To see is to (dis) believe

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Image courtesty of: http://www.wsj.com

Disclaimer: the purpose of this post is to satisfy the author’s curiosity about the difficulty of finding a job in Paris. Due to limited resources, it has been restricted to briefly discuss whether the huge cost of hiring is causing the apparent “disfavor” of foreign candidates. It does not intend in any way to explain any socio-economic-political problems faced by the country today. Neither does it propose any solutions.

The conclusions presented do not reflect the French population’s opinion. They are solely the author’s point of view basing on her own experience and situation analysis.

A light, leisurely tour in the net…

I had started to write about my previous post “A color for disbelief” ,when I decided to do some light research online. I wanted to find out just why it’s so hard for a non-French to find a job in Paris. There were soooo many blogsites and fora about this topic. I did find many helpful ones and so many whiny ones, too! But for the purposes of this post, I would recommend a couple of articles available at:

These statements partly answer my question. Plus if I add this information to my own experience and other people’s stories, I could say that when we look at the supply side of the labor market it’s not a matter of foreign applicants presenting a lower-level training. It’s more a question of the selective process candidates undergo and the criteria being used when choosing the finalists.

What about the demand side? This made me think about the employers and the price they have to pay to acquire labor. It occured to me that perhaps this is one factor that’s discouraging hiring in general. And if we include the economic crisis in the picture, it could explain why the French are more favored by local companies when seeking to increase their staff.

By the way, no matter what they tell you: it’s the companies that demand work and the employees that supply them. Even if the ads announce “JOB OFFER”, technically they are the ones that need the labor to do such job.

What is the cost of hiring?

The cost of hiring basically includes: salaries and wages plus various expenditures such as payroll taxes and cost and benefits to be paid by employers- not to mention the operating expenses (setting up a computer, telephone line, in some cases a mobile phone, company vehicule, etc…). In France, social taxes (paid by the employee) average up to 22% of the gross salary, while the costs and benefits paid by companies average to 42%.

If a company decides to hire a foreigner, it has to take charge of organizing the person’s work authorization. This is a pre-requisite for anyone who wants to start processing his visa/residence permit and would raise the hiring cost. This is not only measured in terms of money but also in terms of time spent, effort exerted and those “things left undone because of having to allocate money, time and effort in applying for a work authorization”. The latter is what economists love to deal with and they call it opportunity cost. We’ll get back to that later.

As for EU nationals: technically they’re still foreigners but they have the liberty to move about and work within the EU zone. Because of this, French companies have theoretically started to widen their search; they are not anymore obliged to hire French candidates first. In theory. But with the high unemployment rates (10,5% for France and 8,4% for the city of Paris), it shouldn’t be surprising if candidate searches are still leaning towards French citizens. Here we can also insert the opportunity cost of not hiring a French national.

The opportunity cost is defined by Investopedia as “the cost of an alternative that must be given up in order to pursue a certain action. Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.”

On one hand, in the case of using a company’s resources to prepare a work authorization: this would mean hours of an HR personnel’s time invested in the said task instead of, say, interviewing candidates, helping out in a team project or simply archiving letters and documents (the French are still big, big fans of hard copies of documents and snail mail). On the other hand, the opportunity cost of not hiring a French national is simply passing up the chance of employing a more competent and brilliant worker, compared to the foreign one (I really have the impression that the French take a lot of pride in themselves- which is good! I mean, why not?).

Is the cost of hiring affecting companies’ decision to employ?

You’ve probably heard about the protests in France concerning the employment reforms to be applied by the government. (I actually bumped with the protesters a couple of weeks ago, while I was taking my son for a walk. The demonstration took place in a roundabout 2 minutes away from our house. Ah! to live in Paris…)

Part of the agenda include lowering hiring costs. The idea is that once these costs are lowered, firms would have enough resources to boost their manpower. In fact, some of the proposals regarding hiring costs are:

  1. Part-time and full-time workers could be paid less for over time
  2. Less compensation for workers fired due to sickness or accident (as long as the company is not seeking replacement for the said worker)
  3. A firm- as per agreement with the labor union- could lower employees’ salaries and increase working hours even if it’s not undergoing financial difficulties (the changes could take effect for a maximum of 5 years)

It is widely known that France is a good place to be an employed, no matter how big-time or “small-time” the job is. In the short span of time when I worked, I noticed that the contracts promote the workers’  (ergo, the society’s) welfare: one is assured against accidents or sickness, there are compensations for unemployment, there’s a lot of vacation days, the company sets up a pension plan, the company also usually sets up a private health insurance to top-up the public one, etc…

(Thanks to this, the quality of life in France is among the highest in the world- there is relatively low level of inequality prompted by a generally high level of well-being. The proposed reforms are supposed to boost employment rate and consequently, the country’s economy. But it would also clearly lower the standards of living of an average Jean-Pierre.)

All of these mechanisms propped up to protect a worker generate certain costs shouldered by both employee and employer. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, employers pay an average of 42% of an employee’s gross salary in costs and benefits. That is an important chunk of enterprise money that could go to a “better” use.

Could this really be the reason? is labor really “too expensive” for employers to purchase? And thus when they could purchase it, they choose their countrymen so they don’t incur in unnecessary additional costs? In this sense, it apparently seems so (although it would not explain why other EU nationals have a hard time finding a job).

