The public health workforce is not doing well. In this series of articles, I will share what it was like working on the public health frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these experiences changed me forever. I will share the lessons I have learned and what I want people around me to know, both within and outside the public health sector.
In last week’s column, I discussed the rapidly changing environment in the public health job market. This week, I will be looking specifically at the candidates’ real-life experiences during the application process for public health employment. Based on my personal experience applying for public jobs and the experiences of my friends, students, colleagues, and others within my network, I will focus on recent live experiences from within public health employment. Ask any aspiring public health professional: We all have stories. These are not isolated experiments. These are sector-wide practices.
Ongoing media coverage big resignation Since 2021 it appears to indicate that job applicants currently have unprecedented bargaining power in the labor market. Unfortunately, I have not seen any evidence that this applies to public health, where the balance of power has long been tilted in the opposite direction. With so many applicants applying to every advertised or funded job, job applicants have very little power in the job market, and employers are turning away from behaviors that may at best be considered inconsiderate, or at worst outrageous.
Even the initial stages of a job application can be unnecessarily demanding, when applicants are often required to manually enter all of their resume and employment history information in a format suitable for the employer, even though this is an exact duplicate of the exact same information already provided in their resume. . Now that you have multiple qualifications and many years of work experience in various different jobs (due to the volatile nature of the public health job market as explained earlier), such data entry in a non-standard format can be a daunting task. (Perhaps this labor-intensive multiplexing data entry is an accurate guide to what lies ahead in epidemiological data systems!
Salaries and benefits are rarely mentioned in job advertisements, which can waste time for everyone involved. When later asked to provide a salary target, candidates face an arduous negotiation process: aim too high and miss out on potential opportunities, or aim too low and undervalue your skills. An interviewer told me that my stated salary target was unrealistic, even when I explained that it was explicitly based on the salary I had been receiving for the past several years: “They were paying you too much,” said the interviewer, whose organization was a major recipient of federal grant funding. In a world where any of us willfully choose to work in the public or nonprofit sectors and intentionally take a significant salary cut from the rate at which the private sector values our skills, this assessment is insulting and intangible. I can only hope that the recent move toward legal requirements for determining salary in vacant positions in some states will spur change. Meanwhile, some standardized salary-setting criteria or guidance tools won’t spoil: I’ve just been called to apply for a job with less than half of my previous set salary.
Now that interviews are typically virtual, it is common for employers to expect candidates to make themselves available for multiple rounds of interviews, perhaps spanning over several weeks or months, and often with very short notice; Whereas the interviewees’ schedules may be coordinated for one (or maximum two) on-site visits for a personal interview. Scheduling is a total pain and I was amazed at the number of scheduling conversations I’ve had where the interviewer doesn’t offer any options but expects me to leave everything to be available in one time slot as per their convenience. If this is a really real dialogue, shouldn’t they be giving me multiple options to choose from, not only as a matter of courtesy but also as a practical strategy? It is not difficult to conduct an online survey, if necessary, even if the coordination is done among the various committee members. I recently went through a 10-month interview process and multiple rounds of interviews, during which time I applied to and was accepted into a fixed-term contract position, completed the contract, and once again found myself in the job market again. Just in time for the final rejection. During the interview process, candidates may be asked to prepare a presentation: The type I resent the most is a random set of PowerPoint required for an extracurricular topic such as gardening or entertaining for cooking – who has time for this concoction of such busy work? We both know you’re not interested in my sourdough technology, and we’ll develop a better relationship if you keep me on task. Ask me something related!
Another new phenomenon of the hypothetical hiring process: the one-way interview. This term is used to describe the asynchronous interview process in which the employer issues a written list of questions to the candidate, who must then record and video-submit his responses within the required time frame. It is assumed that this technique has been developed for efficiency purposes, in order to avoid the hassle of finding mutually convenient interview times for the candidate and the interviewer, especially when seeking to schedule several candidates in a short period of time. However, setting up a one-way interview is clear evidence that the interviewer has no interest in evaluating or developing any relationship with the candidate, nor in answering any of their questions. Moreover, the technology of online registration is often unfamiliar and unfamiliar, which puts the burden of time and effort directly on the candidate, who may find the responsibility of preparing, training, registering and checking the registration process more time-consuming and cumbersome. From a simple online interview. For me, using this approach, even as a primary screening tool, is a red flag that an employer views human involvement as a burden.
Similarly, another red flag is when emails from HR about personal matters such as salary and logistics of the interview are logged from an unnamed public mailbox and personal contact details are not provided. How should the candidate direct email correspondence, especially when it is sensitive: Dear HR Mailbox? To whom it May concern? They have removed humans from human resources.
In a previous column, I provided examples of public health professional advice that no longer holds true. Here’s another question: “Ask for feedback on why you were rejected for a job.” Nowadays, you should consider yourself lucky even to receive direct confirmation that you have already been rejected. After interviews, it has become fairly standard practice for employers to simply cheat unsuccessful applicants and fail to offer the compliment of a simple rejection email. Even after investing several rounds of interview time, applicants are routinely left to wonder at what stage of the process they assume they have been rejected. How difficult is it to paste a standard rejection text into an email? Or, as I’ve seen abroad, to include an expected interview date in the original post so that applicants at least know when to give up.
Meanwhile, employers continue to exercise their right to deliberately delay hiring for months; However, once the job offer is issued, the applicant is expected to jump at the opportunity, give an immediate response, and begin work immediately.
It is clear that the balance of power for #publichealthjobs is strongly tilted in favor of employers – which candidate would choose to harm their employment prospects by invoking these harmful hiring practices? I am speaking out to draw attention to these grievances – please join me in the comments to explore how we can advocate for change.
Next week I will revisit the question of public health professional advice: Given the features of the current environment I have explored, what job search and career development strategies are actually beneficial? Please share your suggestions in the comments or on LinkedIn.
Read all columns in this series:
Dr. Katie Schenk is an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and Public Health Informatics Specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline of government health departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Schenk currently works as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches public health and global health at American University in Washington, DC and George Mason University, Virginia. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a group of social and behavioral research studies 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-schenko/ To follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenko-4a884b84
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