It’s a jungle out there: Power balance and job applications in public health

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It’s a jungle out there: Power balance and job applications in public health

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The public health workforce is not okay. In this series of articles, I will share what it’s like to work on the front lines of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these experiences have changed me forever. I will share the lessons I have learned and what I want those around me to know, both in and out of the public health sector.

In last week’s column, I discussed the rapidly changing public health job market environment. This week, I’ll look specifically at the real-life experiences of candidates during the public health job application process. Based on my personal experience applying for public jobs and that of my friends, students, colleagues, and others in my network, I will focus on recent public health recruiting experiences. Ask any aspiring public health professional: we all have stories. These are not isolated experiences. These are practices across the sector.

Media coverage of the ongoing Great Resignation of 2021 seems to suggest that job seekers currently have unprecedented bargaining power in the labor market. Unfortunately, I have seen no evidence that this applies to public health, where the balance of power has long been tipped in the opposite direction. With large numbers of applicants applying for every advertised and funded position, job applicants have very little power in the job market and employers get away with behavior that can be considered at best unconscionable or at worst criminally.

Application process

Even the initial stages of a job application can be unnecessarily demanding when applicants are often asked to manually enter all of their biographical information and work history into an employer-friendly format, even though this is completely duplicating the exact same information already submitted in their resume. Now that I have multiple qualifications and many years of experience in various jobs (due to the volatile nature of the public health job market as described above), this data entry in a non-standardized format can be a painstaking task. (Perhaps this laborious double data entry is a subtle foreshadowing of what’s to come within epidemiological data systems! Oh dear, an epi joke.)

Salaries and benefits are rarely quoted in job postings, which can be a waste of time for all involved. When subsequently asked to provide a salary target, candidates face a daunting negotiation process: aim too high and miss out on potential opportunities, or aim too low and underestimate your skills. I was told by an interviewer that my stated salary goal was unrealistic, even when I explained that it was based specifically on the salary I’d been making for the past few years: “You’ve been paid too much,” sniffed the interviewer, whose organization is a major recipient of federal grant funding. In a world where any of us who deliberately choose to work in the public or nonprofit sector knowingly take a significant pay cut from the degree to which the private sector values ​​our skills, this assessment is offensive and comically inappropriate. I can only hope that the recent move to statutory salary requirements in job postings in some states will catalyze change. Meanwhile, a few benchmarks or standardized guidance tools for determining salaries wouldn’t do: I was just invited to apply for a position at less than half of my previously established salary.

Interview process

Now that interviews are usually virtual, it has become common practice for employers to expect candidates to make themselves available for multiple rounds of interviews, possibly extending over several weeks or months and often at very short notice; whereas previously interviewers’ schedules could be coordinated for one (or at most two) site visits for an in-person panel interview. Scheduling is a total pain and I’m amazed at the number of scheduling conversations I’ve had where the interviewer doesn’t provide any options but expects me to drop everything to be available in a single time slot at their convenience. If this was indeed a real dialogue, shouldn’t they have offered me multiple options to choose from, not just as a matter of common courtesy, but as a pragmatic strategy? It’s not difficult to set up an online survey if needed, even if you’re coordinating between multiple panel members. I recently went through an interview process that took 10 months and multiple rounds of interviews, during which time I applied and was accepted for a fixed-term position, completed the contract, and found myself back on the job market just in time for a final rejection. During the interview process, candidates may be asked to prepare a presentation: the type I resent the most is the random PowerPoint deck required for an extracurricular topic such as gardening or cooking fun – who has time for that to come up with such a busy job? We both know you’re not interested in my sourdough technique, and we’ll develop a better relationship if you hold me to task. Ask me for something suitable!

Another new phenomenon in the virtual recruiting process: the one-way interview. This term is used to describe an asynchronous interview process in which the employer issues a written list of questions for the candidate, who must then record and submit their answers via video within the required time frame. This technique was probably developed for efficiency purposes to avoid the hassle of finding mutually convenient interview times for the candidate and the interviewer, especially when trying to schedule multiple candidates in a short period of time. However, setting up a one-way interview is a clear demonstration that the interviewer has zero interest in evaluating or developing a relationship with the candidate, nor in answering any of their questions. Additionally, online enrollment technology is often cumbersome and unfamiliar, placing the burden of time and effort squarely on the applicant, who may find the responsibility of preparing, rehearsing, recording, and verifying the enrollment process much more time-consuming and burdensome than would otherwise be the case. it was just an online interview. To me, using this approach, even as a pre-screening tool, is a red flag that shows an employer views human engagement as a burden.

Similarly, another red flag is when emails from HR regarding personal matters such as salary and interview logistics are signed from a generic unnamed mailbox and no personal contact information is provided. How should a candidate address email correspondence, especially when it is sensitive: Dear HR Inbox? Who can it apply to? They have removed people from HR.

Communication

In a previous column, I offered examples of public health career advice that no longer rings true. Here’s another one: “Ask for feedback on why you were rejected.” Nowadays, you’d consider yourself lucky to even get direct confirmation that you were indeed rejected. After the interview, it has become almost standard practice for employers to simply overlook unsuccessful applicants and not extend the courtesy of a simple rejection email. Even after investing several rounds of interview time, candidates are routinely left wondering at which stage in the process to assume they’ve been rejected. How hard would it really be to put standard bounce text in an email? Or, as I’ve seen abroad, insert an expected interview date into the original posting so applicants at least know when to give up hope.

Meanwhile, employers continue to exercise their prerogatives to deliberately drag out recruitment processes for months; but once a job offer is issued, the candidate is expected to take advantage of the opportunity, respond promptly, and begin work immediately.

Clearly, the balance of power for #publichealthjobs is tipped firmly in favor of employers — what candidate would choose to hurt their job chances by calling out these harmful hiring practices? I’m speaking out to bring attention to these injustices – please join me in the comments to explore how we can advocate for change.

Next week I will revisit the question of career advice in public health: given the characteristics of the current environment that I have explored, what are the job search and career development strategies that are actually useful? Please share your suggestions in the comments or on LinkedIn.

Read all columns in this series:

Author profile

Katie Schenk

Dr. Katie Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist. She is working on the frontline of public health for government health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Schenck currently serves as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at the COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches public health and global health at American University in Washington and George Mason University, Virginia. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a portfolio of social and behavioral research on children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: https://kdspublichealth.com/about-dr-katie-schenk/ Follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenk-4a884b84

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