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December 8, 2012

Interview of a job hunt: from Pizza Hut to the Ben Franklin of the 21st century

A waiter, labelled republicans, serves a tariff bill to Uncle Sam

“Some of the moments were surreal”

In the past Ptara interviewed documentarians and historians, those who have been published and won awards. We’ve had some interesting viewpoints from those who’ve studied history and used it for work.

This time, we published an entrepreneur, and the Employee for the 21st century, a man who’s career includes coding Javascript, sharing statistics, and serving pizza: Mr. Joseph Ohler Junior.

So, Mr Employee for the 21st century, tell us a little about yourself
I own and operate an independent statistical service at BuyMyStats.com. My business model is to be a provider of remotely outsourced data analysis to reduce the client organization’s total cost of ownership for all manners of Bayesian inference. In other words, they can hire me as an independent contractor for as long or as briefly as they need instead of needing a permanent staff statistician. I know that makes me unpopular among some research groups who have traditionally charged usurious prices, but that’s competition.
Because the practice of statistics is very organized and disciplined, I also sell designs on Zazzle.com to express myself in freer form. I update monthly and sometimes more often when I have the creative urge.
background Joseph’s discussion on his work at Pizza Hut prompted this interview
[He’d been given bad advice on writing a resume.]
Q1) Why did you apply to work for Pizza Hut?
I had graduated with a Master’s degree in public administration and was living with my father, who earned a modest income in telemarketing lawn care service at the time. At first, I was fixing to jump right into a career in public management or a corporate train-to-hire job. I had applied for more professional positions but had been granted only a few interviews over the span of eight months. I really began to doubt my ability to get in anywhere and decided to test my labor market appeal by applying to a bunch of bottom-rung jobs, including all the fast food joints in town (about a dozen). Another three months later, none of them had invited me to interview despite my polite follow-up calls every few weeks and personal desire to help pay household bills.

Three royals stuffing down food, King George, the queen and the Prince of Wales. Monstrous craws at a new coalition feast, by James Gilray

“Everyone else showed apathy”

I then decided to stop being polite and to make a statement by constructing a crude “Joe Ohler for Hire” sign and marching around the main streets of town. I fashioned the sign out of taped-together junk mail envelopes and permanent marker. I kept on moving to prevent allegations of loitering, and so the police let me strut up and down the sidewalks. Obviously, my self esteem had fallen quite low to do that without shame.People didn’t really seem to pay attention until a local news photographer saw me near the library and called me over for an impromptu photo shoot. He took down my contact information, and later the newspaper editor interviewed me by telephone. I detailed my university studies, jobs held while in college, and how college graduation was not the game changer I believed it would be. And yes, I put the boots to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in my interview. I had tried to love my alma mater, but it didn’t love me in return. It should be noted that UWM enrollment of freshmen from my hometown actually declined the autumn semester after publication of the story!

Although one would think hometown businesses would provide an opportunity for a resident in need, the only people in West Bend who gave a rip when I was going through tough times were the Pizza Hut managers and a few of the Daily News staff. Everyone else showed apathy, and for that I will never donate or bequest anything to West Bend, its community organizations, school districts, or local university when I finally enter into wealth. There is nothing of value to me in West Bend, Wisconsin.

The manager of the local Pizza Hut was the only person to call me the week after the story ran. Although she claimed to have not seen the article, I was excited to have been deemed a desirable talent by someone. I passed the clichéd customer service questions with flying colors thanks to researching those types of questions online before applying.

