21 January 2011

Over-qualified for an office job, under-qualified for a job in retail

You guys have probably been wondering what I have been up to lately and whether or not I have managed to find a job. Well, I wish my absence was due to long hours in the office but instead, I have only been busy writing applications. Despite my previous reservations in blogging about my predicament, I decided to be open about it and hope that others will either find the courage to talk about their un(der)employment or even better, share how they managed to land a full-time job that is remotely related to their field.

First of all, a major impediment to job-hunting in Austria is that employers here obsess about papers. You will often find that even in the early stages of your application you are asked to supply all certificates, diplomas and references, CRB as applicable together with your CV and cover letter. It was a killer list like this which prevented me last week from applying for a position as data entry clerk in parliament which I saw the night before the deadline. On another occasion, I was asked to present my high school diploma for the first time in five years (the last and only time I had to produce it was to matriculate at university!) and it has since been stowed away in storage (no, I do not have a scanned copy). Often you are also asked to supply your desired salary IN YOUR COVER LETTER but this is about to change as employers will be required by law to include the salary in the ad, as is already customary in the UK and US.

As for the required picture in your CV, it should ideally be high-res and show you in a dynamic pose, so photo booths are an absolute no-no. Although the average 15€ picture will do for most student jobs, I checked out how much a professional studio shot costs: 180€! This includes 20 shots, on DVD, professional lighting, digital retouch, studio make-up and styling (about 120€ without the latter two). I said to my friend Kat, whom I was having a laptop date with, “Damn, I actually need a job so I can afford the picture to apply for one!!!” Luckily, she is on a promotion newsletter and as luck had it, received a link to such a shoot for 40€ instead of 180€ the very next day! Wow. I grabbed it (as did about 200 others) and am already excited about my shoot. You might object that it is the qualifications that get you the interview but believe or not, according to an Austrian research conference, the Philosophicum Lech, a professional photo sadly still appears to be the most decisive factor in judging whether or not the applicant is competent (newspaper article HERE). Luckily, also that is about to change as anonymous applications are now being piloted in Germany and might soon be introduced in Austria as well. A good example how this can lead into discrimination based on looks is an ad I came across by an Italian shoe shop chain (d'Ambrosio) which required you to send a full-body (!) shot of yourself. It is not like this was a modelling or acting job. In the UK, no employer would dare to put that in a job ad for fear of litigation!

Although I prefer a temporary role in an office (office support, receptionist, secretary, project assistant), it is really frustrating that I cannot even apply in a shop as what I will call “the Austrian retail lobby” usually requires you to either be a trained retail sales(wo)man or be high school students or university students with at least some experience in retail. I am thinking of my application to two travel book shops that also sold language books. I would be perfectly able to advise customers not just thanks to my customer service experience gained in non-retail areas but also because I could demonstrate in my CV and in an unannounced pop quiz that I had a thorough knowledge of the product (I even found three mistakes in the questions!). The whole summer they had employed four high school and university students and two apprentices or so and when I came end of August they suddenly preferred someone who would stay permanently (“some of us have been here for 10 years!”) rather than keep their place dynamic by allowing people to actually travel and experience what they sell! This retail qualification sadly also precludes me from applying for two current vacancies in airport duty free shops, despite my multilingualism. Holiday season is over and so airlines do not recruit any staff either at the moment. I even looked at roles as customer service assistant for cargo companies at the airport and they require you to have experience in logistics! The only one that didn't required you to speak fluent Korean (!). Despite my disinterest in the catering sector, I even looked at an ad for a cafe at the airport but it requires you to have your own car due to their opening hours.

I sent applications for paid and unpaid jobs (in spontaneous applications I kept it deliberately vague which one but stressed in my pitch that I have two years of related experience) to: the Austrian chapter of an international development NGO, a human rights think tank affiliated with the University of Vienna, a paid internship as assistant coordinator of the annual human rights film festival in Vienna (which turned out to be unpaid but was advertised as paid due to an error in the student job database, also to the frustration of the woman who had the pleasure of informing the overflow of applicants), a Vienna-based international migration policy institute, two more migration-related organisations, the Austrian Red Cross for a migration/refugee-related role, a small German medical relief organisation for a project of theirs in Haiti (sometimes these organisations pay their volunteers flight, provide accommodation and a small allowance based on local purchasing power), an executive PA job for a Christian development NGO in Munich, a German development organisation in the Philippines, a UK NGO in the Philippines and checked out an international human trafficking NGO based in Bangkok that also has an office in Austria and a private English-speaking university as receptionist. I currently am awaiting the outcome of my application for two international law firms in Vienna where I applied as secretary (I got rejected by three others and just got rejected as office assistant by a consulting company with offices in Vienna, London and Spain). I just finished the extensive online application for another international organisation based in Vienna and when I get myself to do it, will also convert my CV into European format as required by a prospective employer in the development sector.

Although I received email replies to most (which is better than no acknowledgement at all), I only ever got invited for one (!) interview, with an international software company (awaiting developments before I blog about how I got asked about my zodiac sign and then was told I was overqualified!). My job agency also put me forward for the local branch of a Russian business bank which urgently needed a project assistant and just as suddenly didn't anymore. Finally, I also sent an application to a new hotel of an international hotel chain (mostly for the benefit of my mother who was told about this opportunity. I was pretty sure the hotel wanted experienced staff who would be able to hit the ground running and quickly develop a team routine to establish reputation and hence, turnover). There are a couple more clerical and charity-related jobs I applied to that I do not even remember, jobs I would have liked to apply to but where I lacked an essential skill (ie particular software) and I won't even mention the jobs I applied to in the UK.

