Yesterday I went to an interview at a temp agency. The streets were chaos, as Midtown Manhattan always is at lunchtime, or anytime. I couldn’t get a seat at Dunkin Donuts after purchasing my coffee for $1.89. Instead, I stood on the corner, watched the clouds drift by the Empire State building, and waited for the appointed hour.
The office was on a high floor of a large building. When I got off the elevator, the floor was deathly quiet. On either side of the hall, there were rows of closed office doors with little signs on them. Apparently, there were internet companies and others businesses being run behind those doors. Some of them had vaguely creepy titles such as “The Management Group.” That could mean just about anything. Every skyscraper in this city houses such offices. What do they do in there? How do they make money? It’s all so mysterious.
I checked my watch every thirty seconds on the way to the appointment because the woman who had called to set up the interview warned me that I would not be interviewed if I was tardy. When I got to the office door, I lingered a bit because the woman had also made it clear that the only thing worse than arriving late was arriving early.
When I rang the bell at 12:58, a voice came out of a little box on the wall. “Come in and sit in the lounge. Someone will be with you shortly.” I went in and found myself in a sparse office with only a few pieces of furniture, a window that opened onto Lexington Avenue, and not a speck of dust anywhere.
Eventually, a young woman came out from behind a door to tell me where to put my coat and to move me into another room that was almost identical to the first. Then, she gave me a stack of forms and a blue binder. “Fill out this paperwork, read the rules and regulations in the binder, and then pick up the phone on the desk and tell the person who answers that you are ready.” Then, the woman, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, disappeared behind the door again.
I sat there for 40 minutes filling out forms and reading about how employers have the right to monitor anything their employees do on company computers and that I may not, under any circumstances, divulge proprietary secrets. “Please check this box if you understand these rules and regulations.”
Then, there were tax forms. I haven’t filled out a W-4 in so long that I forgot how to do it. There are tables that you have to read to figure out your tax rate and to make sure you don’t underpay. “If line 6 is less than line 5, subtract line 6 from line 5 and divide by the number in the chart on Part B on the back of this form.” I have no idea if I did it right because I didn’t have a calculator.
When I was done, I picked up the office phone and reported my achievement. A few minutes later, a different woman came out from behind the door. She was very polite and probably ten years younger than me. She asked about my background and my skills and about what kinds of jobs I could see myself doing. At first, all my answers seemed to delight her. She became more serious when she asked about computer skills. What programs have I used? Do I know Google stuff? Microsoft stuff? Can I type with all ten fingers? I could tell this was very important to her
She also wanted to know if I enjoy filing. She scrunched up her face a little bit when she said this, as if she was expecting that I would not care for filing.
I said, “you mean physical filing, like putting pieces of paper in a cabinet?”
Yes, that is what she meant.
“I don’t mind filing,” I responded.
“But what if there were a job which required you to sit in an office all day and file papers. You probably wouldn’t like that very much, would you?”
Was this a trick question, about the filing? Is filing some kind of code for “boring stuff”?
“I think I would prefer to engage in a variety of activities throughout the day, rather than do just one thing,” I said, cautiously. “But I don’t have any particular dislike of filing.” I sounded like a Jane Austen character stuck in a 21st century episode of the Twilight Zone.
She seemed satisfied with that answer.
“Why do you want to leave academia?” she asked, almost out of the blue, even though I was expecting it.
I have been reading a number of blogs and articles that advise post-academics to position themselves as workers in a “career transition,” which is something that employers can understand. So that’s what I did. I told her that I love teaching (sort of true) but that I had lost interest in my academic research (mostly true), so I knew that a change was in order. I did not tell her the primary reason for my post-academic status, which is that there are no longer any jobs in academe for the vast majority of people who are qualified for them. It made no sense to mention a lack of full-time jobs as a problem I was seeking to remedy by signing up with a temp agency.
She seemed satisfied with that answer.
She said, “I would like you to meet one other person from our office. Can you stay for a minute?”
I nodded, although “a minute” turned out to be twenty.
I couldn’t believe it when I looked at the clock after she left the room. I had already been there for over an hour. I was so wrapped up in the task of being interviewed and filling out forms and learning about regulations that I had lost track of time. I think it was also the weird environment of the empty office. And the young women, little replicas of each other, who emerged from behind the far door that I could not see beyond. Who could measure time in a place like that?
A few minutes later, a third woman came out to see me. She was also extremely friendly and younger than me, though slightly older than the first two women. We chatted amiably about teaching and about my availability for the next couple of months. She gave me a time sheet, and explained how to fill it out and submit it if I am hired for a job. She also explained that I should not feel obligated to take a job I don’t want. “We won’t hold it against you if you decline any job,” she assured me, even though I hadn’t asked.
I had been a little worried about that, actually. Would registering with a temp agency obligate me to take whatever jobs they throw my way so that I can be eligible for better positions that might come up?
After this interview, I am confident that the answer is no.
Ours is a contingent relationship. They can and will fire me (ie, stop calling) anytime they want, and they can pay me whatever they want (within a range that we agreed upon, or rather, that they instructed me to accept), and I am also free to turn down any offers I don’t like.
They made it sound so mutually agreeable! No one has any obligation to anyone else, see? Perfect. Right?
How much does the temp agency, the odd intermediary between the worker and the employer, actually profit off my labor? Why will I never be eligible for any sort of guaranteed work? Where am I supposed to get health insurance if I don’t have it? Of course, those questions are just not asked. The whole arrangement is presented as mutually agreeable, but really it’s like this: “You do whatever we tell you and if you don’t like it, then you don’t work for us.”
If one is desperate enough, that sounds just fine.
Before I left after the 90-minute ordeal, woman #3 asked me which of my three references she should call. “We usually like to call at least one of your references before your first job.”
I reviewed the list on my resumé. All of my references agreed to serve as references, but they are also people who knew me as an academic. I don’t know if they are aware of my situation. For a moment, I panicked, imagining the call each would receive. “Hello, this is Woman #3 from The Temp Agency. We’re calling about Post-Academic in NYC, who has registered with us. Will you give her a reference?”
What will these academics think when they get this call?
“Post-Academic in NYC was never really good enough to begin with.”
“Poor Post-Academic in NYC! She really shouldn’t give up so easily!”
“I feel badly for Post-Academic in NYC, but things are terribly dire at the moment, because of the economy. Hopefully, things will improve soon!”
These are responses that view a person in an employment dilemma such as mine as an individual who failed, who didn’t work hard enough, or who experienced a bad-luck moment in history.
Only a few of the people I used to know would see my situation for what it is: the future of employment in America. Growing numbers of workers have little choice but to accept contingent, part-time, contract-based jobs whose terms are totally dictated by the employer’s needs and by the employer’s desire to make no commitment and to pay as little as possible.
In the future, which is already here, information about what the jobs are, who has them, how much they pay, and how profitable employers are, will be totally unknowable to all but a few. Access to these jobs will be distributed according to a protocol that is similarly mysterious. The people (old white dudes, probably) reaping the rewards of this horrible system will be out of reach and out of sight. The dirty work of capitalism will be conducted, instead, by young, smiling women who contemplate each applicant’s suitability in austere offices high above the bustling metropolis.