Category Archives: Day Jobs

Keywords don’t tell my story, and scans fail me

SCANNING NOW But not by a person.
SCANNING NOW But not by a person.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment.

FOR three months I’d been applying for jobs like a mad thing, sending my details to agencies, job sites, networks, and written whole novels responding to advertisements. Yet in 70 applications I’d completely failed to secure a job.

Advice columns advised: “Don’t take it personally”, but that was getting harder to cop as I endured a shame spiral. I was a highly employable, qualified, and experienced media worker, with a resume spanning 16 years and three continents. I couldn’t see what made me so unattractive to employers.

Counselling from a fellow jobseeker gave me a clue. I was under the illusion that I was communicating with the gatekeepers of the land of the employed – agents, human resources staff – people, basically. But my friend enlightened me about the software used to scan many job applications.

I felt complete shock. All that time I’d been blocked by a computer? What did they want? Keywords, apparently. Like passwords in fairy tales, they hang in the air magically bestowing access to an income – if only I could name them.

I did some footwork and found whole websites devoted to keywords and sample resumes which made sample applicants sound like Orwellian robots.

The software had been around since my career began. A decade ago it was the tool of Fortune 500 companies wanting to filter top applicants from time wasters. Now no one is keen to admit how prevalent its use is.

Sympathetic friends suggested I cold-call companies. It became apparent that this once tried-and-true technique is now used by agencies seeking jobs for their clients and commissions from employers. Human resources departments don’t take calls or give out contact details much anymore. They don’t need to if their agency is seeking candidates for them.

The online resume forms for employment agencies smacked of the software, so I tried a few keywords I’d seen suggested in advice columns. Mirroring the vocabulary of the selection criteria, I just regurgitated the kind of words found in annual reports and mission statements. I was dumbing myself down to a degree I’d never experienced.

FILL THE FORM If there's a form to fill, that is.
FILL THE FORM If there’s a form to fill, that is.

I yearned for the good old days, when a job application letter and resume was acknowledged with at least a written response.

Now the average job application takes days to complete and months for companies to process. By the time you’ve responded to all the ‘essential’ criteria, the ‘desirable’ criteria loom on the horizon like the second half of a marathon. If you still apply knowing you don’t possess all these wish-list skills (could any candidate on earth match them all?) you must then relate a demonstrated ability or some proven skills in all of them, and keep the application short. It still baffles me how it’s possible to demonstrate or prove anything using words alone and remain succinct.

If you’re lucky you’ll hear the outcome of all this work. Invariably you’ll hear nothing.

One of the few replies I received was a rejection letter for a job I didn’t even apply for. Wonderful to open a letter from a real person, but pitiful they were letting me know the outcome of my non-application and my non-addressing of the selection criteria.

I have no problem admitting there are a few challenged in employing me. I live a two-hour commute from the city. I have some anomalies in my resume resulting from a bereavement period and a temporary illness. I have a mainstream career pathway in media, but also worked in sales, hospitality and aged care at times to get by.

Does this not exhibit tenacity, lateral thinking and honesty? If the software didn’t value such keywords, then I was going to need a bit of self-help.

I started doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Working through much anger to unearth what I enjoy doing, I realised that in all those job applications, I was seeking validation, an answer to that most judgmental of social questions – “so, what do you do Mike?”. When I can’t answer that, I feel a deep sense of shame.

Not securing that validation this time around could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I have dusted off my writing and illustrating skills, converted the shed into a studio, downsized my finances, applied for local jobs, and started telling people I’m using skills which I love.

It feels frightening at times, but I am forging ahead regardless.

I don’t want my epiphany to let employers off the hook. A wish list of what is required in an employee deserves to be met, and the candidates thrown up by the software might meet all the criteria and more, but isn’t that just a system being cleverly played?

Whatever – you won’t ever know me if you just scan me.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Care, incorporated

Waiting for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).
WAITING & WATCHING for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).

A Writer’s next day job.

