01 June 2011

Chômage, Part 3 — The Employment Consultant

Where your talents and the needs of the world cross,
there lies your vocation.

It's a cool, breezy morning at the end of March, exactly one month after my initial meeting with the man in a shaggy grey cardigan at the Pôle-emploi, and I'm walking down the steep, cobble-stone Montée St. Sébastien that drops from the Croix-Rousse's gros caillou (big rock) and spills out into the hôtel de ville district, passing through some of Lyon's typically picturesque urban canyons.

Mental Preparation
Instead of gazing out and letting my eyes take in the sweeping views of the city, I was concentrating on my breathing; not looking up, as I usually do, to watch the dance of light and shadow against a blue sky or against the salmons and ochres of the city's architecture. Instead it was one slow, steady breath at a time.

I was a little nervous because, well, I thought things were really going to get moving forward during this morning's meeting with the consultant; getting into the nuts and bolts of job hunting: CVs, cover letters, interview techniques. That was the promise of the CRP, what I was told many times over I could count on. And how many times had I heard that 'everything would be explained'? Maybe this was really going to be it.

Consultant No. 1
The first moments of the meeting were quite ordinary — Bonjour...how are you...did you have any trouble finding us?

Everything after that — and for the remaining hour — fell squarely in line with the weird groove already laid out by my first two encounters.

It soon became apparent that this was just another "verification" moment, as if some deep, invisible part of me had escaped all previous attempts of scrutinization.

The consultant asked what kind of job I was looking for. Communication, I said, feeling the sudden nasty urge to remain purposely vague. Previous job's salary? xxx per year, I replied honestly and somewhat embarrassed. Oh, that can't be right, she said. It must be more like xxx. No, I said. Yes, it is, she insisted. I was a teacher, I reminded her. Oh anyway, it doesn't matter, she conceded. It doesn't? All of this she wrote down in my file with a studious yet bubbly enthusiasm that suggested she was having a ball.

But then a glimmer of hope: We won't be meeting again, she said. The consultant who's been assigned your case is ill today. She'll call you in a few days for another appointment. We're just here to...verify your information. Of course.

And what will my meetings with the other consultant be like? I asked. Madame R. is going to work on you with your skills base, and developing a network. Network? Yes, and remember to bring her a copy of your CV — we're going to validate it. You are going to validate my CV? Yes. But it's in English. That's fine, we have a consultant who speaks good English. Ok.

One hour later I walked out the door a vetted man. Again. Never before had I been so validated, verified, confirmed, vindicated, authenticated or legitimized.

Consultant No. 2
Six days later Madame R. sits across the table from me and reads through the CV I've brought. She apologizes, as many French will do, that her English isn't perfect, but says everything is clear to her.

I then show her the cover letters I wrote in response to two different job ads for international organizations in Geneva and Lyon, both in English. She nods her head all the way through, eyes following her finger to the bottom of the page. Reaching the end she looks up and says slowly: Ah, I think I understand, you're looking for a job job, a real job.

Our professional relationship is only minutes old but already bang on, and ready to go places; I can feel it. Finally. No validation. No questions I've already answered. Then, This is clear. You express yourself very well.

Thank you. But it's what I do, I respond. But to be honest, I spent a lot of time on those letters. They were difficult to write. I've always thought that—

Writing about yourself is the most difficult thing? she finishes my thought perfectly. Don't worry, it's the same for me.

More clarity and candor than I've heard since this whole process began three months before. Madame R. is obviously not of the same mold as my previous interlocutors. Borrowing from Joseph Campbell's description of the hero's journey, I've just come in contact with a guide bearing magical gifts to ferry me successfully across any challenge that lies ahead.

And that's exactly what happens. Meeting regularly, every seven to 10 days, Madame R. guides me through some tedious exercises that help reform, expand and update the list of my professional skills, arranged by category, covering my entire career, and in French.

With that information now on hand, we work on writing CVs and cover letters in the French style, or according to her, what companies in France today expect. Which leads to a conversation about how rigid and unforgiving the professional culture here can be.

You have to fit this profile, she begins, and have this degree and know this person...I hate it, but that's how it's done, and it's important to learn how to play the game if you want to work here. We agree on so many basic 'facts' it's borderline spooky.

Around our sixth meeting, When I tell her I want to create my own freelance writing business, she whips out a stack of forms as if expecting it. Fifty percent of my clients all want to create their own enterprise, she says. I'm not surprised.

Because of my CRP status, the Pôle-emploi must first validate my project, which means filling out a lot of forms specific to the activity I want to create. Once that's done they'll send me to an independent consultant who specializes in helping people like me finalize a proper business plan. If you get this far, says Madame R., and the specialist thinks you need more training to start your business, the Pôle-emploi cannot refuse. He's got the final say. 

For those addicted to power, it must be a massive rush to pick up the phone and tell a huge, state-run agency what to do and know it will be done.

Final Thoughts
So this is where I find myself today, working hard to complete a jumble of forms spread over my desk, their electronic counterparts blinking at me from my computer screen, so the employment office can authenticate that I have a viable project to create my own business.

I have no doubt it will happen; it's more a question of when. The unemployment checks will stop coming in January 2012; that gives me another seven months to jump through all the proper hoops the system requires.

But it will be worth it. Writing freelance full time is something I've been dreaming about for longer than I care to admit. And the timing — and available resources — have never been better.

Bulky as the system may be, with its manic penchant for sweeping, all-inclusive validation, it works as well as can be expected, and then some. When I hear people complaining about it, I wonder if they're simply forgetting who's really in charge, and giving the 'system' a disproportionate responsibility to make decisions for them.

Walking home from my most recent meeting with Madame R., I was feeling expansive and free, more so than usual. In my mind I replayed our discussion until I found what might have triggered this sudden rise of passion. Eventually it came back to me — during the meeting I had made a suggestion about something I wanted to do and how I would like to go about it.

Of course, she said. I'm here for you. Don't forget it's what you decide that matters.

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