't meet all of the requirements, the top answer for both men and women was simple: “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.” For women, the second most common answer was effectively that they didn't want to set themselves up for failure, and for men, that they wanted to respect the time of the person doing the reviewing. HBR says that these reasons represent a mistaken perception of the hiring process, but when people are just coming into the professional workforce, how are they supposed to have accurate perceptions? Especially when the language around the process is inconsistent?

The problem is not likely to be resolved any time soon. The term "entry-level" my find a replacement, but employer unwillingness to train and opacity around process will only grow as automation becomes more common, and the ability to have people working from anywhere in the world means that the potential pool of employees grows. Of course, it can't go on forever, but how long it will be until the next big labor-intensive thing comes along remains to be seen.

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