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Book Reviews

Getting Back to Work: The Ultimate Jobseeker’s Guide for Canadians Over 45

by Dianne Twombly

Canada’s Best Careers Guide

by Frank Feather

Where the Jobs Are: Career Survival for Canadians in the New Economy

by Colin Campbell

Job Hunting for Dummies

by Max Messmer

Résumés That Get Jobs

by Jean Reed

Climb A Fallen Ladder: How to Survive (and Thrive!) in a Downsized America

by Rochelle H. Gordon and Catherine E. Harold

Nearly all the guidebooks currently available to Canadians looking for work begin with the same little story: Once upon a time, there was a happy and prosperous society. People had no difficulty finding jobs, and it wasn’t unusual for an employee to stay with a company for decades, even for life. Companies rewarded this loyalty by showering employees with benefits and perks.

Soon, however, companies in other countries, where employees did not receive perks or benefits, and where living standards were very low and workdays were very long, began producing goods much more cheaply and efficiently. Before the people in the happy, prosperous society knew what had hit them, their jobs were being shipped overseas, and they found themselves scrambling for security – and benefit-free “contingency” work. Suddenly, they weren’t so happy anymore.

Consistently, Canadian job books prove to be the best buys for Canadian job seekers. Not only do they provide specific information relevant to our job market, but the advice they offer tends to be more sensible and balanced, less influenced by a need to draw a moral lesson from the fable of the new economy.

For anyone facing a sudden career shift, the logical first step is to assess the state of the job market, and target an industry that’s on its way up, not out.

Canada’s Best Careers Guide doesn’t deliver on its titular promise. But for discouraged jobseekers, author Frank Feather’s zany enthusiasm for Canada’s future growth might be a bit of a pick-me-up. “I fully believe the economy has embarked on nothing less than a ‘Super-Boom’ that will last 20 years,” Feather declares.

A comparison with Colin Campbell’s drier and more level-headed Where the Jobs Are shows up the weaknesses in Feather’s argument. Feather, for example, foresees a cloudless future for Canadian publishing, as part of the boom in “information/knowledge” industries. “Books are exploding onto the shelves,” he writes confidently, and flags writer/editor as a “best bet” career. Campbell, on the other hand, takes into account the GST, cuts to government subsidies, and soaring paper prices, and soberly concludes that the industry, while still viable, is headed for “difficult times.” His exhaustively researched book offers detailed, specific information on the Canadian job market, and on promising markets overseas.

Campbell does, however, tell the global-economy story as a cautionary tale, with the West’s downfall the inevitable result of, among other things, its “inflexible” labour laws. He fails to mention though, that many of the countries whose docile, unionless workforces he so admires – Colombia, Indonesia, and South Korea, for example – got that way largely through their governments’ nasty habit of detaining, torturing, and even killing trade unionists and human rights activists.

Canadians considering employment overseas may want to supplement the information in Campbell’s country profiles with a quick look at Amnesty International’s web site.

Armed with a better understanding of the career opportunities available to Canadians at home and abroad, the aspiring worker next needs a guide to structuring and carrying out an effective job search. Job Hunting for Dummies covers the same ground as most guides in this genre: identifying a target market, writing a résumé and cover letters, searching out leads and openings, giving good job interviews. It contains a lot of American contact and resource information, useless to jobseekers wishing to stay in Canada, but its general, practical information is solid enough. However, the cutesy, cartoony “For Dummies” style, which works well in guides to computing, seems inappropriate as an approach to a problem as serious and life-affecting as downsizing and unemployment. The problem is most obvious in the “Bloopers” sidebars, which contain lists of actual résumé errors that are supposed to be funny, but which are often uninteresting (résumés on coloured paper; minor typos) or sad (references to personal misfortune).

Dianne Twombly’s Getting Back to Work: The Ultimate Jobseeker’s Guide for Canadians over 45, offers a pragmatic and clear-eyed version of the global-economy tale to older Canadians bewildered by rapid economic change. Twombly, a social worker who has herself been out of work, based the book on her experiences in developing the Nanaimo-based program Re-Employment 45. Her thorough, practical understanding of the realities facing unemployed Canadians strongly informs the book, and though she writes with a sense of humour, she is never patronizing. Instead of snide bloopers lists, there are clear and specific lists of don’ts in each section. And Twombly encourages her readers to “know their rights”; hers is the only job book I’ve seen that includes information on employment insurance, and on federal and provincial labour law. The wealth of Canadian contact and research information here makes it a resource worth considering for younger people as well.

Most job search guides include a chapter on résumé writing, but for those who want further guidance, a great number of workbooks offer advice on fine-tuning résumés. Some include gimmicks, or target niche markets. Résumés That Get Jobs comes with a floppy disk bearing a résumé formatting program. Electronic Résumés That Get Jobs offers some useful technical advice on putting together résumés that will scan easily and can be sent by e-mail. Résumés for Women sounds like a good idea, but addresses disappointingly few of the problems faced by homemakers returning to the workforce, or women with mostly volunteer experience. But overall, there are few real differences among the many titles of this kind. All offer dozens of sample résumés, each with slight variations in fonts and layout. All promise a “magic” formula that will somehow stand out and mesmerize the prospective employer, compelling him or her to schedule an interview. I don’t buy any of this. Either a résumé is efficiently designed, or it isn’t; two or three sample layouts are all anyone really needs. Job search handbooks stress that most jobs are landed through contacts and networks. In other words, the résumés that stand out are the ones from applicants who are known to the employer – not the ones with cute graphics at the top.

If looking for work proves to be even more demoralizing than expected, jobseekers can turn to a growing number of titles offering help on coping with the emotional and psychological challenges of the new economy. Some, like Bob Weinstein’s Who Says There Are No Jobs Out There?, sell “attitude” as a coping tool. Weinstein’s book contains a few unremarkable practical tips – network regularly, join professional associations – and a whole lot of exhortations to “think of yourself as a product,” and, “remember: profits are more important than people.”

If Weinstein rewrites the global-economy fable to show that tough times weed out the weak, and all change is good, Rochelle H. Gordon uses it to illustrate the utter futility of working for change or even of thinking critically about the economy, and the virtue of relinquishing all efforts to improve anything but one’s own life. Social Security and Medicare, she explains in Climb a Fallen Ladder, were myths created “to prevent ourselves from accepting reality, embracing unpredictability.” Again and again she urges her reader to “give yourself that gift of releasing control,” even to “let go and let God.”

What a relief it is to turn from this to Canadian career management consultant Barbara Moses’s Career Intelligence. Like the others, Moses advises insecure or displaced workers to become more flexible, and to learn to expect less from employers. But she’s critical of the ruthlessness of the new marketplace, and of the blame-the-victim mentality of many commentators. Her book includes a section on what businesses and managers can do to reduce stress on their employees; suggestions include shortening the work week rather than laying people off, and extending benefits to part-time and casual workers. In the current climate of fear and uncertainty, Moses’s assertions that employees should be treated with respect, and that keeping workplaces functional is everyone’s responsibility, are refreshingly compassionate and sane.