What do the heavier research materials say?

According to on OECD review dated a year ago (April 2016), France should “take measures to make employment contracts more flexible”. This translates to simplifying layoff procedures.

Now, does this mean that the problem lies in the costs of firing employees?

Pausing to think about it for a while, it does make sense: if a company cannot easily get rid of an inefficient worker who has been with them for a long time, there’s little incentive to hire a new one (firing could be much costlier than the profits a new employee could bring). Particularly in the French case, laying off employees is really hard. France seems to take the OECD’s word for it because if we go back to the Labor Law Reform agenda, we may find articles such as:

  1. An employee dismissed without justifiable cause is not legible for any compensation from the company
  2. Permissive dismissal of employees in case a company sells all or part of its economic activity
  3. An employee who refuses a modification in his contract (usually to lower his salary or increase his working hours with less compensation) following a deal with the labor union could be dismissed.

… all of them geared towards cheaper staff cutback to facilitate hiring.

Reading through other research materials, I found answers as varied as the schools of thought where the authors come from (some of the reasons presented were quite off-topic for the content of this blog). Though I came across a very interesting report from McKinsey (2012), which not only suggested reform on labor market conditions but also other mechanisms such as supporting “job-creating growth for the high- and low-skilled alike”.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a very englightening and practical response. While it may be true that French Labor Laws are strict, perhaps the reason why companies are not hiring is because they simply cannot create jobs and thus have no need for additional staff…??

So why is it so difficult to find a job in Paris?

While I actually enjoyed the brief research I did for this post, I’m not so sure I could say the same about the reader. Either you are pulling your hairs by now, ready for the big punchline or you simply stopped reading right here.

Bear with me because you see, a company owner was interviewed by the Financial Times (FT) in early 2013 and according to him, he’s doing his best to keep his staff below 50 persons. The reason is that he doesn’t want to “exceed a threshold under the labour code which imposes an increase in obligations in terms of worker representation, redundancy procedures and other costs to the employer.” I’ve inserted a chart* below from l’Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE). The Gross Domestic Product’s growth rate (GDP) over time will help get my point across:

GDP and its main components

(Note: GDP growth rate tells us how much an economy has grown from one period to another. A negative growth rate means a decrease in production; a lower but positive GDP growth means an economic slowdown.)

Notice how in Q1 of 2013, France’s economy was still on the uprise- the same period when the FT interview took place. My point is, if employers (whether from small- or medium-sized companies, they are still the ones hiring!) were already having this kind of thought during prosperous times, imagine their reaction during an economic downturn!

The same company owner also stated that he has to “employ people with ready-made skills who you are sure will fit straight into the job”. Going back to the case of foreigners applying for jobs in Paris, this seems to explain why they are not easily hired. Recruiters simply cannot afford to risk engaging someone who will make them incur in increased training costs.

In my particular situation, the simple answer is: I came in the right place at the wrong time. It was 2014 and the economic crisis was at its peak in Spain. In the meantime, my husband and I believed that France was doing just fine. It was not after our arrival when we realized that crisis was already budding in the neighboring country.

If we look back to the chart and take the middle block of data (Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 of 2014), notice how the GDP growth just dropped from the end of 2013- which was when I started looking for a job in Paris- and did not recover until the end of Q2 in 2014. It’s also important to consider that this recovery was a slow, small one which was not enough to replicate the features of a more booming Q1 2013.

(Facepalm)

I don’t believe that hiring costs hugely affect employment decisions by companies. In my opinion, if there’s need for personnel and there are resources available, a company will hire. And if a person is the right fit for the job, he will be employed even if it meant a little more effort from the recruiting side. That’s why negotiation was invented.

The complicated answer? Well, I’d like to invite you to review the literature along with me and perhaps start a debate? The more varied the schools of thought, the better!

Thoughts to ponder

I truly like ending my posts with a moral lesson or some inspiring anecdote- anything to leave the reader with a nice, feel-good vibe.

Unfortunately, economic analysis doesn’t allow much for that luxury. At best, we could count on an optimistic (albeit unsure) projection in the future and a very clear vision of what happened in the past. In the case of this post, I’ll stick to the latter…

There was really no way for me to know that France was already suffering from a sharp economic decline during the moment I decided to search for a job. The kind of chart I presented above doesn’t get “done” until a certain period of time has passed. Meaning, that the earliest I could’ve known about the French economic crisis was at the end of Q1 2014, and by then I was already working in that 5-month contract outside of Paris.

This is the beauty of economics- it makes you learn the lesson the hard way but also gives you an understandable image of the past so you won’t commit the same mistakes in the future. It allows you to (dis) believe in what you know for yourself.

 

*Chart contents:

Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4- 1st Quarter, 2nd Quarter…

GDP- Gross Domestic Product

Consumption- household consumption expenditure

Inventory changes- Goods produced minus goods sold. (An excessive increase in inventories may signal aggregate demand is slowing down as there are more goods produced than sold.)

