Daily Breeze, June 2005

IN THE LINE OF HIRE

Our adventurer hits job market; job market hits back

 

STORY BY COREY LEVITAN

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT CASILLAS AND JUDY SANFIELD/DAILY BREEZE

 

      Writing this adventure column has given me tons of on-the-job training. From pool-cleaning to dog-grooming to triangle-playing in the Torrance Symphony, I'm qualified for a wide array of careers should this journalism thing stop working out.

      But can I actually land something decent? I recently staged a job hunt to see.

      "You can be anything you want to when you grow up," my grandfather used to tell me and my little sister, "even a doctor."

      The doctor thing was big in my family. My sister didn't become one, but (close enough!) married one. How proud my grandfather would have been to know that I, too, would eventually court the medical field.

      A Daily Breeze help-wanted ad placed by San Pedro's Little Company of Mary Hospital seeks registered nurse applicants with experience. But, it adds, recent grads will also be considered.

      I considered embellishing my resume to a ridiculous degree -- like I did to get this job at the paper. But testing potential employers on whether they fact-check resumes is a separate article, and not necessarily a humorous one.

      I opt for honesty -- a version of it, anyway. According to my resume, I'm a music journalist (my official title at this paper). The objective reads: "I'm a self-motivated go-getter who likes to think outside the box. I seek a career change drawing on my proven ability to communicate, lead and help others, in a team situation where I can pursue my life's true ambition, to be a ____."

      I can practically hear some of you updating your resumes right now.

      In this case, the ____ is "registered nurse," but I will change it depending on the job sought.

      Something even more impressive than a well-written objective paragraph is required, however, for me to be seriously considered as an RN candidate. And it dangles over my sports jacket as I enter the emergency room: a friend's stethoscope.

      Walking through a hospital wearing a medical instrument is like walking through an airport wearing a pilot's uniform. Leo DiCaprio's voiceover in "Catch Me If You Can" was right. People simply assume you belong there. Not only am I not stopped by security; from the respect I seem to receive, I'm surprised I'm not stopped by a patient with chest pains.

      Balloons outside the DiMucci Room announce the open house. I turn the corner to face 6 nurses seated at the opposite end of a lunch table.

      Early in my research, I learned that responding to a job ad by faxing an irrelevant resume elicits less response than a car alarm on Hawthorne Blvd. in Lawndale. But open houses are different. Here, screeners are forced to read resumes from everyone who walks in off the street -- right in front of their faces.

 

              NURSE 1: I see you brought a stethoscope. Are you working now?

              ME: No. My current job does not reflect my true calling. But I occasionally watch "E.R." and enjoy it immensely.

              NURSE 2: Where did you go to nursing school?

              ME: Nowhere, pretty much.

              NURSE 2: Oh, you thought our ad meant recent college grads. (She hands me a list of currently available RN jobs and their requirements. All list nursing school and a nursing license.)

              NURSE 1: You're going to have to start at the bottom to work here. Something like clerical or food service, while you get your nursing education. It's nothing as interesting as (scanning my resume) music journalism.

              NURSE 2: Yes, but I don't think any clerical or food-service positions are even available.

 

      I recognize a blow-off when I hear it. I'm a 5-foot-6 1/2 man with a history of approaching tall women in bars. (Short men, like 3-to-5-year-olds asked about their age, never leave out the halves.) With my medical prospects flat-lining, I come clean about this article.

      "I thought maybe you were mentally ill," Nurse 1 confesses in return. All my former prospective employers chuckle. Then they call in the managing nurse to crack him up, too.

      The only way I could have landed this job was if RN stood for Real Nut.

      The next open house I have no business entering seeks electro-mechanical engineers. I have no idea what one of them does, but that didn't stop me from applying to be a journalist, either.

      A friendly receptionist greets me inside the Long Beach division of the aerospace firm Curtiss-Wright Controls. I'm offered a tour, observing dozens of workstations with high-tech computers and mechanical arms for testing junk out.

      After filling out an application in a cafeteria, I'm told to stroll down a winding corridor to a room where two gentlemen will interview me. The one who resembles TV's Ray Romano does most of the talking. He's seated at a large wooden desk, studying my resume incredulously.

 

              RAY: So you want to be an engineer?

              ME: Yes, sir, I do. (The "sir" implies that I'm a well-behaved employee who knows who his boss is, doesn't ask for raises and won't file for workers' comp in three months on a pre-existing injury.)

              RAY: But you have no experience.

              ME: What do you mean by experience?

              RAY: I mean that you've never worked as an engineer!

              ME: Oh. But I'm a fast learner.

              RAY (after a long silence): Why exactly do you want to be an engineer?

              ME: Ever since I was a boy, I dreamed of electro-mechanical engineering. (Difficult as it was, I resisted the natural urge to crack a train joke.)

              RAY: But you didn't go to engineering school!

              ME: Yes, that's true. That's a good point.

 

      This is going well, don't you think?

      "We don't have any engineering availabilities right now," Ray finally says, which is strange considering his company's classified ad announcing engineering availabilities. "But if we did, we would require at least three years' experience as an engineer."

      He offers to pass my resume onto his supervisor, in case an internship opens up. Several weeks later, my official rejection letter arrives from the company's Human Resources manager.

      It's time to do what so many ladies who agreed to date me in the past have done: LOWER MY STANDARDS.

      Reports from two federal government offices recently found that baggage screeners are no better at their jobs now than when the government took over the task at about 450 airports in early 2002.

