Is It Time to Bail From The ‘Parachute’ Book?

Since “What Color Is Your Parachute?” by Richard Nelson Bolles was published 31 years ago, it’s become known to many as the job-hunters’ bible. The book, published by Ten Speed Press, has topped business bestseller lists and a new, revised edition is reissued annually. But does this book really deserve its iconic status? With unemployment creeping up again, I thought it was time to take a fresh look at this work. My conclusion: It’s a tired book and should be retired.

The book smells musty. Although it’s touted as the 2001 edition and fully updated, most of the citations are 10 to 25 years old. Consider this advice: “If a spelling error is found (by two friends or workmates), retype the entire letter (using ‘white-out’ for a boo-boo is a no-no).” In another section, it states that “people consider themselves lucky to have a job,” even though there was a severe labor shortage when the 2001 edition was written.

Worse, it gives advice that’s often poor and contradictory. The book’s central principle is that the best jobs aren’t advertised but are created when someone shows up at an employer’s door looking for a job. Therefore, the only way to find a job is to network.

It dismisses all other ways of job hunting as Neanderthal and says, “The best job-search method, by far, has turned out to be the so-called creative job-hunting approach,” for which it claims a success rate of 86% if you complete the book’s 318 pages of exercises. Nevertheless, the preceding paragraph says that just going through the telephone book’s yellow pages with a group of friends yields a success rate of 84%.

“Parachute” sets up the Neanderthal system that most job seekers use as a straw man, and then knocks down this method so that it can claim the panacea. Unfortunately for readers, the book’s method takes far longer to execute than traditional techniques and leads them down fruitless paths if used exclusively, the way it urges.

The book claims that all 5.7 million unemployed U.S. workers are jobless because they use conventional job-hunting methods. Implicitly, if they used its method, unemployment would be zero. This is a blame-the-victim attitude. It states categorically that “if you have great trouble in finding work, you must not merely read these chapters and exercises, but do it all.” In other words, if you can’t get a job, it’s your fault for not following its advice to the letter.

The process Mr. Bolles advocates is so lengthy and often irrelevant that a job seeker would take months to complete it before starting to job hunt. He proposes an approach used by “The Creative Minority,” which “treats every job hunt as though it is to be a career-change.” This is the hallmark of “Parachute.”

What’s the Creative Minority’s system? The method that the book reveals to its six million purchasers is as follows: “The three secrets of successful career change or systematic job hunting are: WHAT, WHERE and HOW.” In another place, it substitutes whom you want to work for as one of the three key elements.

The system is illustrated by a flower diagram that’s supposed to help define the job of your dreams. The flower consists of seven parts:

1. Transferable skills. This lengthy exercise involves writing seven life stories and then analyzing them to take inventory of what physical, mental and interpersonal skills were used. These skills range all the way from weaving cloth to record keeping to resolving conflicts. The idea is to identify those you’re passionate about using, combine them with your traits and prioritize them so that you find the kind of job that will give you the greatest pleasure or satisfaction.

It’s a long leap from listing skills to learning whether or where your favorite skills are used in the job market. To answer this question, Mr. Bolles advises you to ask your friends and family. A generation ago, the answer would have been “plastics.” Last year, it would have been “dot-coms.” But skills alone don’t determine what job to get. The real question is what occupation needs those skills, and that isn’t answered.

2. Geography. The next exercise is supposed to help the job seeker decide where in the country to live. Mr. Bolles says to think of all the places you’ve been, remember what you didn’t like about them, translate the negatives into positives and then ask your family and friends where you should live.

3. Subjects or interests. Mr. Bolles says to list your favorite hobbies, interests, subjects, periodicals and books, Internet sites, games, TV shows and other pastimes, and then choose your favorites as a basis for selecting a career.

4. People environments. This exercise involves pretending you’re at a party and people are gathered into groups: “realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising-manipulative and conventional.” You decide which group to join first, second and so on. This birds-of-a-feather theory supposedly helps you decide what kind of job to get. But, it fails to say how to find out what kind of birds there are in any company.

5. Values and goals. Decide what you hope people will say about you and what you want to achieve before you die. (“This is just between you and God.”)

