Chris Mykrantz was one of the first people I met in the communication business. I was a rookie editor at Ragan Communications, 24 and he was about 30—to me, of course, a dinosaur. Late one night in a hotel bar, I told him I what I thought of speechwriters: I said they were a bunch of sad, cynical, self-pitying babies. He chuckled and said it was a good thing he only spent half his time writing corporate speeches—he edited the employee magazine the rest of the time—because otherwise, he'd have to take offense at my remark.
Such became the basis for our frank friendship, but though Chris and I argued a lot over the years, we never again argued about the business. Because I came to think of Chris not as an employee communication guy, but as the employee communication guy.
He combined a journalist's devotion to listening to employees and telling them the truth with a subtle understanding of the corporate strategy and how employee communication could contribute to it. His clear thinking and energy produced a manual on face-to-face communication for Ragan and I published many of his articles in the Journal of Employee Communication Management. He spoke at communication conferences, he served on boards of communication associations.
I followed his career for two decades, at any juncture of which, he was a guy I could call and check my theoretical and anecdotal understanding of the business against reality.
So when I heard he'd lost his job a couple years ago, I didn't think much of it. A guy this solid and well connected would have no trouble finding work, even in a shit economy. And then to learn after two years that he still hadn't found work—that was unsettling.
Chris recently wrote an essay about his experiences, and I offered to publish it here in hopes it might start a conversation that could be good for all of us.
As he explains, he is bewildered, and looking for answers—even if they're not the ones he wants to hear. Take it from me: Chris doesn't mind candor. Here's part one of three. —DM
By Chris Mykrantz
I have an impressive résumé. Everyone who sees it tells me so. My problem is that it hasn’t helped me land a job in two and a half years.
That’s a long time to be out of work. When my previous company and I parted ways, I had no idea I was in for something like this. One of my old bosses, the global communication practice director at one of the largest HR consulting firms in the world, was very encouraging back then. “You’ve got a great résumé,” she said. “You’ll land something very soon, I’m sure.” That was more than two years and 400-plus job applications ago.
One of the strangest things that I’ve noticed during this search is that when my résumé lands in the hands of a real person right away—a corporate recruiter or a headhunter—I get interviews. In fact, the overwhelming majority of interviews—all but three or four—I’ve had have come that way. When my résumé has been submitted through an online application—meaning it lands in a data pool being managed by a software gatekeeper—I’ve had very little success in landing even an initial screening interview. That tells me that some preset factor is screening my résumé out of the pool. The only one I can assume would apply is age.
Take a look at the job descriptions in the market these days. I don’t recall seeing a single one that asked for more than 15 years of experience, even for jobs with a senior VP title. And since salary is largely tied to years of experience, my hunch is that companies are keeping salary demands low by limiting the amount of experience they’ll consider in their candidates. Tell your software to kick out any résumés that include more than 20 years, and you have a barrier anyone over the age of 45 is unlikely to clear, unless you take all of the dates and about half of your job experience off your résumé.
Of course, no one tells you you’re too old. That would be illegal. What you hear is “Well, you’re just not the right fit. “ What does that even mean? I have my suspicions, especially when I’m a 51-year old male interviewing with mostly women in their early to mid-30s. What are the other acceptable phrases? Overqualified? Too experienced? Grey-haired? You name it, I’ve heard it.
But hey, the younger crowd has some really helpful advice on how the Geritol set can find a job more quickly. I ran across a web site recently that purported to provide some of that advice. The writer suggested that us grey hairs should buy a computer, set up an internet account and take lessons on how to use it. He or she also suggested getting a cell phone. Wow, thanks. Hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I should get one with really big buttons. You know my eyes aren’t what they used to be. But that’s not all. The writer also suggested that us seniors focus on jobs at companies that serve older folks. Hmmmm. Maybe I can land a job with a company that makes power scooters.
It’s hard not to take this personally. Five years ago I was good enough to be managing a 12-person consulting practice … landing new clients, helping open up new markets, managing a growing revenue base. Two years and another job change later, I was out of a job and facing the beginning of an unsettling journey. And now? A friend of mine said he thought I was bewildered. Actually he added an expletive to it that I won’t use here, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Bewildered. Completely and totally bewildered.
When my wife confided to an acquaintance that I was out of work and looking, he recommended she be as supportive as possible because men have so much of their identity tied up in their career. How true. Try telling someone what you do for a living when you’ve been looking for more than two years. It’s not easy. And I wonder whether telling someone I’m in corporate communications or communication consulting exposes me as a fraud. I haven’t done either in nearly three years. Chances are I might never again. So what does that make me?
I was instrumental in guiding a $3.5 billion railroad through massive cultural change. I built the internal communication function at one of the fastest growing regional banks of the ‘90s. I co-wrote a manual on face-to-face communication. But that all seems a world away now.
I can’t escape the nagging feeling that something was taken away from me. I had a career I enjoyed. And I put my best into it. The professional writing and presenting I volunteered for. The time I spent with the Council of Communication Management (CCM). All of that was because I loved what I did for a living. I busted my ass for the profession. When I took over as president of CCM, the organization was in dire straits from a year or two of poorly attended conferences and stagnant membership growth. After 18 months, a hard-working board of directors and I had it back on solid financial ground, attracting new members with relevant content and building productive alliances with other professional organizations. And I had fun doing it.
I don’t have that any more. I still check out group sites I used to frequent on LinkedIn and other forums. But I feel excluded from that world. I don’t have to get up every morning and worry about getting thousands of employees to connect with an employer’s vision. But there I am, with my nose pressed up against the window. What scares me is that I may never get any closer than that again.
Tomorrow Chris will talk about his long, strange job search.