19 November 2010

Returning to Vienna from Camp David (Career Camp)

The other day, I returned to Vienna after altogether four weeks of "career camp" in the UK. Dave, a friend of mine whom I met in the hostel and who now has a flat of his own, offered me his guest room and from day one became my CV guru! I thought my bullet-point CV was pretty much bullet-proof, except for the profile section at the very top perhaps but since I already have 157 versions of my CV and am always open-minded about improvement, I was very grateful for the advice on how to completely convert of my CV from chronological format to skills-based format (a format particularly popular in the UK/US), how to pitch myself in the heading (ie "two years of X experience, speaks three European and three Asian languages") and a few changes on phrasing and how to present any possible weaknesses as strenghts ("If you have a wooden leg, show it!"). It's all about psychology, really. I later found out that all these tricks that Dave had been shown by top managers himself were actually consistent with NLP, so no surprise there.

Every day, I would go to Starbucks to use the internet (it's free if you get a loyalty card) and stay until they close. I tried local job agencies for local secretary/receptionist/admin jobs, job listings for people interested in charities and development, I contacted people for career advice and networking (development professionals, HR people of humanitarian organisations, high school teachers who taught development professionals, SOAS alumni I have never met, SOAS alumni I used to work with). When I visited SOAS, I bumped into other qualified graduates from my course who have also been looking for jobs in vain and are surviving on hourly temping here and there and were bemoaning their equally frustrating experiences in the current job market. I stopped checking NGO websites directly because they would only advertise for unpaid interns and volunteers anymore. Dave often asked me why I wasn't applying to jobs I am qualified for. It is a good question. I guess I slipped into looking for everything else because that is where the money is and it would allow me a buffer to pursue the kind of job I really want to do. Besides, I assume that at times of economic crisis, recruiters look for people who would be able to do the job of three people and hence raise the eligibility criteria and number of years of experience. Besides, a crucial skill in any job in development is budget management (because many NGOs are donor-funded and the work largely project-based in nature). It is the kind of thing no NGO wants to teach you but every NGO expects you to have. Sometimes, I fulfil all criteria except "proven experience of having managed a budget of £25000 or more". A more senior friend of mine is applying for a job that requires her to have managed a budget of £1m before and ideally, also be fluent in the local language!

The more qualified the job, the more elaborate the job application procedure. And while I have been determined in the past to fill out ten-page application forms, it is quite a frustrating thing to do in series, particularly when in most cases you are already informed in advance that "due to the high number of applicants, we are unable to give any individual feedback". I applied to a local university library, one I have been using practically every day. I did not hear back from them, despite what I believe was a strong personal statement. Libraries in Oxford are generally equipped by part-time staff and I have seen ads with requirements ranging from GCSE (Brookes University) to a desirable degree in library and/or information management (Bodleian Libraries). I had volunteered at a departmental library before, know the collection and reader services of the library I applied to very well because of my related degree and professional experience and still was not even short-listed or contacted.

I also tried local publishing houses as they are some of the largest local employers but it is not surprising that they are not hiring at the moment either. I applied for a job as online customer service assistant for subscriptions, basically helping people who have problems accessing their online academic journals. A no-brainer but still did not get invited for interview.

My first call for an interview with the killer CV was of course, a German-related job. When I got the call, I had laryngitis and it hurt to even croak for a bus ticket, let alone have a self-selling phone conversation with a woman who presented a lot of convoluted information about the role at the pace of a high-speed train when I am in a cafe brimming with people on a rainy day. It was a permanent job as Marketing Executive and probably not a good match anyway. I also received interest to work for a German hearing aid company (never heard back from them) and most recently, a major airline conglomerate which needed German speakers as well. Although I was very interested in the company and its benefits like discount on flights after six months and a bonus for speaking two foreign languages fluently, I was less happy with the fact that it was located in London zone 4, required six (!) days a week of duty and only paid £18000 a year. Considering that it's Christmas soon and I would have only one full day a week to commute to Central London and meet people and that it again is customer service, I decided to give it a pass and return to Austria.