      This is one job I can't be under-qualified for.

      I submit to a three-hour computerized test given in the back of Comp USA in Redondo Beach. Part one seeks to determine my personality type. I suppress all ingenuity, wit and courteousness. (Have you ever encountered an LAX baggage screener possessing any of these traits in any measure?)

      X-rays of scissors, knives and guns then flash across my monitor, for about a minute each, followed by X-rays of bags containing the same implements -- sometimes hidden inside other objects, sometimes edge-on. It's like the Homeland Security edition of Where's Waldo?

      The test is supposed to last 3 hours, but I ace it in half the time, finishing first of about 20 examinees.

      I imagine how cool it will be to abuse my authority -- picking my best friends to cut the airport line like Tad the bouncer at Sharkeez in Hermosa Beach, or authorizing full cavity searches for everyone who promised to help me move last year then didn't.

      Unfortunately, an email I receive that very afternoon from the Transportation Security Administration informs me that my confidence is as misplaced as the keys I often can't locate in my own pockets. (Maybe I didn't find all those guns and knives after all.)

      By the way, I could point out how scary it is that the national agency in charge of screening out terrorists can't even screen out a journalist, who clearly admits he's a journalist, before its testing phase. I could point that out, but I won't or I might end up on a permanent no-fly list.

      (Did I think that last part or actually write it? Doh!)

      I'm even more over-qualified for my next potential job. In fact, the only requirements the ad lists are that applicants be U.S. citizens (check), at least 18 years old (check plus-plus-plus) and between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8 (check).

      Not many positions out there specifically seek short people. In fact, most jobs in the U.S. go to tall men. A 2003 University of Florida study showed that males under 5-foot-9 fare a lot like women do in the workplace. They have a harder time finding desirable work and, once they do, earn considerably less throughout their lives. (Short men earn about $789 a year less than their normal-sized male co-workers, per inch.)

      But here I am, at Disneyland at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, secure in my lack of normal height and eager for my shot to spend 8 hours a day standing around a theme park in a sweltering Mickey, Donald or Pluto costume as spoiled brats pull my tail and think it's funny.

      Sure, the job only pays minimum wage. But, for a journalist, that's a raise.

      After filling out applications and getting measured, the serious candidates -- most of whom appear to be high-school age -- and I are assigned numbers and asked to take one of 50 chairs neatly lined up in the basement of a parking structure. I make the first cut when my number is called and I'm asked to step forward, along with about 20 others.

      Who says you can't land an acting job in L.A. without experience?

      "I'm sorry," a casting agent named Ben informs us. "We don't have any positions for you at this time."

      The cut I made, it turns out, is for getting cut. But what could possibly have gone wrong?

      "Yeah, you're too short," Ben says, indicating that I came in at 5-foot-5.

      His scale is inaccurate, I inform him. I'm 5-foot-6 1/2. And I have proof: my driver's license, which says 5-foot-7. (Short guys not only never forget the halves, they never forget to add a half inch to their driver's-license height. I call this the Rule of Tom Thumb. It is so universal, courts of law will probably accept it as evidence.)

      "Nope," Ben responds. "Our scale is accurate." (Supporting his assertion, no one else complains about being "shorted.")

      In the half hour since this interview began, I've lost a full inch and a half. And it's not like I had any spare height to begin with.

      This is what I call a bad day.

      The shrinking process for most men, I'm told later by my chiropractor, begins at age 25, around the last time I was measured. Yet the growing process stops at 21. (Carpe diem, short guys! Four years is all we get at maximum tallness!)

      I ask Ben whether any of the seven dwarf positions are open. At the rate I'm vanishing into the earth, I'll qualify by Disney's peak summer season.

      "I'm sorry," he responds, "I have to go."

      I inquire as to whether this has the makings of a height-discrimination lawsuit. Mickey's pockets are deep -- especially now with Michael Eisner off the payroll. Unfortunately, my attorney informs me that height -- unlike gender, race, religion and, in many cases, sexual preference -- does not represent a protected class of the U.S. work force.

      Or, as Randy Newman might put it, short people got no reason to sue.

      Incidentally, my chiropractor measured me at 5-foot-4 1/2. I may not even be tall enough to ride all the rides at Disneyland anymore.

      So what's left out there, if I'm not even qualified to be Goofy?

      "Do you want fries with that?" I ask the next customer in line.

      This is how I intended to end the story of the search for my true level of employability in the world of non-journalism -- alongside a photo of me in a McDonald's uniform.

      The sad truth is that I couldn't even land a job like that. I submitted applications to a Burger King and McDonald's in Torrance, a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut in Manhattan Beach and a McDonald's in Redondo Beach. I also applied to an El Pollo Loco in Hermosa Beach clearly displaying a "help wanted" sign in its window.

      I waited a month, but not one manager called back.

      Desperate for at least a photo op, I approached Quizno's on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. They know and love me here, since I wrote an adventure dressed as their giant soda-cup mascot last year. click here to read (They even mounted the column on a wooden plaque, which hangs by the entrance.)

      "Sorry Corey, I can't get corporate approval," owner Matt Irvine informed me. Even a fake fast-food job is beyond my 5-foot-4 1/2 reach now.

      We've all had the following thought while daydreaming at our job: If this stops working out, at least I won't be on the street. At least I can (blank).

      I can't even (blank).

      This journalism thing had better keep working out.

 

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