The true cost of a job search

The hiring process can be mysterious, inflexible and full of unpaid labor for candidates; here’s why that’s an equity issue


I’ve spent 12 hours in back-to-back job interviews and meals with a prospective employer. It’s 2 a.m., and I can’t sleep, knowing I’ve got just four hours before I need to get up for a 14-hour day of more interviews. I’ve also got several hours of work I need to finish urgently, during breaks between interviews and late at night, and I’ve also got to fit in client meetings that I’ve had to shift at the last minute to accommodate this hiring process. Plus, I want to prepare for a conference that starts the following day. My overtaxed brain keeps replaying how I got here.

Since being laid off from HuffPost in March 2021, I’ve spent more than 500 hours on resumes, cover letters, applications, references, memos, presentations and both virtual and in-person interviews — totaling $125,000 at my current consulting rate. I have evaluated more than 80 potential roles, applied for or spoke with people about approximately 50 roles and withdrawn from a dozen or so. I’ve gone through more than 25 interview processes, and I’ve been a finalist for 13. Sometimes the jobs disappeared, and the employers decided not to hire or to fill the role internally. In 14 cases, I got ghosted, never hearing back, not even via a form letter.

Because I’m a consultant and not a full-time employee, I don’t get any paid time off, so I’ve either had to turn down paid work or work absurd hours to accommodate all the unpaid work required by hiring managers. That’s not including all the time spent networking or the cost of things like new clothes, makeup or hair appointments for interviews. Other costs included buying a subscription to complete a task and paying for flights and hotels upfront to get reimbursed later.

I’ve often heard, “Just apply,” or “It doesn’t hurt to apply,” from well-intended friends and recruiters. But every application has a cost, and I’ve inevitably had to balance multiple hiring processes at the same time, amounting to an unpaid full-time job on top of my more-than-full-time work. I’m still paying off student loans, and I’ve got other financial responsibilities beyond my own cost of living. 

How do others do this, especially parents or people with other obligations? How many great candidates are slipping through the cracks just because the processes are set up for people who have both the time and money to get through them? And what's the impact on diversity and equity? I called up some talented ex-colleagues to ask about their recent job searches and the true cost of their job searches. I interviewed six people at all levels who asked to remain anonymous.

I started with a woman whose husband had been away for several months for work, leaving her to take on extra parenting duties as, effectively, a single mother to three children during her job search. Over a six-month search, she spent at least an hour looking for jobs every day, sifting through ill-fitting opportunities, a couple of hours customizing her resume and cover letter for 18 applications, and an hour preparing for four screening calls and one first-round interview. Because of the limited time she had available to spend each day, she’d often identify a role only to find that applications had closed before she could apply. 

On top of spending more than 160 hours of unpaid time, she also paid $25 an hour for childcare to apply for jobs when she had expected to be able to do shopping or other household chores, and she hired a career coach for $1,000. In the end, it was a consulting project — not applications — that led to a full-time job. She was privileged enough to afford some childcare to apply for jobs, she said, but many others are stuck without that option, adding, “I think it’s criminal how much unpaid work there is [in these job searches].”

Another job seeker, a former media CEO, has applied for 17 jobs in the past five months, spending about 250 hours — plus $50 a month for LinkedIn Premium — without landing any offers. As a former recruiter himself, he has been surprised by the lack of time recruiters have spent getting to know him and the lack of thoughtful questioning about his suitability for each role. Instead, he feels recruiters have been pitching the hiring company just to get as many applicants as possible. It’s a system that encourages nepotism, he observed.

Communication is another factor. One candidate recalled participating in a screener call and first-round interview with a potential employer, then never getting even an automated note telling her she hadn’t gotten the job. “I think if you speak with someone, they should be obligated to respond to you to say you're not moving forward,” she said.

Another candidate, a senior editor, put it differently: “Don’t ghost me.” She was asked to apply for a role at a former workplace. She spoke first with the managing editor, who then put her in touch with the human resources department. During the screening call, an HR person read from a script, hadn’t read her resume, and told her the next step would be to meet with people – and then never got back to her despite follow-up emails. The candidate eventually got rejected via form letter. “It was so rude,” she said. 

It took her eight months of full-time job hunting to land a full-time job while she was teaching and working as an independent consultant. “Finding a job in journalism is not for the faint of heart,” she said.

For one role she didn’t get, she completed seven interviews, including three panel interviews, took an edit test, pitched a project, which required reporting and took one week to put together, edited a piece and gave the reporter feedback. “The unpaid labor they’re asking for is crazy,” she said. “If you want me to edit a script, to show you my expertise, pay me.” Whenever she was asked to complete tasks that would take more than a day, she asked for payment. In one case, she got paid $1,000 for her work.

Overall, the hiring process isn’t working for candidates, all six candidates agreed. “It’s a horrible process,” the senior editor said. Is it an equity issue? Definitely, said Candice Dickens-Russell, director of social and environmental justice at consulting agency DoGoodery. The biggest issue she sees is unpaid labor, followed by the lack of transparency about hiring processes and timelines. 

When a process requires a lot of time, she said that people for whom money is tight or who have other constraints on their time can’t fully participate. “It’s a privilege to be able to take that kind of time out of your regular job; a lot of people can’t afford it,” she said. “It’s free labor, and it’s (often) not clear how they are going to use that information or work, so you are being exploited. If you were on staff or consulting, you’d be paid for it.”

That disadvantages people who can’t afford to spend that kind of uncompensated time, frequently excluding people of color and women, who tend to take on more household responsibilities and other work. “Women’s lives are already filled with unnoticed, unpaid, unappreciated labor, so to add this on top and have them do this kind of thing to get a job is bankrupt,” Dickens-Russell concluded.

Jennifer Kho was named executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times on June 2, the first woman and first person of color to lead the Sun-Times’ newsroom in the paper’s 178-year history. She also serves as president of the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and an adviser for the Bay City News Foundation and The Pivot Fund. She was previously the senior director of strategic innovation at HuffPost, where she led the development of new audience engagement, storytelling and revenue models, including membership; managing editor at HuffPost; managing editor at the Guardian US; and founding editor of Greentech Media.



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  • averilldianne

    I've been looking since September, and I'm coming up on 700 applications sent. I'm not just looking in newsrooms, but I am including editorial jobs.

    I can't even imagine the amount of time this has taken, but I have a ton of stats on ghosting, interviews, etc. And I wish I had the skills to create a better Indeed or LinkedIn for job searchers.

    Friday, May 27, 2022 Report this