BY the time I felt ready to work again after the death of my partner, I was drawn to an industry which seemed at first glance to be all about offering an old-fashioned helping hand. While I took time away from writing, acting and designing, I accepted a job as a carer for older people living in their homes.

Across four years, what I discovered was life enlarging and shocking, and, of course, I eventually wrote about it. This article was published by Australian Ageing Agenda (Intermedia) In their March-April 2010 edition.

Reflections of a carer

Former carer, Michael Burge, highlights the unintended consequences of government-funded community aged care.

Dan* lives alone in a cottage with a stunning garden. To his neighbours he’s like thousands of elderly men, gardening and feeding the birds. But Dan lives with a secret – he’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. That kind young man who used to call in and see him once a day was not his son, but me, when I worked for a church-owned community aged care organisation.

It took a few days to realise Dan has dementia but I guessed after we had the same conversation three times in a row. When I visited Dan, I would make his lunch and prompt him to dress. Apart from weekend visits from his retired daughter, who’d ask me for care tips, Dan was on his own.

I also cleaned for Ken and Betty, a war veteran and his wife. Ken had problems walking and was permanently catheterised, not that you would have known. As Betty was worried about losing him to a nursing home, she tried to hide all outward signs of his conditions from me.

Cameron lived with his son. Fond of telling me how many properties he owned, he bragged about securing maximum care at budget prices, since his son worked in the health system. Despite family support and excellent health, Cameron felt totally entitled.

Beryl had a degenerative joint condition, yet she handled the stairs on our weekly shopping trips with a mountain climber’s courage. I got used to the frowns from passers-by who saw a carer forcing her, rather than a woman choosing to participate in her own rehabilitation.

Klaus lived in squalor on booze and chocolate while his meals-on-wheels dinners went off in the hallway. He refused to get out of bed when I said I wasn’t permitted to take him to the bottle shop. This got him off out books and back into ‘no man’s land’.

WAITING AND WATCHING (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).
WAITING & WATCHING for solutions to home care (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).

Exposing the gaps

Carers are not there to judge, we’re there to do what our clients cannot. Trained in the practice of ‘person centred care’, we won’t do up a client’s buttons if they can still do it for themselves. Interfering might lead to ‘learned helplessness’.

Filled with such euphemisms for an old-fashioned helping hand, home care is touted as the ideal in aged care. Millions of taxpayer and private sector dollars are pumped into this growth industry every year, and the demand is only growing.

Expectations of home care are very high. It looks good on paper – after all, it’s about nurturing people facing one of life’s most challenging periods. But after working in home care for four years, I came to realise it’s just a safety net, and it’s full of holes.

So many older people are estranged from their families, or have outlived them and most of their friends. If you believed everything older Australians say about their baby-boomer children, you’d end up confused over which generation was the more demanding, but it’s clear someone is capitalising on this lack of intergenerational care within families.

Carers are deemed competent in infection control, manual handling and occupational health and safety. After warnings about old vacuum cleaners and hand washing, they do a couple of buddy shifts with experienced carers, then work relatively unsupervised in the field. Nurses are dubious of carer’s skills, yet they are turning away from aged care citing low pay and demanding conditions.

Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) clients get the most support, but they’re coded according to where they (or their spouses) served, in addition to having their needs assessed. This sometimes leaves the impression that some DVA clients are not getting enough care, whereas others seem to receive more than they need.

Experiencing the consequences

There can be few things more important than the care of people, but governments have a habit of throwing money at home care and regulating the system from a distance.

Operating from a charitable, benevolent or customer service standpoint, home care organisations fill the gap by providing broad safety nets in highly populated areas. These nets are stretched between middle and senior management, padded with charitable status tax-breaks and strung out by government funding.

Clients are netted at very vulnerable times. After a traumatic experience, such as a hospital stay because of a broken limb, they are contracted into the system. Many home care organisations eventually stream clients into their own residential care facilities.