GFCF- Gross Fixed Capital Formation (investment)

Net foreign trade- External balance (Export-Import)

Sources:

  1. Eurostat
  2. INSEE
  3. Investopedia
  4. “Comment calculer le coût d’un salarié”, available at: http://www.petite-entreprise.net/P-3848-88-G1-comment-calculer-le-cout-d-un-salarie.html
  5. “French Attempt at German-Style Labor Reform Flounders”, available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/french-attempt-at-german-style-labor-reform-flounders-1417684679
  6. “French Labor Law Reform not supported by Economic evidence”, available at: http://cepr.net/publications/op-eds-columns/french-labor-law-reform-not-supported-by-economic-evidence
  7. Loi travail, available at: http://loitravail.lol/
  8. “OECD: France must Reform Labor Market and Cut Spending”, available at: http://www.euractiv.com/section/social-europe-jobs/news/oecd-france-must-reform-labour-market-and-cut-spending/
  9. “France battles with labour market reform”, available at: https://next.ft.com/content/05b54c84-5a63-11e2-bc93-00144feab49a
  10. “Unemployment and Labor Market Rigidities: Europe versus North America”, available at: https://wwz.unibas.ch/fileadmin/wwz/redaktion/fai/EIB_Arbeitsmarkt_HS08/Nickell.pdf
  11. “Does Employment Protection Inhibit Labor Market Flexibility? Lessons from Germany, France, and Belgium”, available at: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c11255.pdf
  12. Defition of “inventory changes”, available at: http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~nroubini/bci/inventories.html
  13. “French Employment 2020: Five priorities for action”, available at: http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/french-employment-2020

Which Yellow Brick Road?

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I was tweaking my CV and I saw how “colorful” my short professional history is. In chronological order: I worked in a bank, I interned at a financial services firm, I was an administrative for over a year in a computer company, I interned at a microfinance institution in Colombia, did financial analysis, budget control, social performance analysis, assisted in fundraising activities, worked in logistics and finally was a project manager for an up and coming annual report on talent. Did that make you cross-eyed?

One very important thing that the French consider in hiring is the consistency in a candidate’s experience. The logic goes like: the more consistent your training is, the more “maître” you are of your tasks, the more expert you become in your skills, the better worker you are and the more suitable you are for the job post. Specialization is key- and I had planned to specialize, I promise!

But life is unpredictable no matter how much you plan. What worked for me was to just be open to the ocean of possibilities before me and follow my instincts for survival. Everything is supposed to come in time.

Reality seen versus first-hand experience

Let me rewind back when I was about to finish my degree: at that time, I decided to specialize in International Economics and Development. My parents are development workers and I’ve always been attracted to the possibility of contributing to make this world a better place. I have known people from different walks of life working in the development sector. It didn’t matter whether they finished Arabic Studies or BS Psychology- what mattered was their commitment to the cause.

I also saw people travel a lot. Some would go to conferences in beautiful cities, some would attend trainings in modern metropoles while some would implement projects in far-off places with no running water.

I think what’s most interesting in this sector was the amount and variety of people you meet along the way. I’ve met some of my parents’ colleagues and while there were special (read: weird) cases, several of them I could consider dependable people. But not only that- back in the Philippines when I was as young as 6 years old, my mother would take me to the barrios (small town, often poor areas) where she had to work. She would spend her time mobilizing and capacitating farmers, fisherfolks and women groups. I, on the other hand would play with their children. The learning opportunities offered by this type of exposure is one of a kind and I thought: if as a child I was able to grasp a lot of lessons, how much more could I learn as an adult?

The prospect of doing some or all of those things myself made me study very hard so I could graduate ASAP, go see the world and meet people.

But my reality was in Madrid, Spain in the year 2006. Development work is still taking babysteps to be considered in the international scene (I remember former Queen Sofia doing a lot of promotional duties alongside the Spanish Cooperation Agency). Even if I was very much willing to be relocated elsewhere, there was no budget back then for development projects.

My other reality was that I needed a job so I could be emancipated. I was simply itching to start earning my own money and live my own life. Survival. This is why I landed on jobs that were not related to my degree.

The start of a journey

One example would be the first job I ever had as a monitor in a school bus. That was waaaay back in college when I only had 1 subject to pass before finishing my degree. I had time to spare so why not spend it by earning money (see what I did there?)? I was also accepting babysitting jobs on the weekends but those don’t count because I wasn’t contributing in Social Security. Anyway, that “supervisory” job didn’t last long because after two odd months, I got offered an internship in an international bank. I was so thrilled!

I remember putting on my most professional-looking clothes (thanks Nanay!) and feeling very enthusiastic at the thought of a career in banking. The internship lasted 3 months and I was offered a job… but I refused. I did not like banking at all and I didn’t want to “live my life for my work” instead of “working to live my life” (in Spanish: “No vivo para trabajar, trabajo para vivir”).

Intersecting yellow brick roads

I made some more twists and turns in my professional life, until I enrolled in a two-year Offical Master’s Degree. I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but more importantly I felt it would help me get to my yellow brick road. And it did! Thanks to networking, I was able to get an internship in a microfinance bank in Colombia and eventually ended up in my dream job. My husband also got a job which promised a budding career in his field and for a time, life seemed impeccable.

Then after some time, my husband and I started to feel that we needed a change. We just got married and perhaps the time we spent honeymooning gave us space to reflect on what we wanted to do with our lives. He certainly was not happy with his job. By that time, I’ve been in my dream job for 3 years and I had made great friends back in Spain; but something was missing. We were longing for an adventure together as a married couple.