Q2) Do you regret working for Pizza Hut?
No, because it provided with me a genuine slice-of-life perspective of the laboring class. I always had an idealized perception of fast food work, and working at Pizza Hut shattered that. You have a single employee waiting tables, answering phones, cashing out orders, folding pizza boxes for the cut table, shelving deliveries into their appropriate thermal pouches by time of order, and cleaning up tables in no particular order for six to eight hours. The multitasking at Pizza Hut makes it the undeniably most difficult fast food place to work for.The customers can be some of the grouchiest, too, because although technically made-to-order pizza is fast food, it literally is slow food due to taking between 15 minutes for carryout to over an hour for delivery. It really shows you the uncensored side of people which you tend to not get in a more professional work environment.Some of the moments were surreal such as when this middle-aged man turned beet red, walked to the counter, and bellowed, “It’s been over half an hour, and I haven’t had a damned bite to eat!” I told him the pizza was coming through the oven, but he stormed out minutes before the pizza emerged. Upon busing his table, I discovered the supposedly grown-up man had bent several forks — he didn’t have a child with him to blame it on!
Q3) What were your career prospects like before then?
Based on the low interview rate, I could only infer my prospects were pretty poor. The days of being considered for a train-to-manage position based on doing well in liberal arts courses have all but ended, and yet the “you can do anything” mentality is shoved down college students’ throats so that less economically relevant departments will continue to have enough declared majors to exist. I managed to befriend a few instructors in the political science department at my alma mater, but none of them have any real-life job connections.Although there are still a few regional employers who have explicit “corporate trainee” positions for recent college grads, nepotism is rampant. They’ll interview a few unfamiliar people to pad their overall applicant pool for EOE purposes, but it boils down to hiring who they already know through employee referrals and the like.Public administration is brutally difficult to get into, a sharp contrast to when the internship coordinator at my Master’s program made it sound fairly easy thanks to the availability of paid internships. Of course, I managed to be passed over for those internships. I then had to make a special arrangement with the local city manager for an unpaid internship so I could graduate.
Q4) How did you do your résumé before then?
I emphasized my ability to learn and experience leading student government initiatives. I guess that wasn’t enough; maybe you have to create your own academic department or win a city council election to be considered as having done anything noteworthy by graduation. It could also be that many employers want followers, not leaders — if that’s the case, then my alma mater should scrap the latter half of the so-called “Center for Volunteerism and Student Leadership.”Student government applications should include the disclaimer, “Participation in student government has not been shown to increase post-graduation labor force participation.” For the record, I had indeed applied to all the restaurants and retail stores within a mile of campus every semester as an undergrad. And no, none of them interviewed me.
Q5) What were the results?
See my response for Question 1.
Q6) How did the interviews go?
Charles Turner Dazey's poster for the War of Wealth, showing a socialite rejecting her suiter, the junior partner in the firm.

I had tried to love my alma matter, but it didn’t love me in return.

For train-to-hire positions, I comprehensively answered each question as it related to my course work and student government leadership experience. For website development positions, I explained how my experience as Web developer for my alma mater’s bookstore would translate to managing the corporate website. I also asked solid questions about the company culture, channels of communication, and what a typical work week is like. I suppose that my explanations of prior duties which had enticed them on my résumé just didn’t measure up to the hired applicant’s grand accomplishments, whatever those were.For technical positions such as website developer, the interviewers would dismiss my experience by telling me the university bookstore website environment is different than their online infrastructure. I made my best pitch about how my skills are transferable, e.g. I can learn any PHP or JavaScript library because I know the fundamentals of the underlying code constructs, but they would play the “poor organizational fit” and “no enterprise experience” cards. If managing the front and back ends of a website serving over forty thousand visitors annually isn’t “enterprise,” then the W3C should define exactly what is!

Q7) Why did you change your résumé?
I eventually inferred the need to rephrase my student government experience into something which sounded more like an internship with project management duties. I also decided to list an employment gap between my graduation and the start of my stint as a volunteer career adviser and nominal self-employment working on new websites. No one asked for the websites; I just made a few to build a better portfolio and convinced an acquaintance to let me list him as a recent reference to vouch that I’ve done Web development in the past year.
Q8) How did that change your career prospects?
I doubled my interview rate but have been unable to progress past the initial phone interview. I guess that’s better than driving 50 miles to an interview and losing, but it’s nonetheless disappointing and confusing for someone who strives for excellence in everything he does. It seems I’m shut out of public administration and website development, especially as my stats business takes away time I could otherwise use to learn Java. I’m now focused on growing my business and on getting a full-time data analyst position; there’s no reason why I couldn’t balance both.

So, who inspired the Employee For the 21st Century to become a statistician? What would he have done had he been born in another era? How does Joseph Ohler feel history helped his career? And where is he now?  To be continued in part 2.

 

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