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We Tried to Get a Job by Holding Up Signs at a Train Station

All the people who approached Hannah were men. One even offered her a job she was blatantly unqualified for (she was holding a sign touting her falconry prowess), then took the offer away when she wouldn't give him her phone number.

Going to college doesn’t guarantee you much anymore. You’ll probably still learn how many rum and cokes you can handle without being hospitalized, but what was once a given—a good degree leading to a good job—is now far more ambiguous. Youth unemployment may be falling, but from April to June of this year, 767,000 young people in the UK and 5.8 million in the US didn’t have a job, and with the next batch of graduates starting to fire off résumés at already overwhelmed HR departments, they're even more fucked than they were before.


Tactics have had to be upgraded to suit this new climate, and the primary strategy that graduates of the Instagram age seem to have latched on to is standing in train stations holding signs that tell everyone how underappreciated they are. You’ve seen stories pop up in your Facebook feed every now and then about signage success stories: Omar Bashir, for example, in July of this year, or Alfred Ajani, who made headlines this week after advertising his academic accolades at Waterloo Station.

Alfred was apparently flooded with offers from “impressed executives” and secured a marketing job with a recruitment firm just a day after pulling that stunt. So to see whether getting a job in the post-recession economy is really as easy as airing your qualifications to a bunch of commuters, I went to Liverpool Street and held up a few signs touting my various imaginary skills.


People always say mean stuff about fine art degrees, which is probably because employers would rather hire trained accountants than people who spent their higher education swallowing and regurgitating acrylics onto canvas. With that in mind, I thought I’d see whether the sign strategy would help elevate this lowly degree to something worth anything to anybody.

As soon as I held the sign up, passersby began wishing me well, and within a couple of minutes someone approached me and took a résumé. He was a nice man who told me his friend was the head of a recruitment agency. Seemed promising. Another guy, Geoff, walked over. He was dressed like a dandy and smelled like furniture polish. Geoff’s business card said he was a charity and education officer. I didn’t know what that meant at first, but made a good guess of it after he offered to pay for me to do an MA.


In real life, I already have an MA, but it’s done little to increase my creative industry job prospects. I thanked Geoff for his huge display of kindness, but told him no thanks. It was time to move on. (While swapping signs, Jake, the photographer, told me one guy standing near him had said, “Bless her, all she wants is a job,” which made me want to find him and hug him tightly.)


Next, I advertised my expertise for falconry. A little niche, perhaps, but the first thing they tell you at business school is to find your "unique selling proposition" and exploit, exploit, exploit.

Once again, it wasn’t long before someone came to my rescue. A gentleman in a red tie, suit, and unbranded baseball cap asked what kind of job I was after. I told him something in ornithology. He suggested I come and join him at his accounting firm. I didn’t feel qualified for that, so I declined, but at least I've now got a decent backup plan.

A man in a hoodie told me he was also looking for a job. I asked him if he wanted to join me. He laughed and said he did not.


From animals to editorial, next was an ad for a pithy op-ed writer with pretty big opinions.

The only person to approach me was that same red tie and cap guy. This time, he asked me out and tried to give me his number. Again, I declined, and with that he retracted his original job offer.


What did I learn from this? No one wants a writer. In hindsight, this was a little close to home.


Slightly downtrodden, I went where plenty of failed young journalists go: to the world of marketing and PR.

This sign was a little slow at first; presumably marketing execs are already tired of this method of self-promotion. I asked a nice Scottish couple if they were looking for a marketing graduate. They said they were looking for a train. I told them they were in the right place. In return, they called me a "good wee bairn," and said they’d hire me if they could.

After that, the job offers came bulldozing in. A guy took my résumé and told me his firm was doing interviews all week and that he’d call me in. A very busy, flustered lady from a PR and marketing agency took my résumé and said she’d be in touch. Next, a guy told me his firm was hiring and he’d get me in.

Fuck writing, I thought. The time is nigh to throw in the towel on this dying trade and dive headfirst into the hot, bubbly Jacuzzi of sandwich-board marketing!


On a high from my recent success, I was ready for my final job hunt. If my decent GPA could get me three potential jobs in as many minutes, then so could being a really rude human troll.

Or so I thought. Holding that sign up, the offers weren't exactly rolling in, but it did at least get me the most attention.


Before my hunt could begin in earnest, the police came up and stopped me. The conversation went like this:

Cop: What are you doing?
Me: Just looking for a job.
Cop: You can’t do that here.
Me: Why not?
Cop: [Silence] I don’t know.
Me: Can I stay then? 
Cop: Well, you’re only selling yourself aren’t you?
Me: Yes, I suppose I am.
Cop: [Turns to second cop and a security guard] So why can’t she stay here again?
Cop 2: I dunno. This bloke says it’s against the rules.

The security guard then said that if I registered where the street performers and charities register—and went through the evacuation process—I could come back and try again. It seemed like a lot of effort. I wasn’t there to raise money or earn pocket change with a bad acoustic cover of a Dave Matthews song; I was just a graduate with two degrees, looking for a job.


I'm part of the last generation to be told, with conviction, that if you graduate, you'll get a job, and if you go to college, you can be anything you want to be. Of course, we now all know that to be a lie, and I have no idea how long—if ever—it'll become a truth again.

For now, though, there's this. I was only holding signs up for a couple of hours, but it still made me feel pretty drained—worse than the feeling I get every single morning after checking the ads to find that no new entry-level journalism jobs have been added. Admittedly, it was quite a good way to attract the attention of potential employers, but I wonder if I'd have had the same rate of success if I was a boy. Just about all the people who approached me were men. One even offered me a job I was blatantly unqualified for (I was holding a sign touting my falconry prowess), then took the offer away when I wouldn't give him my phone number.

But hey, if you’re a marketing graduate? Go ahead. At the very least, someone will write an article about you.

Follow Hannah Ewens Twitter.