So for me, I had to choose between continuing to live a dream or finding a new one. Paris was of course our destination of choice. We both love the language, we have great respect for the French values and for better or for worse, it’s only an hour and a half flight from Madrid. At first, it wasn’t a very tough choice for me- the thoughts of finally learning to speak French and gaining work experience outside of Spain were reasons enough for me to take the plunge. But then I remembered dreaming of working for a place like my old workplace. I remembered studying so hard to do what I was finally doing back there. I remembered getting a student loan just to be able to have a Master’s Degree that would boost my CV to land on a job in the development sector. Will I just turn my back on that?

Then a bulb lit up: I won’t be doing it alone- whatever story I was about to write in Paris, it would be done together with my husband. I wouldn’t be dreaming alone, I wouldn’t be hoping by myself and I wouldn’t be struggling on my own. He would be there and we would build a life together from scratch- him and me and the cat. As far as survival goes, I couldn’t really live without him. This was what made me decide to come.

New life, new jobs

I was lucky enough to have found a job before settling here in Paris, albeit a temporary one (I was hired for a 5-month contract). The work had nothing in common with what I used to do back in Madrid, but it was very curious. It was still within the domain of research but not quite a usual one*. I was earning well, I was discovering a new career path and I was certainly practicing my French.

Eventually, my contract ended. And as I’ve recounted on my post “A Color for Disbelief”, I had no choice but to accept an administrative job for 3 months until I was able to get hired as Research Assistant for 9 months.

Then I got pregnant and five months ago I gave birth to my son. Part of me is convinced this has something to do with why my contract as Research Assistant was not renewed. But for the first time in a long time, I just embraced the new experience. I did not feel bad, did not feel injustice was being done to me and never once felt I deserved better. I was mentally and emotionally prepared to be a mother and was wholeheartedly open to the possibility of not having a job for quite a time. And just as I predicted: here I am, caring for a healthy, bouncing, 5-month old baby boy**!

This, so far, has been the most difficult, most challenging yet the most gratifying and satisfying job I’ve ever had. It’s tiring, messy, sometimes frustrating, disconcerting, very patience-testing and I know it will only get messier as months come by. I don’t care though, I’m happy. And I have to say, I’ve always seen myself as a mother but this is one road I never thought I’d be this delighted to travel on.

My son is the best boss I’ve ever worked for as far as I’m concerned- he’s very charming and pleasant, I know he appreciates what I do for him when he laughs and smiles, he’s a fast-learner, obedient and oh so well-behaved! Plus, I get to sleep while he’s napping so really, I can’t complain!

An inspiring example

Each time things get tough (because caring for a baby is really more difficult than a 9-6 job, no matter what other people say) I just always think of a friend whose courage and adventurous spirit continue to inspire me.

She actually gave up her job as a Junior Executive in exchange for becoming a cheese maker in the Alps. This friend also studied Economics and she was exactly what I wanted to be- she travelled a lot because of her work, she met a lot of interesting people, she worked on a noble project that promised poverty alleviation… Exactly the picture I painted of myself in the past.

Then, something happened that made her choose to leave it all behind. But she and her husband are together and I believe they are very happy and fulfilled. If I’m not mistaken, they have to get themselves seasonal jobs but I am convinced they are both living the life they dreamed about.

I am able to say this because when she came to visit last year, I saw the glow in her eyes and the smile in her face. She even brought me a packet of dried wild mint leaves they harvested from the mountains.

All those times in the past when I thought she was happy working in her old job… she was so succesful and highly acknowledged in it! and perhaps she was contented, for some time. But the last time we saw each other… I’ve never seen her that way before. It was the look of someone who was clearly struggling with a new life, yet overjoyed to be doing so.

Do I still dream of landing on a job in development economics? Everyday of my life.

Am I still hopeful that a French company would hire me or at least call me for a preliminary interview? Yes, but now I’m realistic enough to know that the probability would almost be like winning the lottery.

Am I optimistic that international companies would hire me? YES. In fact, that’s why I started this blog in the first place; I need space to practice my writing and research skills so here I am!

But honestly? For now, I believe my son has helped me find my dormant passion and as it turns out I’m pretty good at it. So I don’t mind staying like this for a while- at least until my unemployment allowance runs out.

What I found along the path

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I found good company, yes I did! No matter what obstacles blocked my way and no matter what distractions may have risen I always had someone to share with, laugh with, fight with, make up with and continue travelling with.

And with my “latest job”, I think I’ve found the best one yet!

Cheers!

 

 

 

*I will be writing soon enough about that very intriguing job!

**We are all able to survive thanks to my unemployment allowance.

A Color for Disbelief

Before coming to Paris, not only did I learn the language: I watched the news and read Le Monde regularly to keep up with the current events, I was in constant communication with friends and peers from the French community and I even hired a personal tutor for mock job interviews. I immersed myself in the culture in any possible way I could (eating French food, buying French clothes, going to France or francophone areas for holidays, etc…). I watched video after videos of songs, tutorials, movies and talk shows just to get the “feel” of it. I also researched about the French job market using job-searching sites and other articles I’d find online. I felt great when I aced an interview and got hired for a temporary contract. Until I realized that after having applied to an average of 200 jobs in 4 months, only 2 companies called me for an interview and none of them was French.