I was recruited into a home care organisation at a vulnerable time in my life after the sudden death of my partner. Return-to-work mums were my most common colleagues. We were often full of doubt about our abilities and found it hard to get the promised hours out of our supervisors. They usually gave us just enough to keep us off the unemployment statistics but not enough to pay all our expenses.

After a promotion into the training department, I could see how the supervisor’s hands were tied by a system with a high number of needy, casual staff delivering minimal care hours to the maximum number of clients. It was also obvious that satisfying government regulation drew heavily on available funds.

Carers were commonly sent to new clients without knowing they had dementia and without the appropriate training to provide effective care. Clients were routinely kept in the dark about which day and time their carers were coming, unable to contact their service coordinator. The time supervisors spent with clients was regularly reduced by management, allowing important care needs to be overlooked.

Whatever reasons management had for this, the result always pushed the clients further from the centre of the care process, and contributed to an extremely high staff turnover. The hypocrisy of my employer not sharing its broad tax relief with employees was startling and I too eventually resigned.

NOT WAITING “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” said Bette Davis (1908-1989) (Photo: Alan Light).

An alternative approach

If the choice was up to me, I’d provide incentives for families to care for their own relatives, and pay Dan’s daughter for the one hour a day he needs. I’d cease planning which care facility I wanted to stream Ken into and I’d support Betty to care for him. I’d means test the system to filter out Cameron. I’d allow Klaus’s carer to take him to the bottle shop. I’d clarify the system which seems to define care needs based on service history for DVA clients. I’d aim for changes to free up resources for people who have limited funds and no family, like Beryl. I’d also make caring a real career option for employees.

Despite the fact that I am a fully trained and there are a plethora of aged care positions in the paper, I’ve chosen to work in a different industry since I left my previous employer. Aged care doesn’t offer an unconditional helping hand anymore. If it could, then the safety net might truly catch people.

*All names have been changed.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

The thing about Britain

BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.
BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in London’s Trafalgar Square.

TOWARDS the end of my second year working for United News and Media, the staff received news that our company was in the final stages of broad economic reforms that would cut right through the Farming Press office at Ipswich.

Signs of this began when an all-staff memorandum indicated that only one bottle of wine was permitted at business lunches, a message met with glee from people like us who worked at the fringes of this multinational company and had no idea we could even put wine on the company tab!

Perhaps it was our new-found business-lunch rights that finally tipped the company into financial free-fall? I doubt it, because it turned out the mechanics of change were underway years before my position was ever advertised.

By the end of 1997 the writing was on the wall. With no new employees since I’d started, I was faced with being ‘last on, first off’. So I took stock, decided it was time, for many reasons, to return to Australia, and accepted an offer of voluntary redundancy.

Having lived in a permanent state of debt for five years, my payout would be enough to buy a one-way ticket home and pay off my credit card. It was an easy decision to make.

NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.
NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.

Being part of a folding company was the last in a long list of eye-opening experiences of living in Great Britain’s economy.

The late Baroness Thatcher made no secret of not believing in society, which seemed to stand in the way of her penchant for the free market.

Having landed first in Yorkshire and then South London, I experienced life first-hand in territories where Thatcherism had left its mark on formerly cohesive and supportive communities.

I would later say, with regularity, that everything I learnt about economics and politics I learnt from living in Britain, simply because I joined the ranks of everyday people trying to earn a living in the immediate post-Thatcher years.

Here are some other observations about Britain in the 1990s:-

No-one could afford a day out at the beach. In Australia we call this a human right, but in England day-trippers were faced with whopping public transport costs. Few people I knew could afford cars, but a one-way train ticket for the short trip to London from Ipswich was well over twenty pounds for one person. This was solely due to the privatisation of every possible segment of the railways – one company owned the carriage, another the rails, another the station, and they all wanted to profit from ticket sales. A similar journey in Australia still costs far less than half that, twenty years later.

