ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For her last book titled "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to enter the low-wage work force. She slung hash browns waiting tables in Florida. She scrubbed floors in Maine and folded T-shirts at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. Now she's ventured into the world of corporate America and the white-collar unemployed. Ehrenreich created a new identity, legally changing back to her maiden name, and she crafted a fictitious resume to see what it would take to snag a corporate job in public relations or event planning. She wanted a job with health insurance paying about $50,000 a year.
She lays out the results in her new book titled "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." In her search Ehrenreich turns to the help industry that's sprung up around job seekers. She spends thousands of dollars on dubious career coaches, resume builders and wardrobe consultants, and she signs up for an executive boot camp.
Ms. BARBARA EHRENREICH (Author, "Bait and Switch"): So I go to this boot camp in Atlanta, very nervous 'cause it sounds intimidating. A boot camp, what's going to happen? Anyway it turned out to be a sort of a full day of New-Agey exhortations and semitherapeutic kinds of manipulations, I would call them, on the part of our coach-slash-leader. But the gist of it all, which I found pretty horrifying, was blaming the victim, that if you were in a bad situation now--like having been laid off--it must be your fault, something wrong with your attitude and with whatever you are beaming out to the universe, because you can control the universe with your thoughts according to this guy and several of the books he recommended. And I found that really disturbing. I mean, you're talking to people who are in a terrible life crisis and then to, you know, express this mystical theory that you can control everything with your own mind and it's all your attitude seemed very cruel.
BLOCK: When you were sitting in these sessions with your fellow job seekers, the white-collar unemployed, how did they react to these exhortations that the fault is you; if you have a positive attitude you can make things happen? What would they say?
Ms. EHRENREICH: Most people seemed to be accepting of it or perhaps a little bit too intimidated to speak up and say, `This is nonsense.' Intimidated because you always fear that you might--if you do something a little bit different or odd or speak up that it will be noted by someone who will maybe not then pass you a tip for a job or something.
BLOCK: You spend ultimately the better part of a year in this job search and you do end up with something. You get a couple of offers. Why don't you tell us about them?
Ms. EHRENREICH: Yes, well, I was getting kind of low, I must say. So then finally I get in my inbox, `We have seen your resume. You look like our kind of person. We are interviewing now.' And this was for a job selling supplemental health insurance. And lo and behold, I had an interview, my first interview. So I went through two hours of--on two different occasions of interviews with this company and was, indeed, offered a job. However, it's a strange kind of job. No salary, no benefits, no office, nothing, no car, no laptop. And I--that's when I discovered that a lot of what happens is people can fall into these commission-only sales jobs out of desperation.
BLOCK: This was for the company AFLAC.
Ms. EHRENREICH: Yes.
BLOCK: And there was another offer, I think, from Mary Kay cosmetics.
Ms. EHRENREICH: Yes, from Mary Kay. Now that shows I made a good impression on somebody because this woman at a job fair came up and did try to lure me into becoming a Mary Kay salesperson. You know, I don't think I would have done too well at that, frankly. But, you know, in both cases you have to put up about 2,000 up front, you know, to get your insurance brokers license or get your inventory of cosmetics. So you're taking a risk. They're not taking a risk. You're taking a risk. So what happens to a lot of unemployed white-collar people, sooner or later they drift into the low-paying jobs--you know, $8 an hour as a salesperson at Circuit City or Wal-Mart or something and they fall right back into that working poor level, out of which it's very hard to ever climb again.
BLOCK: Isn't there a flaw in this structure that you've set up for your search? In the real world if you had been Barbara Alexander, public relations star, you would have contacts in the world. You would have references. You would have a real resume that people could check out and you would have a backbone that theoretically would get you another job in a way that you really didn't have when you created this fictional personality.
Ms. EHRENREICH: Oh, my resume checked out. I have lined up the people to lie for me. But, no, I felt--yeah, this is a little strange because I don't have a Rolodex full of all my past business contacts and I was claiming, you know, to be doing a good job consulting. But I don't know how much of a problem that is in some ways because I met people who were searching longer than I was with excellent, real resumes, with great networks of contacts who were after a year or two no better off than I was at the beginning. You know, some people would even tell you once you lose your job, you know, people aren't going to return your phone calls, people you knew.
BLOCK: Did you have any qualms as a journalist yourself in presenting yourself as someone other than who you actually are?
Ms. EHRENREICH: It's a kind of journalism. It's a legitimate tradition in journalism, goes back to the early 20th century or late 19th century in this country. In the 1960s we had the book "Black Like Me." There are a lot--it's a kind of journalism that's limited because you can't, you know, usually break out and suddenly start interviewing people on the spot if you might want to. But it does give you a ticket into worlds that you would not enter, you would not really know about until you enter them with your own body.
BLOCK: When you think about those stories of those people who spend so much time trying to get back into the corporate world that they've been pushed out of in some sense, what conclusions do you draw? What's the message of these stories, do you think?
Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, we have a very turbulent kind of employment environment, maybe more turbulent for the midlevel white-collar people than even the blue-collar people, tremendous amount of churning in and out but not much of a social safety net to sustain you in between or to help you back up on your feet. I mean, this is, of course, a overwhelming problem right now with the disaster in the South but--it shows the weakness of our safety net. But in a more mundane kind of way, it means there's no health insurance when you lose your job or it's very, very expensive to continue it under the COBRA plan. Unemployment benefits run out at six months in most states. Now one of the features of the current time is very extended unemployment, you know, averaging closer to six months. So there's not a lot of help, and I think that's something we need to address.
BLOCK: Barbara Ehrenreich, thanks for coming in.
Ms. EHRENREICH: Glad to talk to you.
BLOCK: Barbara Ehrenreich's book is titled "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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