Image courtesy of http://hotclaws.livejournal.com/

I was lucky enough to have gotten a temporary contract for 5 months, but I had to keep on looking for a job to be able to survive. My son wasn’t born back then, but we had a cat to feed too (He he)! So I kept on searching and while receiving negative replies (some just right out ignored the application), I never stopped working on my CV and cover letter. All the while going through the different stages of applying for a job in Paris…

Stage 1- Wonder

WHATEVER HAVE I DONE WRONG?

Was that wrong?, Should I not have done that?Image courtesy of http://diylol.com

I actually asked people about this: I asked a friend who has been living for 8 years in Paris, a Senior Head Hunter, a Senior HR Officer at my past workplace and one of my husband’s French buddies. Here’s what they had to say:

My friend who’s been living for 8 years in Paris (age: early 30s)

(According to her experience) The French hiring system is very protective of their own. Among a roster of candidates, usually they would get CVs of people who graduated from French universities*. And by chance, if a non-French candidate with a degree from a non-French university is considered for the job, more often than not this non-French candidate would be offered a different salary (read: lower) than the French ones**. Finally, if a non-French candidate is lucky enough to get hired, this person can only get promoted as far as company policies allow***. That is to say that for foreign employees with degrees from outside of France, there’s a limit to where they could go up the company ladder (again, this means a lower scale compared to the French). She used to work in a consulting firm.

*Especially those who graduated from the grands écoles.

**According to her, there was actually a published sheet of salary equivalance for each “type” of employee.

***Just like with the salaries, her company also showed her a published sheet about this.

Senior Head Hunter from a known agency (age: mid-40s)

Considering that I asked her last year (2015), her answer was plain and simple- it’s the crisis that’s hindering French companies to hire as much as they used to. I just had lunch with her not long ago and she says 2016 must be a better year for hiring. But she didn’t say for whom. *snicker*

Senior HR Officer from my past work (age: early 30s)

The French hiring system is very protective of their own (repetition intended). There is a general belief that if you hold a degree from a good French university, you must be without a doubt someone who is “performant”. Foreigners have it tough if they want to apply in a French firm, but international firms based in France are more open to a wider variety of suitable candidates. It has been like this since she can remember and she doesn’t foresee any change soon. She’s half-French and is currently out of job.

My husband’s French buddy (age: late 30s)

The French hiring system is very strict and recruiters filter candidates’ CVs according to where they got which degree. It’s easier for them to hire like this because a good French university is known for producing quality graduates. They’re not fond of taking any chances.

Current research is being made on the subject of the French labor market and its rigidity. Please standby for a related post!

Stage 2- Annoyance

 

Angry Guy Meme (01)Image courtesty of http://memesvault.com/angry-guy-meme/

 

DID I NOT MAKE ENOUGH RESEARCH?

WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN ME ABOUT THIS?

DID I NOT TALK TO FRENCH PEOPLE BEFORE COMING TO FRANCE?

WHY WAS I NOT BRIEFED ABOUT THIS?

Stage 3- Frustration

This is an understatement. I truly felt my heart break when I learned about all these things and I realized I can never compete with a French diploma. No offense to my alma mater, but let’s be realistic here… la Sorbonne vs la Complutense? *insert ironic laughter*

Stage 4- Discouragement

I entered into a state of depression for some months. I was getting sick all the time and all I wanted to do was go back to Spain, to my old job- to my old life! The feeling of uselessness and helplessness were everyday companions for me. And I was not used to having them around all the time.

Stage 5- Acceptance

After some time, I learned to accept that this is just how things are right now. And although there are moments when I give in to the temptation of regretting my decision to live here, there isn’t much I can do about it, is there? I am here, so I might as well take every oppportunity I have to live and learn.

By gaining hindsight, I was able to re-think the questions I had asked myself during the Annoyance Stage. I made the best research (and soul-search) that I could about them and here’s what I found out:

DID I NOT MAKE ENOUGH RESEARCH?  Clearly, the answer is NO. On the one hand, I was not interviewed for half of the jobs I applied to because they neither fit my educational background nor my professional experience no matter how much I tweaked my CV. The French hiring system is very rigid and it really adheres to the principle that the candidate for a post must have been trained for that purpose. Meaning, a Marketing graduate with experience in advertising will not be interviewed for a post as Office Manager. Furthermore, applicants for internships must be students. My husband was accepted as an intern in Paris 5 years ago because he applied as a student, even if he was enrolled in his university in Madrid. (Yes, I admit I also applied for internships!)

On the other hand, for those jobs fitting my qualifications… I just embraced the reality that there is so much competition, my CV didn’t even stand the first elimination round. This would explain why my friend helped me structure my cover letter so much that it covered the job description point by point (see my post: The “ray” in Gray”). It’s important to make the recruiter see that you can do all that they need for the job post.

WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN ME ABOUT THIS? Of course, I was referring to the French people I’ve talked to ranging from my private tutor to our friends and acquaintances. For this one, I believe the answer would be that some things seem so obvious to some people, they find it impossible for you not to see it. I mean, it is their system after all and they’ve lived their whole lives knowing these facts. For them it simply turned out to be within the realm of “common sense”.

I can imagine them thinking, “Who would not tweak their CV and cover letter to respond to the needs of the job post from start to finish?” or “What type of a professional in his right mind would apply for an internship post?”.

