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Why People Don't Get Jobs
By Howard Earle Halpern, MA, CPRW
Toronto Ontario Canada


NOTE: The following is an adaptation of the original text submitted for a feature article in Excalibur student newspaper, York University, Toronto [ DISCLAIMER ] . Published Apr. 10, 2002, this article was written for students. But it's not just about students. The principles involved are universal. They apply to all persons seeking employment.

When a student applies for a job and doesn't get hired, many things can be blamed. For example, the candidate didn't have enough experience, the right connections, or a sufficiently impressive GPA. Any of these things could account for rejection. But none of them is the main reason student don't get jobs. The main obstacle is socialization.

To understand this, one needs to know why students do get jobs. Most of the time, it's because they distinguish themselves favourably from their competition. There is at least one thing about the successful candidate that the employer likes. It is a quality that is not easily found, and it makes the job-seeker stand out.

According to Louise Gorby, a senior human resources consultant for the City of Toronto, "You're trying to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack — that's your competitive edge."

To get jobs, students must distinguish themselves favourably from others applying for the same position. This requires students to differentiate themselves from their peers. Socialization militates against this, because it is the process whereby young people are conditioned to conform to their peers, in other words, imitate their peers' behaviour.

This does not mean socialization is bad. It's necessary in the beginning. An individual is born and, in maturing, develops all kinds of desires, many of which conflict with those of others. Socialization occurs either on purpose or by accident. For example, Johnny sees that Tommy has a piece of candy and wants to take it from him. Johnny's parent does not allow this behaviour. Johnny learns not to steal. This kind of socialization is intentional, and it is in the best interest of all.

Another example occurs when a young person violates a cultural norm. I can best describe this phenomenon by referring to my own childhood. I grew up in a family that did not emphasize religion. I developed an atheistic outlook and asserted it in the classroom by refusing to read from the Bible when asked to do so. (I am not saying atheism is good or bad. I have since changed my views. I am merely stating the fact that I was an atheist and chose to assert myself.) This occurred in a small town in the 50s, and I was definitely in violation of a cultural norm. Although my school teacher could not persuade me to alter my belief, she was totally successful in forcing me to get up in front of the class and read from the Bible.

I was taught a lesson I never forgot.

The example fits, not only because I broke a rule and was coerced to blend in with the rest of the class, but also because I felt peer pressure to conform to the belief held by the general population. You can imagine the horror of young boys and girls when they discovered I did not share a belief that, according to those in authority, was fundamental to human goodness. Socialization starts with one's parents and other authority figures, then devolves to one's peers. As children grow up, parents and other adults carry less and less influence, while the cultural norms of the peer group become increasingly important.

This is not surprising when one considers that as children grow up, they spend more and more time with other children, by virtue of their increasing ability to look after themselves, instead of being dependent on adults.

By the time a person has undergone 15 years' worth of education (say, nursery school, kindergarten, and grades 1-13), the student has been rewarded heavily by society for blending, conforming, imitating and emulating. Now, students are told they had better start thinking about supporting themselves financially. To do this, they have to get jobs. The rules change. A 360-degree turnaround is required. The human psyche resists. Job-seekers fail to distinguish themselves. Hiring authorities don't know whom to call to an interview. Capable candidates with a wealth of talent remain unnoticed, unemployed and unemployable — not because they can't do the job, but because nobody knows they can.

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Despite hours spent talking with four sociology professors at York, I was unable to uncover a single study dealing with the process whereby people, having been socialized, are encouraged to differentiate themselves overtly from others.

Considering that employers explicitly demand this kind of behaviour from applicants, it would seem a subject worthy of sociological study. Perhaps it will take a student to initiate such scholarly activity. In fact, it would be an excellent way for graduate students to distinguish themselves effectively when competing for academic positions. Imagine a student, applying for a professorship at York, who had already published a ground-breaking study in a scholarly, sociological journal.

Although I could not find what I wanted, I did find a study on liberal education that could serve as a basis for research in this area. According to the study, "ideally, liberal educators require students to demonstrate the ability to think analytically, to question received wisdom, ... to apply different perspectives and theories to ... real life situations, and to cultivate one's own philosophy and sense of values."

