I had heard about this for years, and it always scared the crap out of me. Network, I thought. I don’t have a network. I just have people I know.
“Well, what do you think a network is?” my father asked me.
I dunno. I guess I thought it was a set of relationships cultivated for mutual profit. I never did that. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I would suck at it. I have no idea how to start such a relationship, nor how to maintain it. And how would I hold up my end of the bargain? I myself never got in anywhere but through the front door.
A while back, my cousin asked me about civil service jobs. I had never been in the loop on a civil service hire and had no idea how the process worked. So I asked one: how do you get in the Civil Service? USAJOBS.gov, he replied.
This was a rather naïve reply, or perhaps naïve of me to accept it at face value. First of all, my cousin surely wasn’t interested in the Civil Service without knowing about the federal government’s human resources website. Second, not all of the jobs advertised therein are “real”, i.e. position for which the government is actively recruiting. They are rather “potential” job openings that might materialize at some point based on expected attrition. And third, not all vacancies are filled from applicants to USAJOBS. Many agencies have what is known as “direct hire” authority: they can bring in whoever they want without advertising, formal competition or much in the way of outside oversight. For instance, while I was in Afghanistan, the agency from which I exited the Air Force hired a whole bunch of people I knew from school this way.
And yet . . . when I needed it, the network was there. Not, mind you, in the obvious place: my boss. Or her boss. But coworkers. Neighbors. Friends from church. My advisor. People I Know.
What’s scary about this is that, with one exception, all the callbacks I’ve received from potential employers have been with the support of the network I didn’t even know I had. Supposedly, employers actually prefer to hire people this way, but this strikes me as counterintuitive. From an employer’s perspective, why would I want to limit my applicant pool to people my current employees happen to know, or to hire people whose loyalty is less to the company than to their own network?
And from an job seeker’s perspective . . . well, what if my next door neighbor hadn’t worked for an engineering firm with a new contract? What if a friend from church wasn’t a program manager with a research institute and could put my resume in front of the right people? These all seem like pretty close-run things, especially since my wife usually puts most of the effort into maintaining these friendships in the first place.
I expect that the people most handicapped by this system are fresh graduates. Not only do they not have a lengthy work history in the field they are just now looking to enter, but the list of People They Know is probably limited to other students also just starting out. Plus they don’t have wives yet.