DID I NOT TALK TO FRENCH PEOPLE BEFORE COMING TO FRANCE? Yes, I did. I just talked a lot more about other things and left some-sigh!- essential topics behind.

WHY WAS I NOT BRIEFED ABOUT THIS? The answer is simple: I did not ask the right questions. I simply assumed things would be just as I know and just as I imagined they would work.

Stage 6- Action

When I was finally able to answer my questions and calm myself down, I decided it’s time for action. The second step I took was to improve my French. I realized I wasn’t going to land on my dream job any time soon, so I applied as an administrative in the same company that hired me for 5 months. I was shifted to another department and I changed status from cadre (equivalent to manager) to agent de maîtrise. (It meant lower salary, lower level of responsibility, but strictly 35 1/2 hours of work per week! An hour more of work meant an hour more of pay.)

It was the most difficult transition I’ve ever experienced but then I was “rewarded” with an excellent Operations Manager. She speaks English but her French is so good that even the French people themselves acknowledge it! I learned so much on how to communicate (from colleagues of our level to directors and exclusive clients), I truly improved my ability to write emails and even if each day ended with my head as swollen as a  balloon, now I could proudly say that I have “Full Professional Proficiency” in French. Ha!

Eventually, I landed on a Research Assistant job in the same company (yes, ladies and gentlemen- 3 different contracts in 20 months). By the time I was settling in to the new job, I was already warmly welcomed and genuinely at ease with the rest of the team who where mainly French. They saw how hard I tried to communicate in their language and in return, they showed me great consideration and understanding. They were very protective of my interest and well-being, they would give me all sorts of advice (especially when I got pregnant with my son) and they never shut their doors anytime I needed someone to talk to.

I still feel a tiny pinch in my heart whenever I think about some of my rejected applications. Mostly because in some of them, I discovered they actually preferred someone who has a French degree even if experience-wise perhaps we were equals. But that’s okay. I really live by the saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts”.

Greatest lesson learned on transferring to Paris:

Make sure you have a job before buying your plane (or train) ticket.

 

 

 

 Note:

Please refer to the post, “To see is to (dis)believe” for further discussion on looking for a job in Paris. Thanks!

A researcher’s dilemma

Science Debate

Image courtesy of http://www.theenergycollective.com

While reviewing my educational background, I chanced upon some notes about one of the subjects in my Masters’ course: Research Methodology. The introductory module explained the importance of qualitative research and discussion in Social Sciences because basically we can’t perform experiments on human beings (or any other social unit). While “tougher” sciences can verify (or reject) hypotheses with the results of an experiment, social scientists like economists and sociologists seem to operate in another action zone. I am specialized in qualitative research- does that make me a “lower-level” type of researcher?

I ask this because the few times I saw a Research job being offered somewhere, it’s usually a “hard-core” researcher they look for- even when the job description clearly states that the study revolves around a subjective concept. Logic would tell us the reason would be because the companies intend to carry out a quantitative analysis. But what about the non-measurable aspects of life? Will they even be glanced at under this type of study?

 A discipline

It’s interesting to note that just like any other Social Science, Economics places human beings at the heart of its studies. (In a nutshell: Economics is the science of resource allocation.) Economists throughout the history have been using methods of quantitative analysis as a tool to measure values and sometimes to make assumptions on future values. My teacher in Research Methodology made a sort-of caricaturized explanation about this stating that the discipline’s forefathers used a lot of Maths* because they wanted to appoint laws to different phenomena. That way Economics could be made into a legit, true-blue science (eg: Law of Supply and Demand). Having said this, we know not all values associated to humans are measurable expecially when referring to feelings, opinions, impressions… So I wonder: what exactly did the forefathers expect to achieve when they started to assign numerical values on things non-quantifiable?

I’m not saying numerical data is unimportant. I’m saying it’s not EVERYTHING. A funny but good example my professors would always use is: if your data says that for a given country, an increase in the number of storks in one year shows an increase in the number of babies born in the same year, does that mean that we have to act on the population of storks to control human population increase in that country? (It’s really not that simple; there are ways to test just how “sensible” data relationships are. But you see where I’m getting at, right?)

I cannot imagine having studied Economics without passing through Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc… But I don’t think it has to heavily rely on rigorous statistical computations to be considered a science.

Qualitative research methods

The everlasting question we asked back then was, “Why are we so stubborn in fitting certain aspects of human beings in a mathematical model, when those aspects are subject to as many criteria as there are human beings in this planet?”. I’m pretty sure an econometrist would find a sassy way to put me in “my place” (Ah, Ceteris Paribus**!). Don’t get me wrong, I might even be swayed by it! I’m not belittling anything, but it doesn’t seem to cover the complexity of humans.

This is one of the reasons why qualitative research methods have been developed. A qualitative research is more descriptive in nature; it does not generalize an outcome derived from a certain population. (A scientific law would do this- a statement based on repeated experimental observations. It always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements. But the data gathered from experimentation must be measurable!) One cannot simply put a universal value on how much teenagers love to watch TV or how much more one prefers spring to summer. Well I admit, one could if one wants. For one. But what if I want to make a study for a group of friends? Or what if I want to consider different groups from different countries? Each of them would have their own criteria for scoring so even the same scores would not mean exactly the same thing.

Besides, if I were to make a study based on human or a society’s behavior, why would  I want to generalize my conclusions to the rest of the world or across time? Our society has (in principle) accepted that diversity is enriching, so why not accept a diversity in solutions and conclusions all the same?