I applied for a paid internship in Austrian government. I also approached a contact who worked in an embassy about career opportunities. The person made some enquiries and then told me that although they currently do not have any vacancies, that these were usually advertised in the database of the Austrian job centre. So to the Austrian job centre I went and signed up (that is another story deserving a blog post on its own).

I also sent my pitch to a human rights-related, Austrian-related organisation in Washington D.C. (actually, literally a stone's throw away from the White House) that advertised a paid internship. To clarify, I was not looking for an expensive internship, I happened to see the ad and thought I give it a try and would have never even contemplated it if had not said it was paid. I promptly received an enthusiastic email where I was “highly encouraged to apply” even though they were already in the interviewing stage, and invited to email should I have any questions of any kind. I sent them my application emphasising that I would only be able to afford (can you believe you actually need to afford work!?) working for them if the internship was paid and included a brief summary on some preliminary research I did on living costs to show them I was seriously interested in the role (hostel dorm 300$ a week, groceries maybe 200$ a month; the only financial info they mentioned in their email was a travel allowance of 300$ a month). Given that the minimum commitment is one year and 20 hours a week (visa regulations would not allow you to work for money in the remainder of your time by the way), it was clear that sadly, the only people able to afford interning there for 300$ a month were students within the D.C. area who had their own place to stay already anyway. Do I even have to mention that I never heard back from them after that?

With much disappointment and pain at the general lack of success in my attempts to secure a job in Austria, I eventually started experimenting with exchanging “SOAS” for “University of London” in my CV, as I suspected that the “African” part might have freaked out some employers (when an Austrian told me she knew someone who studied African Studies, she said it in a hushed tone, fearfully looking around to check if any of her office mates had heard!), if the “Oriental” part had not sent them running already. While in London saying you study at SOAS is mostly met with an enthusiastic, “Oh, SOAS!” and acknowledgement of the quality of teaching you received, in Austria it is met with doubts if this is really an accredited university. It also makes me a more colourful applicant (in the negative sense of the term) than many desire in a country desperate to maintain its "national identity". I also wondered if I will get more offers as office assistant if – in my CV at least, not in the interview when asked – I omitted the part where I used to work with refugees (OMG, refugees! Don't say that word out loud!) and pretended I was just travelling extensively and ad nauseam around Asia during that time (to dispel the recruiters' fear that I will quit as soon as I have enough money to disappear in Asia again). Even the mere idea of denying the existence of people in dire situations through no fault of their own and thereby acting against everything I believe in by tolerating xenophobia fills me with utter disgust. 60 years after the holocaust, Austria is still a very... convergent society. While respect for diversity is a must in many jobs not just in melting pot London but throughout the UK in general, “too much” respect for diversity and political correctness often reflects negatively (!) on you (!) in Austria.

Of course, lack of success can also be due to the fact that job applicants currently employed tend to be more attractive to recruiters who like Sony below, openly write in their ad that they were disregarding unemployed candidates:

(See CNN link at the bottom for the full news article. The irony is that they got a lot of bad publicity about a vacancy for a role in public relations...)

So while I continue looking and applying for jobs despite little motivation (what else am I supposed to do?), I would really like to take some kind of class, as learning something new is fun, keeps the mood up and mind sharp. It could also help prove that I was doing something productive while job hunting. And while I do want to take French classes again, I prefer to indulge for once in something just for fun as I am weary of pumping money into improving work-related skills without confirmation that it is worth continuing the investment. Ideally, I would love to take vocal classes, or take up the piano again (this time though I want to experiment with other genres than classical music). Another skill I would love to develop further is climbing. By attending a workshop with Kat, I could make the most out of the aspects of Austria that I actually find great during my involuntary stay here. Alas, although I finally have all the time and energy to engage in any of the above classes, I cannot afford any of them just yet. Therefore, I now start to take on the many technical aspects of singing through ebooks and YouTube lessons, made Le Monde one of my start tabs to ensure regular perusal to brush up my French, take a print edition of it apart with highlighters to get a feel for syntax and semantics again, catch up with the film-making world by watching captivating movies that lift the heart and re-enchant the world, roam the net for career insights, find comfort in reading the experiences of other unemployed graduates (apparently there is a blogger coalition “Lawyers against the law school scam” by unemployed, indebted yet highly educated graduates), spend quality time with family and friends to make up for the time I was away and the time I will hopefully be working abroad again in the near future.

A Generation Lost in Space: Overeducated and Underemployed in America from Nick Padiak


Business Insider: Nine alarming statistics on the global youth unemployment crisis:

CNN: Looking for work? Unemployed need not apply:

RecruiterPoet's Blog: Looking for work? Unemployed need not apply II (Reactions to CNN article):

The Guardian: Graduates warned of record 70 applicants for every job:

Tough Guide to Work (amazing blog! great stuff to find there, actually even received an award!):

# Mentoring Mistakes:


# Six powerful questions to ask at a job interview: