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Are Coaches the Answer to White-Collar Unemployment?

In an excerpt from her new book 'Bait and Switch,' the author of 'Nickel and Dimed' explores the dubious industry of career coaches, intended to help frustrated job-seekers find their true callings.
 
 
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Ed. Note: The following is an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bait and Switch (Metropolitan Books; September 2005).

Where to begin? My first foray into the world of job searching, undertaken at my computer on a gloomy December afternoon, is distinctly intimidating. These days, I have gathered from a quick tour of relevant web sites, you don't just pore over the help-wanted ads, send off some résumés, and wait for the calls. Job searching has become, if not a science, a technology so complex that no mere job seeker can expect to master it alone.

The Internet offers a bewildering variety of sites where you can post a résumé in the hope that a potential employer will notice it. Alternatively, you can use the net to apply directly to thousands of companies. But is the résumé eye-catching enough? Or would it be better to attempt face-to-face encounters at the proliferating number of "networking events" that hold out the promise of meaningful contacts?

Fortunately, there are about 10,000 people eager to assist me -- "career coaches" -- who, according to the coaching web sites, can help you discover your true occupational "passion," retool your résumé, and hold your hand at every step along the way. The coaches, whose numbers have been doubling every three years, are the core of the "transition industry" that has grown up just since the mid-nineties, in a perhaps inevitable response to white-collar unemployment.

Unlike blue-collar people, the white-collar unemployed are likely to have some assets to invest in their job search; they are, in addition, often lonely and depressed -- a perfect market, in other words, for any service promising prosperity and renewed self-esteem. Some coaches have formal training through programs like the Career Coach Academy's fifteen-week course; others are entirely self-anointed. You can declare yourself a coach without any credentials, nor are there any regulatory agencies looking over your shoulder -- which means that, for the job seeker, it's the luck of the draw.

I find Morton on the web, listed as a local career coach, although -- as I will soon learn -- most coaching is done by phone so there is no need for geographic proximity. Morton has been there, is my thought. The background material that he sends me shows a history of what appear to be high-level, defense-related jobs, including, somewhat datedly, "Senior Intelligence Analyst and Branch Chief Responsible for Analyzing Soviet Military Research." He has given seminars at Carnegie Mellon University and spoken frequently at Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Surely he can guide my transformation into the marketable middle-level professional I aspire to be. Besides, he assures me, I will not have to pay for our first, trial session.

I have no trouble recognizing him at Starbucks in Charlottesville's Barracks Road Mall; he's the one wearing the JMU baseball cap, as promised, a description that encouraged me to come in rumpled gray slacks and sneakers. The top is better, though -- black turtleneck, tweed blazer, and pearl earrings -- which I am hoping will pass as "business casual." Flustered by being five minutes late because my normal route to the mall was blocked by construction, I stumble over my new name in the handshake phase. He appears not to notice. In fact, he doesn't seem to be much into the noticing business or perhaps already regards me as a disappointment.

After exchanging some observations on the pre-Christmas parking situation at the mall, I lay out my situation for him: I do public relations and event planning, I tell him, but I've been doing it on a freelance basis and am now seeking a stable corporate position with regular benefits, location flexible. How to present myself? Where to begin?

I pull out the résumé that I completed over the weekend and slide it across the table toward him. In the worst-case scenario, he will grab it and quiz me on it while holding it in such a way that I will be unable to refresh my memory with an occasional glance. But he regards the stapled papers with only somewhat more enthusiasm than if a fly were advancing across the table toward his arm. Maybe he can tell without reading it, by the very format of the pages -- the lack, as I now see it, of bullets and bolding -- that it isn't worth a serious coach's attention.

But he is bringing something out of his briefcase -- an 8 1/22 x 11 inch transparency -- which he places methodically over a sheet of white paper so that I can read: "Core Competencies and Skills," or "the four competencies," as he refers to them. These are Mobilizing Innovation, Managing People and Tasks, Communicating, and Managing Self. This must be what I need -- an introduction to the crisp, linear concepts that shape the corporate mind. I am taking notes as fast as I can, but he assures me that he will leave me with copies, so I am free to focus on the content.

The next transparency features a picture of a harness racer and horse, and reads:

Clear mind, skillful driver
Sound spirit, strong horse.
Strong body, sound carriage.
Mind, body, spirit work as one ... Path to victory is clear.

The syntax is a bit disturbing, particularly the absence of articles, which gives it a kind of ESL feel, but if modem-day executives can derive management principles from Buddhism or Genghis Khan, as the business sections of bookstores suggest, surely they can imagine themselves as harness racers. The horse, driver, and carriage, Morton is telling me, symbolize Head, Heart, and Gut, but I miss which one is which. This is going to be a lot harder than I anticipated. Already, the four competencies are leaking away from memory, or maybe it should be self-evident that Mobilizing Innovation equals Head or possibly Gut.

With the next transparency, things take a seriously goofy turn. It's titled "Three Centers of Intelligence" and illustrated with characters from The Wizard of Oz: the scarecrow, representing "Mental," the tin man, representing "Emotional," and the lion, representing "Instinctual."

When he teaches his course on "Spirituality and Business," Morton is explaining, he does this with dolls. That was his wife's idea. She said, "You should have dolls!" and you know what? She went out and found them for him. I profess to being a little sketchy about my Wizard of Oz, and Morton digresses into the back story on the tin man, trying to recall how he got such a hard "shell." All I can think is that I'm glad he didn't bring the dolls with him, because Starbucks has gotten crowded now and I wouldn't want it to look like I'm being subjected to some peculiar doll-based form of therapy.

