Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee
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It’s harder than you think to get hired these days.
This isn’t about fancy jobs that require an advanced degree and offer solid benefits. Think of entry-level jobs at Whole Foods, Home Depot (HD) or Best Buy (BBY).
Ask Alex Frankel, 37, a Brown University graduate. Those three retail chains turned him down.
As surprising and demoralizing as that was, it was great fodder for his book Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee.
Frankel went undercover to report on the corporate culture of some of the county’s leading retailers. He picked jobs at places known for their highly controlled workplaces.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Apple | Starbucks Corp | Home Depot | Best Buy | United Parcel Service | Brown University | Whole Foods | Enterprise Rent-A-Car | Punching | Kronos
“The project would be a prank of sorts, but also an attempt to move past being typecast as a business journalist by looking into subjects I was truly interested in — corporations, people, work, consumerism — in a truly non-business journalist way,” he writes. In an author’s note, he says he made up names for fellow workers to “preserve their anonymity.”
He writes about the handful of outfits that did hire him — UPS (UPS), Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Gap (GPS), Starbucks (SBUX) and the Apple Store (AAPL). The jobs lasted from two weeks to more than two months. He did his job-hopping from December 2003 through September 2006.
•UPS. “UPS was a place with a palpable spirit, a place where we wanted to be working, where we were made to feel like that chosen few. But it wasn’t as if all the drivers came from the same mold.”
•Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “There seemed something cult-like and more demanding of sacrifice at Enterprise than at other front-line workplaces.”
“The customer-service section of the training binder was just 10 pages long, while the section on selling insurance was 73 pages — the longest section of the book. Though nobody at Enterprise said as much, it was quite clear that we were chiefly insurance sales people.”
•Starbucks. “From the outside it looked like the job was tailor-made for slackers, but I was finding it less than easy. The amount of learning in the early weeks was immense … it surprised me how taxing a job like this could be.”
But he also finds: “The view from behind the counter, where we were more often than not rushing to slap together a drink instead of crafting it carefully, made me feel that the product was unworthy of what we charged.”
•Gap. “Most of the time we were, of course, folding clothes. That was what we did. Days went by during which it seemed as if I did nothing but fold clothes, and that was probably because that was just about all I did. The job was incredibly, absolutely, totally, astonishingly boring.”
•Apple Store. “The culture at Apple was not as forced as at other places because most of us were already part of it long before we started working for the store.”
He found: “Going into an Apple Store felt like dropping into the computer science department of a university; as much information was being shared as products were being sold.
“Workers didn’t seem to be working or selling, just hanging out and dispensing advice.”
Why couldn’t he land a job at the other places? He probably flunked the online tests. For each, he had to fill out an online application and answer more than 100 multiple-choice questions.
Beaverton, Ore.-based Unicru, a privately held software company (now part of Kronos), creates and sells systems for hiring and tracking hourly employees, Frankel reports. Best Buy and Whole Foods (Frankel was turned down at both) are among companies that use it to screen applications. The program “learns” the traits needed for the best employees and flags applicants with them.
True, Frankel has the luxury of knowing he doesn’t really need to stick with it to pay the rent.
Yet, in each case, he skillfully captures what it feels like to be the seemingly invisible person facing the public.
After time with Frankel, you’ll never look at the barista pouring your double, non-fat, soy vanilla latte the same way.