The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

It was my second Friday at the employment agency.  Just before quitting time the head of the Administration Division came around and handed me my paycheck for the previous week.  I was ecstatic.  The check was for the net amount of $63.45.  I would deposit it the following day in my checking account, nearly doubling my balance.

I decided I would cash a small check, perhaps fifteen dollars to get me through the week to my next paycheck.  Let’s see, $3.50 for bus fare and $11.50 for food and everything else.  That would work.  One of the local supermarkets was running a special on Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup at ten cents a can.  I ate a lot of tomato soup in those days.  The soup was affordable.  It was the Saltines that put a bit of a crimp in my budget.

Together with my check Bill Richards, the Admin boss handed me a booklet.  It had been put together by the State of Illinois Department of Registration and Education.  Apparently the state regulated the industry of finding people jobs – and I would be required to take a test to make sure that I understood the rules.  This would cost me twenty dollars – nearly a third of my take home pay.  But if I were to continue with my firm beyond thirty days, I had no choice.

I read through the material on the bus on my way home.  (It was a small booklet).  And I took the practice exam.  Other than one question which covered the Illinois Statute which allowed the department to regulate those in my new industry, anyone with a third grade education and a little common sense could easily have passed this exam.  The passing grade was 70%.

I wasn’t concerned about being able to pass the test.  I was a little miffed at the cost of doing so.  At the time, as I understood it, the generally accepted amount to bribe an Illinois Inspector for the DMV so that a person would get a passing grade on the actual driving test behind the wheel of a car was only two dollars.

But I rationalized, this was an investment in a career – not just the ability legally to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle wreaking who knows what damage on fellow motorists and unsuspecting pedestrians.  So I spent the money and became a “licensed personnel consultant”.

Week three was the week I made my first placement.  She was a young Filipino lady who had several years of experience in general accounting with a lumber company in her home land.  The fee came to $420 and I was entitled, as my commission, to a whopping 22% of that amount.  This would cover my draw for a week.

Of course, that commission would only be paid after my firm had received the check and after the 30 day guarantee we offered had expired.  Naturally,  by that time I would have accrued many more weeks of draw so I would never see a dime of the commission.  It was obvious to me that I needed to pick up the pace if I were ever to get beyond my minimum wage.

I also discovered that the best time to recruit new applicants was at night when they could speak freely from home.  Most of the recruiters set aside two or three nights a week to do just that.  And although the agency allowed us to work late, they didn’t pay us for the time we spent beyond our official hours.  But it was the only way to succeed at the business.

This created a bit of a conflict with my home schedule.  My Irish Setter, Finney needed to be walked and fed.  So to accommodate him I left the office exactly at five o’clock, grabbed the bus home which took about thirty minutes.  Then I took Finney out and gave him his supper.  Then I drove back to the office which only took me fifteen minutes.

By the time I returned it was about six thirty and the meters no longer had to be fed so I could find a spot on the street to park.  Then I would work until about nine thirty calling new applicants and confirming interviews for the next day with people whom I had arranged to be “Sent Out”.

I began to develop a nice backlog of people who were either being interviewed or for whom I had scheduled interviews over the next few days.  In fact I even had hopes of hitting “bonus territory”.  The firm would increase my commission to 27% if I were successful in bringing $2000 or more “cash in” during any given month.  That would mean another $21 in commission for my first placement.  And you can buy a lot of cream of tomato soup with that at ten cents a can.

One of the fellows I recruited was working for Arthur Andersen on their audit staff.  Having a candidate from AA was like having a line of credit at Continental Bank – as good as gold.  Of course, that was before Continental Bank went bankrupt and Arthur Andersen went out of business.  This applicant was the crème de la crème of accountants – and we had a job opening which he both fit and in which he was interested.

It was protocol that the person who had listed a position be the contact between our agency and the firm that was doing the hiring.  So I had to present my applicant to Manny Carver, the guy who had secured the job listing.  That put me back just a moment.

Manny was a little gruff and somewhat rough around the edges, befitting his background as a man who had served a number of years in jail for armed robbery.  Apparently the State of Illinois didn’t care so much about your felony record as they did about being able to pass their exam and pay them the twenty dollars.

Since most of our positions were listed with multiple employment agencies, time was always of the essence.  We had a lot of competition.  So the first thing after our “morning meeting” (my numbers were all white so I didn’t have to stand up that day and be humiliated), I went over to Manny with my applicant’s information and the Job Order that Manny had secured.

I started to tell Manny about him.  He looked at me with the look of a man who was sizing up a store for a heist.  Then he interrupted me and used his favorite expression, “Look, let’s get the BS out of the business.  Can this turkey do the job?”  Manny used the elongated form of BS in employing this sentence.

I said, “Yes he can.”

“Alright,” Manny said.  “Leave his card with me and I’ll pitch him.  When can he go?”

As it happened my applicant got the job.  I was happy for him because it was a great career move with a lot of opportunity.  And I admit to being bedazzled as I calculated my 22% (perhaps 27%) commission of the $1,020 fee.

The best part of the story is that this applicant and I hit it off on a personal level.  When I started my executive search firm four years later he became one of my firm’s best clients.  We maintained that business relationship for over twenty years and our personal relationship until today.


Comments on: "THE SWEAT SHOP (PART TWO)" (10)

  1. Jim Zee said:

    I love stories like this. Good job!

  2. Inspiring and confirms the value of relationship building

  3. Without the anchor of solid friendships and relationships we are merely wanderers in an arid desert.

  4. You have had many interesting life experiences.

  5. I can’t believe the prices of everything! I’m trying to imagine anything for 10 cents…
    And why did you drive back to work but take the bus in the mornings? As for the dmv (I have to tell you that every time I say or hear “dmv” now I can’t stop myself from cracking a smile because of your story about the kid who thought it was a branch of the govt!), things haven’t changed much – except the price.

    • And there were nickel candy bars – bigger than the ones that today sell for a dollar.

      Okay, the bus because of the stops it made took about a half hour. But you could wait another fifteen minutes before one came. Driving a more direct route only took me fifteen minutes. So I could leave at five, catch the bus, walk and feed Finney and drive back in about an hour and a half. By the time I would leave at nearly ten, the bus schedule was reduced to one an hour. And if I missed that I had to stand around until the next one came.

      Here’s another shocker. I could have driven both ways – but the bus fare was only seventy cents round trip. The open air parking lot for all day parking was a whopping three dollars.

      • Oh, man! And I’ll bet people back then thought prices were pretty high, huh? Funny how times change, but really don’t!

      • I think that the price of food back then as a percentage of income was lower. But the most important thing was that most food retailers were little independents. Fruit stands, butcher shops. I can’t tell you how many times grandma and I went produce shopping and the owner would hand me an apple for free to enjoy. And when we went to the butcher shop, Klaus the owner would ask, do you want some beef knuckle bones for your cocker spaniel, Andy? He’d wrap up a few and give them to us.

        It was far more civil and civilized then. These businessmen understood the value of these little presents as a way to cement relationships with their customers. Even in mid-town Manhattan there was a flavor of small town America.

        It was a gentler time.

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