The study continues: "liberal education in the university refers to activities which are designed to cultivate intellectual creativity, autonomy ... critical thinking ... comprehension and tolerance of diverse ideas" (pp. 51-52) [ 1 ].

According to study co-author, York sociology professor Paul Anisef, "liberal education ... should produce ... among students ... the ability to question and evaluate assumptions. This critical capacity is at the root, I suspect, of what you are calling differentiation."

The value of diversity in our gene pool is universally accepted. Likewise, how can society adapt to rapid social and ecological change without diversity in our "thought pool"? Furthermore, how can diversity of covert thought benefit society if it does not increase our collective repertoire of overt behaviour?

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If you want a job interview, most employers won't consider you without first looking at your resume. It's often your first opportunity to make an impression. A good one can lead to an interview and ultimately a job. A bad first impression can sink you.

The Canadian Oxford reveals that "resume" is primarily a North American term meaning
"brief account of one's education, experience, previous employment, and interests, ... [usually] submitted with a job application." The Professional Association of Resume Writers and
Career Coaches, an international organization to which I belong, describes the document as a "marketing tool ... highlighting the features and benefits that an individual has to offer a prospective employer" — an "advertisement."

But most resumes consist of boring job descriptions. I know, because I've been writing resumes professionally for the last twelve years. People show me their pre-existing documents. The content is usually taken from descriptions provided by employers. It's easy, but it doesn't work.

I've held over thirty different kinds of jobs. I never had a job description that came close to indicating what I actually did. Such descriptions are usually vague and abstract. They are difficult and unenjoyable to read. They are sterile. They do not evoke clear imagery. They are not memorable.

Most read as though they were copied verbatim from the same manual. They say nothing unique about the job candidate. They offer nothing to distinguish candidates from their competition. In fact, most resumes communicate little information readers did not already know before they read the document. Take the example of the clerical worker. Typically, such employees write that they "answered the phone, typed correspondence, and handled public inquiries."

This is accurate. But it's also true of everybody else, and for this reason, the employer already knows it. Fields and positions differ, but the principle is the same. If in writing your resume you copy others, the reader is bored, and your document is rapidly rejected.

If you read a book on how to write a resume, it will probably tell you to emphasize "accomplishments." Here is a typical example: "Saved $35,000 annually by devising new method of inventory control" (p. 113) [ 2 ]. It's a good start. But candidates are becoming more sophisticated. There are many samples in books and on the web. Some job-seekers are using them as templates and substituting their own data. Such descriptions may no longer be sufficient to distinguish candidates from their competition.

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According to Rick Payne, new business developer for the Bernard Hodes Group (, "Just listing accomplishments is not good enough anymore. To distinguish themselves effectively, candidates have to give insight into how they relate with people, how they work, and how they think."

Payne is a good source for two reasons. First, he works for a multinational corporation in a Toronto office that hires 12 employees. Second, his firm provides staffing-related services, and Payne has dealt with over 100 recruiters, most of them local.

According to Payne, human resources professionals no longer focus on skills, but rather, talent. "They're looking for that special person." They want someone "a little bit different, a little more creative" — not to "blend in," but to "complement" existing staff. "Candidates have got to show how they're different," says Payne. In your resume, he would look for "not what you did, but how ... and why you did it."

This brings to mind a resume I prepared for a student several years ago. Her employment was sparse. But she had acquired wonderful practice-teaching experience. We wrote, "Won principal's acclaim by eliminating dysfunctional behaviours in four hyperactive children who had been labelled 'difficult.'" Then, we explained she had accomplished this "by convincing staff to discontinue policy of segregating them when disruptive behaviours occurred."

The achievement could stand on its own. However, the testimonial adds credibility. The explanation gives insight into the candidate's ingenuity and persuasive ability. It demonstrates her ideology is in harmony with contemporary policy, which favours integration. This approach makes the candidate more desirable, rounds out her personality, allows the resume to flow, and makes it more interesting and enjoyable to read.

We're telling a story, instead of just listing points. People like stories. For more examples, please click here.

A practical, but little-known, website for students seeking work locally is, that of The Toronto Board of Trade, which ranks local employers according to the size of their staff. These data can be found by clicking on Contact Toronto, under Board Publications. Information officer Allyson Gelley confirmed that the site's statistics, compiled in spring 2001, are the latest available as of this writing (April 14, 2002).

