September 14, 2010

Cornell’s Career Fair: A Strange Battleground

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The Career Fair is a battleground for the tension between, on the one hand, the frantic search for unique individual qualifications (why should we hire you?), and, on the other, the need to perform the surface-level, choroegraphed dance steps known as “networking.” Student job-searchers must simultaneously follow a very specific code of decorum and “stand out” in the minds of potential employers. But maybe this is even selling things short; the battle begins not at Barton Hall but earlier, at least by a day. Monday’s Daily Sun included the announcement: “2010 Career Fair Ad Supplement Inside,” which was placed above even the name of the paper itself (thus raising potentially-thorny questions about the relationship between a private university, the private companies that pay to recruit there and a private newspaper which is independent of both).In some of the supplement’s flashiest ads, the message wasn’t the merits of a particular company, but the status of its employees. The (implicit, but just barely) question posed to students was not, “do you want this job?” but rather “who are you?” — a considerably meatier proposition. The half-page ad for Aldi read, “Executive Power: get the control that a leader deserves.” You, then, are a leader, and you seem to like to own things: “Your employees. Your customers. Your entire district … all because you’ve earned it.” Judging by the picture in the ad, you are a male signing a contract, but not that much else is known about you: The picture cuts off about halfway up your face, and the red wash prevents you from telling your skin color.This depiction of an alluring individual profile marketed to a large group continues throughout the ad supplement and beyond. The ad for Oliver Wyman Consulting shows three identically-dressed people on a boat, all of whose faces are conveniently covered by shadow. Pepsi’s full-page spot features a series of gauzy, unattached verbs: “push serve explore”, ending with three abstract, bathroom-style figures, one man and two women, thus refusing to alienate any type of candidate while still implying that the pickins are pretty good. Perhaps the most explicit pre-fair example of this tension between individuality and conformity comes in the “Working the Career Fairs” articles linked to at the Cornell Career Services website. “First Impressions, Lasting Impact!” urges, “You want to stand out in positive ways when recruiters review all of the people they met during the event.” And just how do you stand out? The answer is oddly uniform: “Keep the accessories minimal and not distracting — you want the recruiter focused on your resume and what you have to say not on large jewelry or a distracting tie.” “Make sure your shoes are polished and wear socks or stockings.  Your belt should be black, or match the color of your shoes.”You, theoretically, are now properly dressed, and it’s off to the Career Fair proper. You’re quickly met by what I found to be the most striking phenomenon of the whole day — the nametag. These are printed automatically by a Career Fair employee who asks only your student ID, your actual name being of little importance. Only the most close-to-home example of the conflict between individuality and conformity. This conflict is not lost on the students at the fair (for non-journalistic reasons). “There are certain stereotypes that represent people applying [for jobs],” says Adam Yozwiak ’12. “If you can defy those stereotypes, you can stand out.” The companies themselves are no less stereotyped by the makeup of the Career Fair. Lines form behind blue-chip employers in both the public and private sectors.  It is fitting that one of the biggest lines is at the FBI booth. The FBI epitomizes the concept of the big-name employer who offers positions about which little is known. How to walk the tightrope between specific and general? Maybe top-secret classification helps.Jake Friedman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment writer. He may be contacted at jfriedman@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Jake Friedman