Barbara Ehrenreich, best known for "Nickel and Dimed," her expose on the realities of trying to get by on blue-collar low-wage jobs, has gone undercover again. This time, instead of waiting tables or slaving away for Wal-Mart, she has chosen to tackle the world of white-collar employment (or unemployment, in this case). This journalistic endeavor seems better suited to the well-educated Ehrenreich, whose "Nickel and Dimed" experiences have been called unrealistic, with critics blaming her educational and professional background along with the comfortable nest egg she had to fall back on for tainting her experiences.
After hearing from readers who had "done everything right" in life - worked hard, earned a college degree and entered the business field expecting to work their way up to the top - and who now have been reduced to standing in the unemployment line or taking low-wage "survival jobs" at Starbucks, Ehrenreich was inspired to see for herself what the professional job market was like in our post-Sept. 11 economy. This time, Ehrenreich wasn't trying to make a jump in socioeconomic class, just a jump in professional fields. Using her maiden name of Barbara Alexander, (the name under which she earned her degree,) Ehrenreich created a resume and dived into the ever-growing pool of the white-collar unemployed.
Ehrenreich's goal is to attain a position in the field of public relations, aiming for a salary of $60,000 to $70,000. Thinking this is not unreasonable for a smart, experienced, middle-aged professional, she starts scouring the Internet to begin her job search. Once she starts clicking, she quickly discovers that the job-hunting game is one she is not at all prepared for. She seeks the aid of three different "career coaches," each ridiculous in his or her own way, and receives their bills for $200 per hour for their services (slowly picking apart her resume, having her take baseless personality tests in order to fit her neatly into a corporate schema, encouraging her to greatly exaggerate her qualifications and teaching her the stilted language of corporate-speak).
In addition to employing coaches, Ehrenreich attends numerous networking events (including some church-sponsored ones, where she is assured that Jesus is working on finding the perfect job for her), corporate boot camps (where she learns she isn't unemployed, but just "in transition"), and fashion consultations and makeovers (where she learns the value of earth tones and the power of a soft silhouette). In all, Ehrenreich spends $6,000 on career advice and preparation.
If Ehrenreich hadn't kept her journalist's eye for quirky characters open, this job-search process could have made for a long, boring read. To keep the reader entertained while she fills out application after application and waits for the phone to ring, Ehrenreich provides colorful character sketches of her fellow job seekers and career coaches. Most of their stories are sad (no one said being "in transition" was fun) but a few are humorous. They all reveal flaws in today's culture of heartless corporations more concerned with the bottom line than with their employees.
What does Ehrenreich's hard work and investment get her? Unfortunately, not much more than an interesting book about the sorry condition of white-collar employment opportunities. Though she eventually receives an offer from Aflac (yes, the people who use a duck in their ads) to work from home and manage people she recruits (which sounds only a quack or two away from a pyramid scheme) and another from Mary Kay (she could win a pink Cadillac!) Ehrenreich ultimately abandons her search after 10 grueling months.
"Bait and Switch" provides a glimpse into an oft-overlooked portion of the population: professionals who are unemployed, usually because of circumstances outside of their control, and who are struggling to regain a foothold in their careers and live out the "American dream" life they believed they'd achieve through hard work.
With Ehrenreich's watchful eye, attentive ear and experienced journalist's attention to her writing, she creates a highly readable portrait of this growing group; she never ignores the individuals, but always thinks about what their stories reveal about the bigger picture.
Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. But if you're a graduating senior, like I am, you may want to put it aside until you've nailed down a job of your own. This is a depressing book for those of us about to enter the job market. To balance it out, be sure to keep "Oh, The Places You'll Go!," the Dr. Seuss classic that you will no doubt receive at least one copy of as a graduation present. In times like these, we could all use a little of that childlike optimism.