The City of Toronto ( is the fourth largest employer in the greater metropolitan area. According to senior human resources consultant Louise Gorby, the city employs about 39,000 people. I discussed with Gorby the idea that in high school, the practice of copying others' behaviour may allow students to become more popular and better-liked, hence more successful.

"Not in this case," says Gorby, referring to the process of job application. "I think it's important for people to distinguish themselves. ... Any information that provides a distinct advantage is in the candidate's interest. ... You're doing yourself a disservice if you're modest."

Adeodata Czinc, president, Business of Manners (, is a teacher of etiquette. She has two part-time employees on contract, one with a university degree. "In a resume," she says, "I would include anything that sets you apart from other candidates. Be yourself right up front. If you don't tell me what is special about you, how am I going to find out? I would like to know why should I hire you and not Sally down the road."

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The present article focuses on the resume, rather than the process of determining where the jobs are, for two reasons. First, even if you locate 1,000 vacancies, this won't help you if you fail in the initial contact, usually achieved via the resume. Second, the process of locating jobs is extremely complex.

According to the Schulich Career Centre, York University (, 80% of jobs are "hidden," and 80% of job seekers apply for the 20% that are advertised. "It is so easy to apply for advertised jobs." But it's not effective.

I agree. Competition for advertised jobs is fierce. But here's the good news. If you're willing to work hard right now, to get the job — instead of working hard only if you get paid — your chances are excellent, because you just decimated 80% of your competition.

The way to uncover hidden opportunities is to (a) contact every person you know, (b) join organizations to meet new people, and (c) contact these new individuals. It's called networking. As the term implies, it's work, but it works. The best networking book I've ever seen is Get the Right Job in 60 Days or Less, by Richard H. Beatty. It's out of print, but available through the Toronto Public Library (

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If you are an undergraduate, even in your first year, the time to start working on your resume is now. I don't mean to write it now. But you can prepare — even if you haven't chosen an occupation. Remember, human resources personnel are looking for "talent." Everybody is good at something. Think about what you do well. You've had about 15 years' worth of education. Think: how can I apply what I've learned, to help just one other human being?

You will be taking many courses that require projects. Be efficient. Accomplish two things at once. Choose one project that will somehow benefit somebody else. Professors are reasonable. Tell your professor you'd like to both fulfill your course requirement and do something useful at the same time. You'd be surprised how much support you'll get.

When I was an undergraduate at York, my brother attended the Multi-Age Group Unit (MAGU), a nearby, alternative school. I offered to teach a poetry course for the students and was accepted. I arranged with my educational psychology professor to get course credit. A parent of one of the MAGU students was a CBC broadcaster. He discovered what I was doing and whisked my students off to the studio. Seven poems written in class were read by my students on CBC radio "Ideas."

This immediately went on my resume.

Here's the lesson. Do good things. Good things will happen. It's not hocus-pocus. If sense were common, I'd say it was common sense. People recognize good, because they like it. And when good people recognize good, they build on it. Not everybody is good, but many are. If you do good, somebody good will recognize and help you.

Take this approach. On graduation, your resume will be worth ten times those of candidates with ten years' employment but no idea how to sell their services.

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  1. Axelrod, Paul; Anisef, Paul; and Lin, Zeng. Against all odds? The enduring value of liberal education in universities, professions, and the labour market. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, v. 31, no. 2, 2001, pp. 47-77.
    • Axelrod is dean, faculty of education, York University.
    • Anisef is a sociology professor at York University and associate director, Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement.

  2. Bostwick, Burdette E. Resume Writing: A comprehensive how-to-do-it guide, third edition. Toronto: Wiley, 1985.


Above is a web-adaptation of the original text submitted for an article in Excalibur (, student newspaper of York University. The article was published April 10, 2002, on pages 8-9. The headline "Why your resume sucks" was conceived, written and chosen by Excalibur. It was neither conceived, suggested nor written by the author and does not reflect his intent.

The article, on the other hand, was ably edited. The author is grateful to outgoing editor-in-chief Jeremy Greenberg and managing editor Rob Aspin, as well as features editor and editor-in-chief-elect Meredith e., for the opportunity to present information and outline his views.

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