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Author exposes a 'bait and switch' America

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No one could argue there isn't a bit of the chameleon in journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Her glasses, short-cropped hair and slight build give her an unassuming appearance that she has used to her advantage.

In her 2002 best seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Ehrenreich recounted how, in the guise of an unskilled laborer, she worked as a waitress, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and Wal-Mart sales clerk. Her account brought to life the hardships and frustrations of America's minimum-wage workforce.

In her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Metropolitan, $24), Ehrenreich writes of changing her name, creating a phony resume and jumping headfirst into what she calls the "shadowy world of the middle-class, white-collar unemployed."

"After Nickel and Dimed, I started getting letters from a lot of people who said they had been doing better at one time but were either fired or laid off in some kind of reorganization," Ehrenreich says. "They were now living a Nickel and Dimed kind of life, working at $7-an-hour jobs and facing terrible life crises. I thought, 'What is going on here?'"

These were people, Ehrenreich says, who seemed to have made all the right choices. They had college degrees, they had enjoyed success in the corporate world, they had good resumes, and they knew how to market themselves.

"So here was a group that had 'made all the right choices' and yet are winding up in this situation. That heightened my curiosity and concern."

The author of 12 non-fiction titles and thousands of magazine articles, Ehrenreich, 63, says her interest in poverty is tied partly to her own childhood.

"We were originally quite poor," she says. "My father started as a copper miner in Butte, Mont. He did rise to be an executive but growing up was a tour of the social classes as we went from tenements to suburban homes."

For Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich decided she would try to get hired as a white-collar worker and set her sights on a job in public relations.

"I thought I could do that because PR depends a lot on writing and communication skills."

She legally changed back to her maiden name -- Barbara Anderson -- and got a new Social Security number.

Ehrenreich soon discovered that finding a job that paid at least $50,000 a year and had health benefits went far beyond trawling newspaper want ads and Internet job sites.

Like the real unemployed, she quickly came upon the "transition industry," the world of career coaches, job fairs and networking events.

Thinking that the industry's professionals would help, she decided to hire a career coach named Morton. She was in for a big surprise.

"When I went to Morton's house for a session, I found that he based his career counseling on The Wizard of Oz. He had three dolls: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion. He even threw in an Elvis doll that figured into this somehow, but I couldn't figure out why. Nothing he said made any sense to me."

And like many career coaches, he gave her a standardized "personality" test. "Everyone wants to give you a personality test with the thought that you can be slotted into something."

But Ehrenreich says the test, one administered by many corporations, asked confusing questions such as: "Are you wow?" And "Are you inward or outward?"

"I had no idea what to make of these things."

The Oz coach, she stresses, was totally sincere. "That's the scary part. I didn't know if I should smile, crack up, scream or run."

Another coach encouraged her to greet prospective employers with "'Hi! My name is Barbara, and I'm a crackerjack PR person!' And, yes, she was serious, too."

The research for Nickel and Dimed was easier, she says, because "there was no acting involved."

"If you're working in a restaurant, you can't play at being a waitress. Food gets to the table or it doesn't, and you're paid to get it there. It's a straightforward exchange. Now (in Bait and Switch), I entered a world where so much depends on your personality and self-presentation. I found that very murky."

Image consultants are a big part of the transition industry, so Ehrenreich also paid $250 for a three-hour "complete makeover."

She marveled at the emphasis on conformity. "I was told the color of my pants and jacket must match. I was wearing a scarf, but the consultant said I should wear a necklace with the scarf 'to pull it all together.' My silver lapel pin, which I considered conservative, was deemed not corporate."

One of her career coaches, who charged $200 an hour, had Ehrenreich constantly updating her resume. "It was like going through a Ph.D. dissertation. We were constantly expanding this phrase or reformatting that section, and I'm talking about a one-page resume."

In the end, Ehrenreich didn't find a job.

"I can't claim to know what it really feels like to be unable to find a job, because I was actually doing my job all the time. I didn't feel the desperation and the anxiety. I cannot imagine being one month away from being evicted because my money's all gone."

The unexpected difficulty of the search made her "feel a certain sense of rejection and inadequacy. I was doing everything I was told to do. It couldn't all have been because I had the wrong lapel pin. I just felt like I couldn't get in. I could not make myself visible."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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