Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things I miss from days gone by - #2 - "Real" Classified Ads

"Real" Classified Ads in Local Newspapers.

All through high school and college I worked in the Classified Ads department of the Schenectady Gazette. It was an excellent job for a student -- good hours, nice people, pleasant working conditions, adequate pay, but, above all, the sense that you had an insider's knowledge about what was going on in the community...just because you worked in the building where the paper was published.

If you are older than me, you will remember when Help Wanted ads were divided into categories, Male Help Wanted, Female Help Wanted, and Male or Female Help Wanted. The Male Help Wanted category encompassed all the best-paying jobs in addition to the jobs involving heavy labor. The Female Help Wanted category included all the lower-paying and dead-end office jobs, child care jobs, personal service jobs, waitressing, etc. The Male or Female Help Wanted category was always much smaller and included the jobs that nobody wanted anyway, such as traveling magazine sales. Within each of the categories, employers were permitted to specify age, education, and marital status restrictions thought by employers to be critical to job performance whether or not those restrictions were in any way job related.

Fair Housing, too, was in its infancy at this time. While race and color restrictions had been disallowed for employment ads in our state some years before I started working, when it came to housing, landlords were still permitted to mention in a convoluted way their own personal race or religious orientation in ads, as for example, "Apartment for rent in home occupied by white, Christian family." I leave it to you to figure out who was probably not going to rent that apartment. Eventually, the law and newspaper policy eliminated such references, but meanwhile, my co-workers and I, as high school students, had the fun of explaining to employers and landlords why we could not word their ad as they wished.

There was a lot wrong with the system then, and no thinking person of conscience would ever want to return to those days of rampant discrimination, but sometimes I wonder if we haven't inadvertently embraced other types of discrimination. There are very few employment ads in any local newspaper anymore. Online editions of newspapers provide a link to sites like Yahoo Careers, Monster, Snag-a-Job, etc. Even if a job seeker presents himself/herself at the office of a major employer, before any real relationship is established, the job seeker is likely directed to a computer to complete an online application. Similarly, most housing rentals are done through Craigs List. Besides the mechanization of a human experience, there are a lot of evil people "out there" and one rarely knows exactly who they are dealing with. Applying for anything this way can be dangerous!

Disregarding for the moment the dangers possibly inherent in the application process, who can apply for these jobs or housing units anyway? Obviously, ONLY persons with basic computer literacy,
an active email account, access to a computer (their own, someone else's, or one at a library) plus, of course, the means to get to a computer frequently enough to check for an email response. Let's see now, who might this system eliminate from consideration? Maybe low income folks without a car, or gas money, or a computer or internet service? Older workers who never saw the need for a computer? Speakers of other languages? Non-readers? Do you think some employable folks with a good work ethic be included in these categories?

Assuming that the job or apartment seeker clears these hurdles, the individual must then know which websites to go to and which to avoid, be aware of the need to configure a pop-up stopper, or be tolerant of many unwanted and inappropriate ads. The unsophisticated may think that they MUST accept such advertising offers in order to access the job listings. Finally, the job seeker must remember to turn off the computer's speakers to avoid the audio ads that bypass the pop-up stopper. Optimistically assuming that the individual gets this far, he/she still will not know whether there is truly a job or apartment available or whether someone just wants to collect their email address to deluge them with email spam.

A job is a very personal, hopefully long term, experience between a worker and an employer. An apartment rental is a personal experience between a tenant and a landlord. The current system requires input of substantial personal information without a hint of human reaction such as a smile, a nod, a frown, etc. We have allowed the processes to become overly de-personalized and might all be better served by substituting just a little bit of technology with some old-fashioned humanity.

On a related note, newspapers throughout the country are experiencing diminished revenues and staff layoffs. It used to be that a good ad section helped sell papers. Yet newspapers have forgone their revenue from classified ads by providing only links to monster, yahoo careers, etc., and they might even be paying for those links. It seems as if a community newspaper should have a certain responsibility to the community they serve. Jobs and housing are a huge factor in any community and I feel that newspapers are shirking their responsibility in this regard.

Maybe, just maybe, there more people could be working and more housing occupied if seekers could more easily connect with decision makers. Wouldn't it be nice if just for a little while, just until we figure out if it works, we went back to advertising local jobs and housing in local papers, with applications reviewed by "real" people who would engage in in-person discussion with applicants?

Could we try it?

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