6. Working conditions. Again, list what you didn’t like and then reverse the items to find out what you’d like in a job. Why not list what you liked?

7. Level and salary. Mr. Bolles writes, “My salary requirements are between $20,000 and $40,000 [a 100% range], depending upon the amount of responsibility I would have … Level goes hand-in-hand with salary, of course.” Actually, there’s relatively little correlation except within a hierarchical “job content” salary-administration program. How would Mr. Bolles explain billionaire fugitive financiers who trade commodities alone or baseball players who make eight-figure salaries?

This part concludes: “Done! Voila! Your flower should now be complete. At this point, go to chapter 5 and see how this new knowledge of yourself and your ideal job helps you to narrow down what it is you are looking for.” This chapter shows you how to find a job in a company in San Jose that makes wheels and hires welders and has 50 or fewer employees.

He does include a list of job families, but it looks like it came from a government statistical report. It’s old-fashioned and doesn’t include anything about computers or the Internet. It lumps some oddball occupations into families, e.g., “Social Scientists, Social Workers, Religious Workers, Lawyers.” It also concentrates on nonexempt and blue-collar jobs. This section is worse than useless. Mr. Bolles admits this and sends the reader back to friends, family and professionals for advice.

Advice on job interviewing is the best part of the book. Unfortunately, you have to search to find it, and then it’s diluted by all the poor material that surrounds it.

One especially egregious piece of advice is to avoid human-resources departments, because employers have recruiters (whether in-house or outside of the company) just to prevent people from being hired. The reality is that employers want the recruiters to deal with all the paperwork, screen applicants and present to the hiring managers those who are best qualified. Furthermore, HR professionals, as the gatekeepers, have veto power over 95% of the applicants. It makes much more sense to cultivate recruiters as allies than to bypass and risk antagonizing them.

His advice on pay negotiation seems to be based on the Marxian dictum: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” It simply isn’t true in a capitalist society where price is set by supply and demand. He says that you should get paid the salary you need to live on and provides a two-page personal-expense budget worksheet to calculate what pay to ask for. Yeah, right.

The book doesn’t mention the numerous excellent sources of salary data, on or off the Web. This is consistent with his Marxian approach, but in a market economy, it’s a major omission. Nor does the book mention that salary ranges are based on going rates in the job market. Instead, it defines them as the difference between what the employer considers the most he can pay and the amount he hopes to get you for.

The book’s contradictions are numerous. For example, it repeatedly advises readers to not bother with a resume, yet gives advice on how to write one. Moreover, Mr. Bolles discredits all resumes by saying that 33% to 50% are lies. He ridicules them by quoting someone who says that ” ‘if you plan things just right, you will have a perfect resume by the time you are old enough to retire.’ ” He concludes by saying that resumes shouldn’t be used at all. Nevertheless, he lists a variety of books to use from his own publisher and one written by one of his staffers.

Job seekers are discouraged from looking at ads but given advice on how to answer them. Regrettably, it’s flawed advice. He says, “If you see an ad for which you qualify, even three-quarters, send off your resume.” But then he says that the response to ads is huge. So why bother answering an ad for a job that you don’t qualify for?

To his credit, he points out that job postings on the Internet are no more useful than classified ads in newspapers. This is helpful to job seekers who think they can get a job by just looking at Internet job sites.

Mr. Bolles also makes sense when he repeatedly advises readers to get help and information from family, friends, experts and incumbents. However, after insisting that you talk to people to gain reliable information because other sources aren’t reliable, he writes, “You will need to check and cross-check any information that people tell you…Keep clearly in mind that there are people out there who will tell you something that absolutely isn’t so, with every conviction in their being — because they think it’s true. Sincerity they have, 100%. Accuracy is something else again.” This negates his prior advice.

Its numerous contradictions make the book’s counsel seem downright unbelievable. For example, it states: “The theme at the receptionist’s desk or in the human-resources office of a company, is: Elimination…That is why millions remain unemployed, in the U.S. alone.” But, later, it says that only 15% of employers have human-resources departments, so how can they single-handedly be responsible for all the unemployment in the country?

But what’s hardest to believe is that 20,000 people buy this $16.95 book every month to find out this “secret” of how to find a job.

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