The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

One summer while in college I decided to stay in Chicago rather than go back to the Big Apple.  I was looking for a job to pay my way for the next quarter in school and happened upon an ad in The Chicago Tribune.  I called, made an appointment for an interview and was delighted that I was hired.

I would be working as a counselor in an employment agency – working on commission finding people jobs.  I liked the idea that my earnings were only limited by my ability – and I liked the idea that I would be helping people.  I was also overly impressed with myself that on my first job interview I had been selected.  I was young and foolish.

So the next Monday I showed up bright and early, eager to begin my new career – only to discover that I was one of ten people the firm had hired.  Apparently, breathing and being able to dial a telephone were the primary requirements for employment.  But undaunted, I listened to the man who was in charge of training give his stimulating introductory message.

He pointed to an extensive series of filing cabinets and said, “Those are the dead files.  Those people were contacted in the past and were looking for jobs.  Call them up and find out if any of them are still looking.  Now get to work.”

I was a little dazzled at the brevity of the introduction to the business and I felt an emptiness inside my stomach as I, together with my other nine colleagues proceeded to march over to the “dead files” and begin our work.

The firm placed people in three categories.  The first, the one to which I had been assigned, was called “Administration.”  Our focus was on accounting personnel.  Then there was a Technical Division which dealt with engineers and finally, a Computer Division, dealing with people who were in IT – although that acronym had not yet been invented.  We were still at a stage where punch cards were state of the art.

So I took my very large pile of former applicants to my assigned desk where I introduced myself to the other three people who occupied our group of four desks.  None of them seemed too impressed to meet me.

I began reviewing the applications to get some sense of the person’s background and buying time to consider what I would say to them that would sound half-way intelligent and professional.  I thought I would listen to my three more experienced co-workers to hear their presentations.  But as I was doing that, the training manager came by and instructed me to get to work with the words, “Get on the phone.  We’re not paying you to do nothing.”  (I should add that I was on minimum wage draw versus my commissions).

So I got on the phone and called the first twenty applicants.  None of them was interested in making a job change.  Of course, the fact that I had called them at work and they might not have had the privacy to discuss their true feelings might have been the reason for their responses.

Well, as the week went on I got a little smoother in my presentation and more comfortable asking total strangers if I could change their lives.  Of course, I hadn’t earned a cent beyond my minimum wage draw which I would receive the following Friday but I felt I was making progress.  My desk mates actually talked to me – a little.   That ended my first week.

On Monday I went back to work – only to discover that seven of my classmates who had started the previous week had quit.  The three of us remaining had the opportunity to watch the “training manager” introduce the business to a brand new class of recruits.

During week two I realized that the agency had added a new requirement to my responsibilities – as I was now thoroughly grounded in the business.  I had a daily responsibility both to arrange three interviews (we called them “Send Outs”) and to pick up two new jobs (Job Orders) on which my fellow recruiters in administration and I could work.

There were three large boards on the wall, one for each division and all of our names were there.  The boards contained columns labeled SO JO (daily) SO JO (cumulative monthly) and Placements (the amount of money that a recruiter had been able to bill that month for putting people to work).

My discovery this second week was that the boards were updated daily.  If you had made your quota for the day in one of the categories your number was posted with a white plastic number.  If you were behind for the day, the color of the plastic was red.  The same applied to the cumulative monthly figures.

If it happened that you were behind in any category (that is to say posted in red) your day started with the manager of the division telling you to rise and would deliver a brief oration explaining that, “You are worthless and can be replaced at the drop of a hat.”  This was called motivation.  It motivated a lot of the recruiters.

I learned that rather than experience the humiliation of being the subject of the morning meeting a lot of the recruiters fabricated either the “send outs” or “job orders” they had picked up the previous day, hoping to make up for them the next day.  This is called “betting on the come.”

Well, I learned to steel myself for the morning shellacking on those days when I was behind quota.  I hated it but I realized that it was going to be a brief experience and I would get over it.  I kept my eye on the prize and actually did very well, once I got the hang of it.

My third month I was the top biller for my division and won the monthly “Best In Sales Award”.  This entitled me to having my name posted on a plaque and getting a free pass to the three dollar luncheon buffet at the restaurant in our building.  (It was actually pretty decent).

Although I had accepted the position as a summer job, this experience later caused me to open my own executive search business which occupied twenty-one years of my life.

I ran it a little differently.


Comments on: "THE SWEAT SHOP (PART ONE)" (4)

  1. I find these personal experiences most interesting.

  2. I thought for sure more people would quit, given their method of “motivation.” But glad to hear you didn’t run your own business like that!

    • The attrition rate was moderately phenomenal. A new “class” started every Monday. As I later learned, if you didn’t make it through the first week, you had to move heaven and hell to get paid for the days you did work. But this place was the reason I did later get into the business. My reasoning was, “If they were making money treating their employees (and incidentally, the same lack of respect carried through to our applicants and employing companies), just think how well I could do if I ran the business in a professional manner.”

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