The last time I looked for work, it was common knowledge that any job you'd ever really want was never advertised in the places you'd normally look. Now I'm told by Rhonda, my treadmill buddy down at the gym, that the jobs advertised in the normal places — the classifieds, the employment agencies, the executive search firms, the bulletin board down at the Laundromat — are not just jobs you'd never want, they're jobs that don't even exist.
The Flonkey Athletic Club is located downtown in the basement of the historic Flonkey Building. Lap pool, weight room, no windows, locker room that smells like French cheese, reasonable rates. Rhonda is my self-appointed contact with the World of Real Work. She is tall and occasionally blonde, and has a job at a PR firm upstairs, where she uses words that have very little meaning to great effect.
"There are no jobs where you'd expect them to be and tons of jobs where you don't expect them to be," says Rhonda. "And once you do find a job opening? Don't apply for it. Shows you're desperate. No one wants to hire someone who needs a job."
Then she mentions networking. "Very '80s, but classic. The Levi's 501 of job-hunting techniques."
Except that all my friends have jobs they don't like at companies they don't like with bosses they don't like — and have developed the rather retro hobby of reading the classifieds. Networking won't help in a hidden job market filled with invisible jobs. If no one knows the jobs are there, who can tell you about them?
Next to the Flonkey Athletic Club is Lotto-Donut-Pizza, a convenience store owned by the Ha family, formerly of Seoul, but managed by a guy I know, Fred Haymaker, a 42-year-old gamer who spends all his free time playing Dungeons & Dragons with 19-year-old community college dropouts."
"Fred," I ask as I pay for my Poland Spring water, "how do you catch something invisible?"
"Like an elf?" he responds. "Wear your clothes inside out. That makes them giggle — then you know where they are. That's 99 cents. Anything else?"
I tell him about my search and he surprises me with a suggestion.
"Try leaving messages for yourself at a company you want to work at. Show up a week later, say you're back from vacation, and ask if you have any messages."
"That's a little beyond my level of dramatic training," I say.
"There's always waiting until the secretary's at lunch. Then you sneak in and pencil yourself in on the interview sheet."
"There's still the interview."
"Use the Net to track the guy who's hiring. Find him in a chat room. Get his likes and dislikes, then mention them in the interview."
"Fred," I say, "how do you know this? I mean, no offense, but as I understand it, your idea of a good time is pretending to be a troll."
"What d'ya think I'm doing working at a convenience store?" He rings up two lottery tickets and a plank-size package of Pull-n-Peel Twizzlers licorice for a woman I recognize as the receptionist at the cellular-phone company upstairs.
"The convenience-store lackey of the late 20th century is the household servant of the late 19th century," Fred says. "All the secretaries stop in here on their way back from lunch or for their break. They yak at each other like I'm not here. There's going to be an opening in R&D at the Bishop Company next month. Laura went on maternity leave, and she's not coming back. Keith who works in personnel for the software company on the third floor just accepted a position with the competition. Leaving in two weeks."
"So you're ... "
"Job-hunting, just like you. To find the invisible jobs, ya gotta be the invisible job hunter."
Lotto-Donut-Pizza is hiring. I start Monday.
This is the first installment of "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's unflinching true-life encounter with the new world of work.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.