When buying an electrical appliance, the cable cost extra. What better way to gouge a bit of extra profit than to make the mains cable of most electrical appliances a separate item the customer must buy to use the equipment?

The country was full of criminals. Speaking as a citizen of the nation invaded to set up the penal colony of New South Wales, I have to say the common sight of colleagues being marched out of the office by a pair of police officers says a lot about the British criminal disposition as opposed to the Australian. These were never ‘bad’ people, they were just trying to keep their family afloat in the economy. Every single company I worked for contained employees who were on the take, and I don’t just mean the toilet paper.

Many people were closeted. Perhaps it’s a case of like attracting like, but most men I became friends with in England turned out to be gay. From the married father of two to the tough-as-nails London busker, they all came tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out. It was an eye opener about the choices faced by the British male under the infamous Section 28 of Britain’s Local Government Act, which embedded disapproval of gay lifestyle and relationships into the country’s law. For a nation which had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, this was a mean-spirited regulation which was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

British food was crap. When you think about the proximity of Britain to the fresh produce of continental Europe, the lack of affordable nutritious food was a terrible side effect of euro-phobia and economic rationalism, and an indictment on the ‘Grocer’s Daughter’ who had contributed to the scarcity. The only ‘fresh’ fruit and veg I saw in my first month were lumpy potatoes, mouldy onions, and bunches of silverbeet, withered and pricey. Most people I knew ate everything out of tins, and ‘boil in the bag’ meals were the norm.

You could still sense the war. People would still queue uncomplainingly for things that were freely available in other western nations. Avoidable diseases were still common in England’s north, and childhood mortality was higher-than-average.

The tenant paid the council rates, not the landlord. Thatcher’s infamous poll tax was well and truly in place when I became a renter in London, and my Yorkshire flatmates showed me the clever ways their parents taught them to avoid the payment as long as was possible. Often, it was the catalyst for moving house.

No-one answered their front door. Due to avoiding paying the poll tax (see above) and the TV licensing charges (see below), I was always under strict instructions from every flatmate I ever had to never open the door to a knocking visitor in case it was someone coming to collect taxes. I was once fooled by the TV license man when he pretended he was delivering a parcel to the first floor flat I shared in Lewisham. He launched himself through the front door into the foyer, and I had to pretend I was a visiting friend who had no idea if the flat had a television or not. Luckily I had some acting training under my belt.

MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like scanner.
MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like ‘scanner’.

It cost a lot to watch the tele. A hefty annual television license fee comes with the pleasure of tuning in to the BBC, oh, and all the other channels who would appear to be doing quite well already with all the advertising revenue they’re getting from the endless commercials, of course. The jury is still out on whether the mysterious vans driving around Britain’s streets are capable of telling who is receiving a TV signal are real, or some kind of psychological warfare. It’s all very Doctor Who. Another reason to avoid answering the front door (see above).

This list is cursory and might seem glib. But it’s also true. I will always remember many colleagues in Britain who worked long hours for the same very low rate of pay I was on, only they had mouths to feed and backs to clothe. I don’t know how they did it, but most worked with a ready smile and by doing without luxuries that most people in Australia take completely for granted.

But I also recall how few of them thought it was worth getting off their backsides on election day and voting.

By May Day 1997 Tony Blair seemed determined to sweep away two decades of Thatcherism, convincing the nation of the merits of ‘New Labor’. I can remember where I was when I heard the news – working on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Never had I experienced such a sense of palpable hope and imminent change amongst the British as I did across that summer. Princess Diana’s death knocked most of that energy out of the British only a few short months later, but I witnessed the brief smile on the nation’s face.

Ever since I returned home I have been vocal about the P-word. Privatisation has not spread its destructive fingers into every Australian industry, yet. I know what an impact it will have on that day trip to the beach if public transport is ever extensively privatised in a nation where long distances are the norm.

I will be eternally grateful for the support I received to travel overseas in the first place, but ‘travel’ is a great distraction. Living and working in another country, for more than a stint fruit picking, is what I call an education.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.