Debate as an alternative

One way to enhance a qualitative research is through debate or discussion*** (others include conducting of surveys, interviews, review of literature and more. See sources 2 and 3 below). The convenience lies behind the assumption that as the participants share their thoughts, results and experiences, knowledge is gradually accumulated. Meaning to say that through consensus, some ideas are rejected while others are accepted and continously developed. I’ve no doubt that Maths and especially Statistics are being used but results are enriched by experiences derived from observations from different people with sometimes contrasting perspectives. Remember the microcredit “boom”? First, it was supposed to solve poverty, then it appears not to have been able to do so. Presently, advocates say it’s supposed to work when integrated with other initiatives like improvement of education and health. Debate was an essential tool in getting us where we are now on that issue.

Flashback to Autumn of ’09: when “debate as an alternative” was brought up. Several people in my class did not agree. And why should they, since the very subjects of the study are the ones interchanging their educated opinion? For them, this just gives more room for prejudice based on the person’s background, education and beliefs. I see their point- it presents such a lack of structure. However, I begged to differ.

I was one of those who believe that although not a cure-all, a debate might be a very efficient way for a researcher to develop the matter at hand. First, because one cannot just access the data he wishes to in any given place at any given time. Second, there might already have been very good materials available about the subject and the cost of replicating those kinds of studies might be too much. And third, synergies could take place when you put opposing views face to face. Going back to our example: some policy-makers advocating for microcredits were open to debate and they were attentive enough to consider criticism about their work. This made them investigate the faults in their programs and are now coming up with more effective solutions.

In fact, I used a debate to present my hypothesis in my Master’s Thesis. I wanted to apply a method that would allow me to question something I firmly believed in- Microfinance****. I’m convinced it enriched not only the project, but also me, as an economist.For instance, it paved way for me to explore wider topics of conversation while I was conducting interviews within the community. As for the results, not only was I able to prove the existence of both positive and negative effects: I also found out that for the particular community in my study who were using specific microfinance products, the “negative” effects were a by-product of corporate governance with ample room for improvement. So to speak, it’s not the instrument that’s failing, it’s the way the instrument is being distributed that’s not very effective.

A few parting thoughts

Speaking from a limited experience, I noticed how a lot of people feel more at ease when statements are presented with mathematical models. I would ask myself if it isn’t just”psychological” in the sense that since Maths represent a very exact science, it makes humans feel more stable in the presence of something systematical and accurate. No gray areas there- either it’s black or white. The weakness in structure presented by qualitative research clearly shifts the balance for scientists and learners alike. And in my case, I can debate all I want but the result is what it is.

The day I started to recognize the use of the qualitative type of research was when I realized how everything around me has to do with economics- with resource allocation corresponding to an order of preferences. Everyday, I make decisions that affect how I distribute my time, effort and money among my responsibilities, interests, whims… It may be clear to me what value I give to hanging out with a friend, or how much I would pay to get a few more hours of sleep. But the truth is once I step out of myself, I have not the slightest idea how others think: what factors do they consider in putting a value on social life? is sleep even on top of their priorities? “Talking” about it helps get a better understanding of how the rest of the world arranges their preferences. In some cases, there might even be similarities for people from the same culture, religion, race, gender, etc… But we cannot generalize anything. This is why I believe qualitative research should not be set aside as a mere “support” for quantitative research. In many cases it should be the other way around, especially when human factor plays a key role.

Perhaps when the research to be undertaken has to support the construction of a building, the flight of an aircraft or the functioning of an artificial heart, precision should be expected. In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if companies would prefer a physicist or a telecommunications engineer over a developmental economist. But sometimes a study would involve non-measurable concepts and ever-changing scenarios. Then, wouldn’t it make more sense to look for someone who could look at numerical data beyond the symbols and discover what stories they tell? someone who is trained to analyze and interpret events (versus numbers) to extract learnings from it?

 

 

*Just like Econometrics, which Wikipedia says is the application of mathematics, statistical methods and computer science to economic data to discover exact relationships among data.

**Latin for “with other things the same“. Economists live by this premise.

***Debate is also very widely used in pure sciences but its service to the social sciences is highly valued because of the limited possiblity to conduct experiments.

****Microfinance is an integrated source of financial services comprising microcredits. It could also include microsavings and microinsurance among others.

Sources:
  1. Wikipedia
  2. Modalidades de investigación, available at: http://metodologiafloresmagon.blogspot.fr/2011/02/1.html
  3. Metodología de la investigación: http://zanadoria.com/syllabi/m1019/mat_cast-nodef/PID_00148556-1.pdf
  4. The Laws of Economics don’t exist, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-laws-of-economics-dont-exist/274901/

The “ray” in Gray

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody, and they meet at the bar”- Drew Carey

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Image courtesy of http://www.onlinenewbieuniversity.com

Searching for employment is making me review my professional history. As I lookback, I found out that some of the more interesting skills and qualities that I possess were acquired during a time of great distress in my former jobs.

