Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The job-seekers' arms race

I have sometimes thought while preparing for job interviews that I was building a set of skills that might become permanently redundant if I actually got the job. That is, the things I have learned about writing a decent CV and presenting myself in interviews could get me a position in which I might potentially remain for the rest of my working life, thus negating any need to ever write good CVs or do good interviews ever again.

Over the years I was exposed to endless advice about CV-writing and interviews, much of which was useful and reasonable, yet it also seemed oddly vain since everyone else was getting the same advice. There were people whose job it was to travel around giving advice to large groups of job-seekers. Surely if everyone is getting the same advice and all improving their CV and interview skills then nobody is getting any relative advantage at all.

Today I realised that what I was thinking about is Robert Frank's arms race. Here, as with the process that produced the over-sized antlers of bull elks, we are talking about mostly relative improvements for individuals over their competitors, a zero sum game where some must lose for others to win. Perhaps employers would be encouraged to employ some extra staff if they found exceptional job-seekers, granted, but for the most part I imagine that employers' plans to take on new staff will not be influenced much by the collective interview skills of job-seekers. The competition is therefore a relative one between the people looking for work.

Individuals get a brief relative advantage over their rivals for jobs following such training, but if that pushes others to boost their own training then the advantage is wiped out. Perhaps there is no real benefit to job-seekers as a group, while there is a real expense in time and (sometime) money spent on training. Job-seekers competing with one another are locked in a kind of pointless arms race to boost their relative standing without actually becoming good at anything useful.

Or am I wrong? Feel free to share your thoughts!

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