But while I am still struggling to associate the tin man with Emotional and so forth, we move away from Oz to the Enneagram, which is defined in a transparency as:

A description of personality types
Based on ancient learning about motivation
A diagram easily learned and applied
Provides clues about moving toward balance.

The visuals here feature a figure composed of a number of connected triangles enclosed in a circle. I feel a dizziness that cannot be explained by the growing distance from breakfast, and not a single question occurs to me that might shed some light on the ever-deepening complexity before me. Somehow, the Enneagram leads to "The Nine Types," which are also the "nine basic desires or passions." Perhaps sensing my confusion, Morton tells me that, in his course, the Enneagram takes a lot of time to get across. "It's more or less a data dump."

I furrow my brow and nod. All around us, money is being exchanged for muffins in mutually agreeable amounts, and the corporate world continues to function in its usual mindlessly busy, rational way. But the continuance of the corporate enterprise is not something, I realize for the first time, that you can necessarily take for granted. Not if its underlying principles emanate from Oz.

It's a great relief when the higher math of the Enneagram gives way, in the sequence of transparencies, to the familiar Wizard of Oz creatures, now seen decorating a series of grids labeled "Emotional Centered Types," "Mentally Centered Types," and "Instinctual Centered Types." On the left side of each grid are five entries, the most intriguing of which is "distorted passion," described by Morton as a "bad passion," or one that you have to recognize and overcome.

For example, the lion has as one of its distorted passions "Lust for life. I want to experience and control the entire world," while the scarecrow is potentially burdened with "Avarice -- I keep knowledge to myself to avoid being seen as incompetent. " I interrupt to ask why keeping knowledge to oneself is called avarice, and he replies evenly, "Because it's keeping something to yourself. "

Then I notice among the distorted passions, "Gluttony -- I can never get enough experience." In among the wanderings of Dorothy in Oz and the "ancient learning" of the Enneagram, Morton -- or the inventor of the Enneagram -- has managed to weave the Seven Deadly Sins.

What all this leads up to is that I have to take a test, the Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales (WEPSS), which will reveal my personality type and hence what kind of job I should be looking for. I already told Morton what kind of job I'm looking for, but obviously not in a language that fits into his elaborate personal metaphysics. I'll take the test at home, send it to him, and then meet for an evaluation. The whole thing will cost $60.

So the search for a career coach who can actually help me with the mechanics of job searching continues. I register at the CoachLink web site, which nets me three e-mags offering coaching services and one phone call. I go with the phone caller, Kimberly, whose web site describes her as "a career and outplacement consultant, trainer and writer" -- for showing initiative -- and agree to a weekly half-hour session by phone at $400 a month, or $200 an hour. My "homework," due on our first session, is to "fantasize" about my ideal job. What would my day be like at this ideal job?

It's not a bad assignment. Everyone should take some time for utopian thinking, and what better occasion than when you have nothing else to do? So I fantasize about a small- to medium-size company with offices in a wooded area, mine looking out on a valley and rolling green hills. An espresso cart rolls around every morning and afternoon; there's an on-site gym to which we're encouraged to retreat at least once a day, and the cafeteria features affordable nouvelle cuisine.

None of that goes into my written fantasy, however, which focuses on finding a balance between the intense camaraderie of my "team" and periods of creative solitude in my office, which of course has a door -- no cubicles for me. I put myself in charge of my team, over which I wield a collegial, "empowering" form of leadership. I am utterly fascinated by my work, whatever it is, and frequently carry on till late at night.

Kimberly, when our first session rolls around, is "excited" by my résumé, "excited" by my fantasy, and generally "excited" to be working with me. I get high marks for the fantasy job: "You're very clear about what you want! Many clients don't get to this stage for months. I think you're going to be a quick study." Already, the excitement level is beginning to exhaust me. In my irritation, I picture her as a short-haired platinum blonde, probably wearing a holiday-themed sweater and looking out from her ranch home on a lawn full of reindeer or gnomes.

As for how she sees herself: "I've gone through some branding processes, and I realize the brand you're getting from me is wildly optimistic, fiercely compassionate, and totally improvisational." I am to think of myself in the same way -- as a "brand," or at least a product.

"What do you do in PR?"

I let a beat go by, not sure if this is a test of whether I am actually what I claim to be. But this turns out to be her MO -- the teasing question, followed by the dazzlingly insightful answer: "You sell things, and now you're going to sell yourself!"

Looking down at my sweatpants and unshod feet, all of which is of course invisible to Kimberly, I mumble about lacking confidence, the tight job market, and the obvious black mark of my age. This last defect elicits a forceful "Be really aware of the negative self-talk you give yourself. Step into the take-charge person you are!" Now comes the theoretical part. She asks me to think of two overlapping circles. One circle is me, the other is "the world of work," and the overlapping area is "the ideal position for you." "What you need is confidence," Kimberly is saying. "You have to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty." I draw the overlapping circles as she speaks, then redraw them so that they are almost entirely overlapping, thus vastly expanding my employment prospects.

Our half an hour is drawing to a close, I note with relief. She thinks I will need three months of coaching, meaning she will need $1,200. This will be a lot of work for me, she says, because she practices "co-active coaching," which is "very collaborative." "I want you to design me as your best coach," she says, perhaps forgetting that she has already been not only designed but "branded." If I were "designing" her, I'd throw in a major serotonin antagonist to damp down the perkiness, and maybe at some point I will find a tactful way to suggest that she chill. The session has left me drained and her more excited than ever: "We'll dance together here!" is her final promise.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, including "Nickel and Dimed." A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.