W hat does it take to land a job these days?
Lord Sugar asked an interesting question during the final of The Apprentice: "Is it, that in this day and age someone has to come out with a lot of bull****?"
He was talking about the modern trend of young people "bigging up". Boasting, bragging and swanking were anathema to the average Brit until recently. Now instead of telling employers: "I'll do my best for you", they are likely to say: "You'll be lucky to get me."
Ricky Martin won this year's Apprentice. But he has become Lord Sugar's business partner with an investment of £250,000 in spite of his bragging personal statement, not because of it.
In it he described himself as the "reflection of perfection". He said: "Lord Sugar is a business God. But call me Thor. I will take over his empire."
It's nauseating stuff. No wonder Claude Littner, one of the business experts who interrogate the finalists, called it: "Probably the most crass, infantile, personal statement that I've had the opportunity of reading."
Had Mr Martin been applying for a normal job, instead of presenting a business plan, his application would have been binned before he made it to the interview.
Yet he is far from alone in over-egging the pudding. I've read a few CVs that come close to his. Gone is the plain list of educational achievements and jobs that my generation presented for approval. Today's CVs are often paeans of self-congratulation. The first time I came across the phenomenon I thought it was a spoof. The applicant had listed all the tasks involved in her day-to-day work and presented them as skills.
It had statements such as: "I fetch coffee daily. This demonstrates good time management, organisational skills, budgeting and manual dexterity." (I exaggerate but only just.)
Reading job applications nowadays can be like wading through estate agents' brochures editing as you go – looking for the reality behind the flam. As with Mr Martin, the boasting frequently fails to describe the modest individual who arrives for interview.
So why has it become so commonplace? Mr Martin gave the answer. He said he had little time to make an impression and he was "trying to differentiate himself". His instinct was correct even if his method was wrong. One of the biggest challenges for today's young aspirants is to stand out from the pack.
Scotland has almost a quarter of a million people out of work. The numbers are up 18,000 year on year. Every vacancy must attract a mountain of applicants – and everyone submitting their CV knows it. It is a dispiriting challenge made more dispiriting, more damaging than anything my generation faced, by another new phenomenon: employers don't even bother to reply. It is a small but hugely important change. And it is brutal.
Picture the jobless person sitting at home fearful for their future. They might be a kid starting out or a parent with debt snapping at their heels. They see a job advertised that could be an answer to their prayers and send in an application. Then they wait – and wait – and wait.
First they count the days it will take for their form to be received and mulled over. Then they'll watch their inbox, keep their phone handy and wait in for the post. Slowly, mournfully it dawns on them. Not only will there be no job, they don't even merit a refusal. Being blanked is a blow to anyone's self-esteem. To someone who is unemployed, it's an act of callous cruelty. Employers will carp that there are too many applicants to reply to. In the words of Lord Sugar: "Bull****."
A standardised rejection email can be sent to one person or 1000 people with a single click of a mouse. So there's no excuse for employers who don't bother to organise something so cheap, simple and decent. It might be part of the reason job applicants now blow their own trumpets so loud. They really, really want the job and they feel they must shout their merits to be heard.
Then there's the influence of reality shows. From Master Chef to The X Factor they see competitors judged on their passion to win. The demonstration of desperation seems to count for as much as any talent displayed. It's hardly surprising that people watching think this is how the world works. They see contenders leave modesty at the studio door and think they must follow suit. They need to sell themselves and too many choose the patter of a market trader. With their self-description, they aim to conquer all before them. Under close questioning at interview, their exaggerations are exposed.
They would do better with a more measured approach. After all, one of the purposes of an interview is to determine if applicants have the judgment to present themselves correctly. Are they convincing? Are they trustworthy? Will they deliver?
If they boast, how close have they come to lying? On Sunday night, another finalist's credibility collapsed when she was caught out. Jade Nash claimed to own four websites when she had bought only three.
In the 2008 Apprentice series the winner, Leo McQueen, was exposed as lying on his CV. He said he'd completed two years at university but had attended for only four months. Lord Sugar chose him anyway but the decision rattled employment and recruitment specialists who called it unrealistic and unacceptable. They said it brought Mr McQueen's integrity into question.
So what is the best way to stand out from the crowd? It has to be by packing the CV with achievement. If it can't be done through work because none is available, it's worth volunteering or getting involved in community enterprise, running marathons or climbing mountains, learning a new language or starting a business, however small. Grab attention by doing, not saying.
It was Mr Martin's detailed competent, quietly impressive business plan that singled him out. It demonstrated substance beneath the showman. He was lucky.
His personal statement now embarrasses him. But he will have spared many a similar fate by demonstrating there's no need for a megaphone. It's achievement and diligence that win the day.
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