Desperation Nation: The Growth of the "I Just Need a Job" Candidate

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By Nanci Lamborn, SPHR, and BrightMove Recruiting and Employment Software

It used to be that the occasional overly desperate candidate, the one who called or wrote or came by repeatedly delivering his “I’ll do anything at all for you if you’ll just give me a chance, I just badly need work,” speech was an anomaly. He stood out from the drones of other qualified and educated candidates because of this hat-in-hand demeanor, perhaps a woefully tragic story, and his genuinely conveyed desire to do anything from mopping restrooms to opening mail to sorting shoes. The candidates competing for the very same openings confidently rested on their well-heeled laurels, assured that their lineage and letters of recommendation would land them this next position with ease. The competitors didn’t need to grovel; they had no reason to appear desperate since they knew that if this job didn’t pan out, there were several just like it down the road. Mr. Desperate was often given a chance by the boss as a charitable case, to fill a grunt role in which a better candidate would be wasted, or perhaps as an example to other workers who may have mumbled, “That’s not my job,” one too many times.

My how things have changed.

In my many years of recruiting and human resources, only occasionally did I come across such a desperate candidate. But in the last few months, as I know many of you can attest, desperation abounds.  Cover letters with statements such as, “I’ve been looking for a job everywhere and just can’t seem to find one,” “I’m almost out of my unemployment and I’m getting pretty desperate,” and “I really just need to work, I can do anything,” are becoming almost daily occurrences. It seems that these candidates are the precursory ranks to what the Department of Labor calls the Discouraged Workforce.

Wikipedia defines the Discouraged Worker as, “…a person of legal employment age who is not actively seeking employment. This is usually because an individual has given up looking or has had no success in finding a job, hence the term ‘discouraged.’ Their belief may be derived from a variety of factors including: a shortage of jobs in their locality or line of work; perceived discrimination for reasons such as age, race, sex and religion; a lack of necessary skills, training, or experience; or (medical reasons),”

News of the discouraged workforce is now commonplace, such as this New York Times article covering three sad and desperate stories of the unemployed, and this US News and World Report article about the far-reaching effects that the discouraged workforce causes which claims some rather startling numbers for the increase in the discouraged workforce from one year ago. This article from AOL Money’s Daily Finance does help shed some light on why Americans seem to be fleeing the job market.  It’s also interesting to note the data contained in this Time article about discouraged workers from 1991,, which was written when total unemployment was almost half of what it has been in the past quarter of 2010.  Talk about desperation!

Is retraining the magic answer? Some studies do not suggest so. A 2008 evaluation of the federal WIA retraining efforts discovered that the cost of the training programs exceeded the increase in earnings for the average participant Some retraining reports in other areas are cautiously optimistic, with mixed results leaning towards the positive But the vicious cycle of workers who lack the skills for modern positions and then who either are incapable of completing some of the retraining offered or have no access to retraining programs can only contribute to some of the desperation.

I also have to ask where the desperation comes from and why some of the unemployed manage to maintain a positive professional mindset without the desperate edge, while others do not. Having been one of the unexpectedly unemployed myself, I wholeheartedly sympathize with the all-consuming focus that greets us with every new out-of-work day. But why was it that many of my unemployed recruiting and human resources counterparts who had been looking for more than a year were unable to land a job, yet my total search time was only four months? Was it because I had quickly snagged some contract positions just to keep my resume from appearing dated?  Was it because I had previously enrolled in college and could show I was continuing my education? Was it because I was somehow able to draw from the bootstrap pulling mentality to maintain a confidence while interviewing that other less confident candidates did not display?  Or was it because I happened to be at the right place at the right time and just got lucky? Perhaps all of these contributed to my success, and perhaps I would be writing from a completely different angle had I not done these things and grown desperate in the process.

I believe that we have an obligation to help any desperate person in any way that we can, whether it be resume or interview guidance, networking options or suggesting recruiters in their field. I also believe that the numbers of desperate candidates will only increase as the job market continues to change and some formerly abundant skill requirements disappear entirely. Those that will be able to survive this era of upheaval will be those who have somehow managed to fight off desperation along the way.

Nanci Lamborn, SPHR, is a freelance writer and senior human resources generalist based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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