Before my return then, I followed the suggestion of my friend Kat and applied for an internship in Austrian public service (paid at 50% of a civil servant's salary, that is 1000 per month) and did not get that either even though I lived abroad, speak several languages and studied something related just because they prefer someone with an advanced degree (unofficially, ideally a law degree) - or at least that was the official explanation. For political reasons they probably want to promote students who mostly studied at an Austrian national university. And even then, I believe a Master should be entitled to the full salary of a junior civil servant. All this, in my opinion, it is a typical example of the prevailing job market mentality in Austria to put the authority of certificates and diplomas over an individual assessment of the qualities of each applicant and how their diverse experience can contribute to an innovative and dynamic organisational identity. At the same time, the same department discreetly hires secretaries via job agencies which technically, they are not supposed to do. I also know of people who are still working on their Master dissertation and are doing an internship in another department and I know of civil servants who gained an additional degree while working, asked for a raise, did not get it, asked for a promotion, did not get it and had no other choice but to terminate their employment and seek a more fulfilling role elsewhere. And the boss was even surprised!

Currently, I am trying to find work as (evening) secretary in chambers and when I had just sent such an application to a friend for review, I found THIS article (in German) describing how some chambers advertise for an experienced secretary with professional attitude who is presentable, fluent in German and English and possesses excellent software skills. The person would be in charge for the entire office management for 30-40 hours a week. Salary: 6€/hour! The Austrian Chamber of Labour (an organisation that represents the interests of employees and consumers but is not a trade union) says that they have had a lot of reports of wage dumping like these and will follow up any cases with "great pleasure". They also say that a lot of students and graduates find themselves in short-term and medium-term insecurity in regards to life-planning as their second degree and eventual entry into a skilled profession gets delayed, not least through the requirement of internships and work placements but also because the administration has announced that it will lower the family benefit age to 24 on January 1st. I couldn't have written the article better myself, it speaks from my heart: I have the impression that I am losing any career advantage I have gained to the crisis. That all the efforts I have put into my career are currently not making a difference. Earlier this summer, I checked ads with migration-related organisations that I would definitely qualify for. Sadly, they advertised a lot of unpaid internships for research projects where technically, they could have also hired paid consultants or one or two permanent junior officers. One of those internships was not only advertised on the organisation's website but also in a student job database, with a salary of 6€/hr. I was surprised it was paid and thought, OK, since this is a job related to migration that I find interesting, rewarding and that will get me further eventually, I would do it for 6€. I went to the lengths of writing an application and even contacting a referee abroad only to find out that in fact, it was a "mistake" in the ad and that actually the full-time internship is unpaid! Now, I like to think that this is a prank of the (student) website administrators on those who employ unpaid staff. There was also a second job where they were looking for an assistant to set up a human rights film festival. The woman who had the pleasure of dealing with the applications sounded clearly frustrated because I probably wasn't the first to tell her that I would only do it if they pay me for my labour. That was in the summer.

Now that Dave was as kind as to print a list of the 30 most commonly asked interview questions complete with suggestions how to go about answering them (and even offered to do a mock interview with me!), and after reading the newspaper article mentioned above, I realised that there is one question that is not on any list: "This job is an unpaid position. Is that OK with you?" While I understand that funding is limited in some cases like small charities, I would like to know how to convince someone to pay you when there is room in the budget except they would rather not spend it on "non-essential expenditures". I went through different scenarios in my head: "That depends. Are accommodation and living expenses included?" or "Sure, where in the office can I roll out my sleeping bag?" or if it were chambers, "Wow. I always thought lawyers earn more than 200 € an hour. I did not know some work for 6 € per hour too." Or bartering, "In exchange, do I get a voucher for free legal representation should I need any in the future?"

The search for a job continues.

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