Looking for Work in Naples

By - January 16, 2013

With our internet writing and publishing income lower and less certain now, I've been doing something that I haven't done in many years: looking for work. It's an interesting process, and I have learned a few things. First, I've learned that employers are suspicious of job applicants who have not had a job in almost ten years. The second thing I've learned (or perhaps this is just my assumption) is that for many jobs employers prefer to hire younger people. As a result of these two factors, after dozens of applications I have had exactly one interview.

Now, if I can get an interview I think I have a decent shot at getting hired. The employer can see that not having worked a job for a decade does not make one too much of an oddball. But sadly the third thing I have learned is that most hiring is done online now, which does not give me that in-person advantage that I at least imagine I have. In the case of the one interview I did get I discovered that the position was part time with bad hours and the $10 per hour wage they were willing to pay was, by the admission of the manager, the same as they paid fifteen years ago, when things cost half as much.

That was the fourth thing I learned. Wages for service and retail jobs are almost the same now as they were in the mid-1990s, which means that in real terms they have dropped at least 30% to 40% when accounting for the true rate of inflation. I don't think I'm remembering 1990s prices incorrectly, and it seems that oranges, bread, cars and gas and so on are all at least 30% more expensive now. Wages don't look so bad in the statistics because they often measure household income, ignoring the fact that there are many more homes now where more than one person works in order to pay the bills.

I went to a temporary work agency a while back, and have returned several times without any luck yet. Their system requires that you show up at 6:00 a.m. and wait for the order to come in. It is a slightly more formalized version of standing outside a Home Depot at dawn waiting for cash jobs. I supposedly have an advantage, since my name goes on the list of workers who have cars, which includes only a third of the guys there (mostly men; there is one woman who is a body builder and is looking for construction work or something).

My first time there I was surprised to see a dozen others waiting in the dark for the door to open. One man in his late fifties, who I will call Jack, was reminiscing with another about a common friend from Wisconsin (it seems that nobody here in Naples is actually from Florida). I'll call this remembered friend Scooter (his actual name was equally colorful). Jack told the story something like this:

"I was at this party in the woods... you know, with a big fire and fifty people. John Billing was paranoid and worried that he was too drunk and high, so I told him, 'You really think you're too high. Just turn around.' So he turns around and looks and here comes Scooter running toward us on the dirt road with his wife's dress on, laughing, and his wife, who was also freaking out on acid, is running naked behind him, falling every few feet in the mud. So John just looks at me, says, 'Yeah, I guess I'm okay,' and grabs another beer."

This was our morning entertainment, although the story was much funnier to the two who knew Scooter than for the rest of us. We learned shortly after that (everyone else was too sleepy to be talkative) that Scooter recently died when a car hit him as he crossed a street in the dark, presumably drunk or high. At exactly 6:00 a.m. a girl came to open the door. She turned on the lights and television and laid out the sign-in sheet.

I signed in and took one of the old theater seats that lined the room. At 7:30 I stopped watching the third repetition of the morning news and crossed my name off on the sign-in sheet, having been assured by several people that if there was no work by then it was unlikely there would be any more at all. Perhaps eight of the twenty who had showed up got to work, digging ditches, landscaping, or cleaning up construction sites. The jobs usually pay between $8 per hour and $10 per hour, although one of the guys told me that he had three days of furniture building at $14 per hour the previous week.

The next time I was there I talked to William, a carpenter, and I got his phone number in case I need help on a fixer upper (we're still looking for a house or condo to buy, fix and sell). He was a smart man, about my age (48), and had the best vocabulary of anyone there (although several others may have had a bigger vocabulary if you count obscenities). He was probably college educated I guessed. "I can work any time, he told me, "and I don't care where, because I'm homeless at the moment." Then he excused himself to find Harvey, in order to introduce me. "I think he's behind the building drinking a beer," William explained.

There was no work for me that morning. The key, it seems, is to get that first assignment and impress the client so you are called back if they have more than one day's work. Then, with a reputation as a good worker, you are more likely to get new assignments. I have been there three times now with no luck, and I just set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. so I can try again tomorrow.

Meanwhile I have to get several new pages done for the websites. They still pay the bills more or less, but we probably will not be able to compete with the million new websites that pop up daily.

I've been filling out those applications online as well. If you haven't had to search for a job for while you might not know about the newest scientific "surveys" that employers use to determine if you will be a good worker. I have had to fill out three or four of these online so far.

The questionnaire or survey is usually administered by a third party. These companies gather your data and analyze it for their, client, your prospective employer, presumably in order to screen candidates based on some psychological basis. First you agree to a ridiculously long disclosure document that I doubt has been read through by anyone in years. Then, having checked the box saying you read the disclosure and agree to the terms (did I agree not to write about this?), you get to the questions--more than a hundred of them on some questionnaires.

You are instructed to move through the questions quickly, because your initial reaction is supposedly the best. Your responses are used to determine which position is right for you they say, even though there is only one that you are applying for. Actually the questions are in the form of statements on most of these documents, and you are supposed to select a level of agreement ranging from "I totally agree," to "I totally disagree," with a neutral option in the middle. You are told "there are no right or wrong answers," and that you should therefore not try to guess which answer the employer is looking for.

Apparently it is a test of your gullibility. Do we really believe that there is no right answer the employer is looking for when they include a statement like: "When I make a promise, you can count on it."? Disagree totally? Really? On the other hand there are dozens of statements that are more subtle, like, "A person should always look for promotion opportunities at work." Do you want the manager to know you're gunning for his job? And when they say, "Taking a small item like a paperclip from work without permission is not a big deal," are you supposed to agree completely or will they then assume you are lying? Then there was this on my most recent questionnaire: "What your supervisor tells you to do is more important than what the customer wants." Hmm... Should you do a good job or keep your job? That's a tough call. Apparently my answers have been too honest or not dishonest enough so far (and I truly don't know which), since none of the employers who use these screening tools has even bothered to email me a rejection, let alone offer an interview.

I am also volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, the program that builds affordable housing for people with low incomes. I have worked on three different houses so far, and will work on a fourth next Tuesday. I like their program despite their mission statement, which says they aim to "demonstrate the love and teachings of Jesus," (I would prefer to just "help people who need an affordable place to live"). They are smart about their qualifying process, so only people who can handle the responsibility of owning a home get one, rather than just helping people into greater financial trouble, as so many banks did a few years back.

Apart from liking the work they do, I have other purposes. One is to connect with people who might know where I can get a job. Another is to learn some new skills or practice some old ones in case I end up looking for work in construction. A third purpose is to practice for when we do a fixer upper. I already got quite a bit of experience with our rental upstairs (I am now comfortable replacing electrical outlets and painting rooms). My first habitat home was a rehab, but the last two have been new builds. I have now painted (interior and exterior), put up walls, installed siding, and learned a few other skills as well.

So these are my days: I work online, and then I either go to the employment agency to sit for hours to wait for jobs that aren't available or I go and work for hours at a job that doesn't pay. Ana laughs at that description, and it's good that we were responsible enough with our money in better times so we can afford to have fun with our search for jobs, businesses or investments. Fortunately, Ana just started working part-time for the school system here, teaching mostly elderly people how to speak Spanish and (in another class) how to use Wordpress blogs, Facebook. and Twitter.

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