Universal feeling

If asked what type of adhesive could glue mankind together, I’d say that the love-hate relationship with their jobs is a pretty strong one. Even the most satisfying, most fulfilling and most empowering assignment could-at one point or another- make an employee feel jaded, given the right ingredients: there’s a slave-driving boss, the unhealthy competition with colleagues, the lack of motivation…

In my case, even the job that “made my dreams come true”, the one “I’ve studied for my whole life” at one time burnt me out. It wasn’t enough that the pay was good or that I was building a promising career for myself- you can hardly appreciate those things once you’re caught up in a vicious cycle of fatigue and anxiety. This is true even for people I know who have exchanged corporate lives for a quieter, “more relaxed” academic careers only to find out this guy Stress followed them there, only dressed differently.

Meet Stress, the originator of mess

The pattern I’ve observed always starts with stress. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it is: one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.

The thing about stress is that without recognizing it, people become addicted to it. Creeping up under the guise of “Pressure”, we accept it as part of the job. Why, we even welcome it believing a certain amount would make us deliver great results. For this reason, I know of some who are honestly attached to stress and don’t know how to live without constant anxiety. Good for them if it makes them happy; but what about us who don’t want it in our lives? Where and how do we draw the line between the healthy and unhealthy level of strain? How do we stop ourselves before we end up hating what puts bread on our tables?

The “ray” in Gray

In my opinion, unless you’re an expert on the subject, it’s practically impossible to discern whether the anxiety you’re feeling is normal or bordering noxious.

I remember the first time I experienced this: without any second thoughts, I quit my job at a top financial services company. Everyone, and I mean E-VE-RY-ONE in my circle looked at me as if I just shaved my eyebrows. This is no excuse, but it was literally not healthy anymore.

Each time I looked back, I would shake my head thining, “Whatta waste!”. But now I realize that phase of my life was critical, as it helped me define what toxic is. (And toxic, ladies and gentlemen, is something or someone that pollutes the surroundings too strongly that it’s able to make you physically sick.)

When my dream job proved not to be as ideal as I thought, I approached my colleauges and was surprised to discover some of them felt the same way. We all agreed there’s nothing worse than not wanting to get out of bed because just thinking of where you’re headed to gives you palpitations and a strong urge to cry. Those were just the grayest days for me- sad, pessimistic and even despairing. However, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent and practical people. It’s just a matter of seeing different points of view- I didn’t even need to agree with any of them, I just needed to find the “ray” in that thick air of gray.

Think that there is no Box

One of the best tips I received was: you are limited only by the boundaries you create.

So, instead of clamming up in the anxiety-fatigue-stress cycle, I decided to open myself up to a wider circle of colleauges with a different purpose: this time I was determined to learn from them, their experiences, their ideas, their CRAZY ideas…

Since it’s not that obvious, I’ve decided to share excerpts from my CV and cover letter to describe how I got to be trusted to do certain tasks; some of them are directly related to my profession but which I found difficult and others just “happened” because I was confident enough to undertake them.

Assessment of information accuracy, validity and integrity

I wanted to know how a colleague was able to go through monthly reports looking still as fresh as an orchid by the end of the day. I set up a meeting at her desk so she could show me how she checks and re-checks the numerical data she’d present to the Board of Directors. Aside from the savvy, VBA-powered tool she taught me how to use, I noticed her mindset: she was cool-headed, really taking her time and most of all she was CONFIDENT that what she’s doing is right. I started to take the same attitude (and use the savvy tool!) and although it was not and still is not easy, I am actually becoming good at it!

Editing and proofreading research materials

The first time I had to write a cover letter in French totally blew my mind- in a good way. The language is challengingly beautiful, not only because of the phonetics but because of how delicate and subtle the written communication is done. It turns out one could not just go direct to the point. The message should be polite but clear and assertive and POLITE (oh, I meant to repeat it). I never would have guessed a computer engineer could help me put what I like to call structured finnesse in that first letter (I mean: structure, check! but finnesse? Could you blame me?). Her search for excellence and precision taught me how to thoroughly check for inconsistencies when reviewing a written report.

Facilitated relations with sponsors and external partners

I especially love this one and just about any task involving communication- it demands a lot of EQ, plus not everyone is easy to interact with. I’ve spent (lovely) hours talking to former colleagues from HR and one of them was at the time training to be a personal coach. I even let myself be her “guinea pig”! It was definitely a Communication Bootcamp.

Having learned and shared in a multicultural environment

According to another former colleague from HR, I should “treat people as they need to be treated, not the way I want to be treated”. Just to experiment, I went by this rule for several months and I admit it really made me appreciate what “working in a multicultural environment” truly means. It’s not always easy but in my experience, a quid pro quo deal could be sealed faster this way. I still live by it and here I am, a Spanish-Filipina working with work experience in Paris!

Working in close coordination with supervisors using French as medium of communication

Well, I have to admit: one of the main reasons I started to learn French was because more than half of my officemates speak the language. Although we never used it to communicate among ourselves or with our external contacts, I was just plain ENVIOUS of the fact. So, I started taking lessons.

A lighter shade of Gray?

So did this paint a different color in my gray canvas? A lighter shade, perhaps?

During the moment, it was difficult for me to see past the smoke. Also I was younger, less mature and more hard-headed. And because of that it was easier for me to give in to discouragement (somehow, it seems to me it’s simply handed on a silver platter). Then, as it cleared out, I realized that my canvas could still bear gray spots. After all, I am still unemployed. But let me tell you, my CV does appear to be more colorful!