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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Job Prospects of Army Vets and Crack Dealers

What do army veterans and crack dealers have in common?  More than you might expect.  Let me explain...

Employers are worried that vets may go AWOL
This morning, I read an interesting New York Times article about the dim job prospects facing many young veterans returning from Iraq.  Apparently, there will be an estimated 1 million new veterans looking for work in an already struggling US economy.

Employers aren't exactly rushing to hire veterans, either.  In addition to fears that they have PTSD or other mental health issues after serving, employers are turned away from veterans because many haven't accumulated very much work experience outside of the military.  The idea is that veterans haven't developed skills in the military that are transferrable into the more mundane white collar and service world.

What makes someone a good job candidate?  What are skills that can be transferred?

This question is strikingly similar to some of the sociological work on barriers to job entry for urban poor black men.  I remember reading an old Loic Wacquant chapter in Bourdieu's Weight of the World.  Wacquant interviews a street hustler in the chapter and learns about the young man's career path into hustling, some of the techniques he uses to make money, and gains valuable insights into how this young person makes sense of institutional racism in America.  I find the interview revealing, but also take issue with some parts of the argument.

Let me elaborate. Wacquant's argument and the argument presented in the New York Times piece both echo the same logic: Skills are transferrable when they help land people in jobs.  By the same note, skills are non-transferrable when employers are turned away from said candidate.  I don't think the problem is about skills being transferrable or not, I think the problem is that most employers adopt a very risk averse approach to hiring.

Employers, by and large, look for people whose previous work and experience are almost identically aligned with the tasks, roles, and duties that they could be expected to perform once hired.  Following this logic, if someone has had extensive experience working as an administrator, giving motivational talks, or filling out excel spreadsheets, than they are comparatively a better candidate than someone who has not acquired these skills.

I really dislike this way of thinking and feel that it's the wrong way to assess a job candidate.  Although I understand why employers view skills through such a narrow lens, I also feel that there are intangibles that people develop in any activity that could be extremely beneficial to companies looking to hire people with atypical resumes.  To me, the pragmatics are the easy part; a person can learn how to use excel, can become acclimated to giving motivational talks, or doing some other role that is part of a job description Obviously, there are some technical skills that people cannot just pick up 'on the job'; I think we all can agree that our medical care or legal defense are best left to those who have studied these disciplines.

But, beyond the world of highly technical work, I feel that many white collar positions and service jobs could benefit from the skill sets that a young veteran or street hustler have acquired over time.  Ex-officers and ex-dealers may come with added baggage and may take longer to train, but they also bring a bunch of intangibles to the table as well.  

Hustlin' ain't easy: Ask D'Angelo Barksdale
In my previous work with street hustlers, I've seen the kind of ingenuity, industriousness, and hustle that it takes to support one's self through street hustling.  The ability to support one's self with almost no organizational support or start-up money should signal to employers that a person is determined, hard-working, and takes initiative, right?  In the same sense, someone who has served in the military has developed the same skills and should be viewed in the same light.

Obviously, there are pragmatics to any kind of work.  Someone who has done a previous job has a much quicker and smoother transition into their new role.  But, over the long haul, I'd much rather have someone who could learn the pragmatics and bring additional intangibles to the job than someone who is a good task-master.


  1. The big question is how does the ethical framework of those roles (military/hustlers) apply to the business world's ethical framework. The skills learned but applied in the wrong ethical framework can expose the employer to significant risk/consequences. I think that's what employers are REALLY scared of...

  2. @ cheap_athlete: Interesting point. I think you're right on the money about that one. But, do you really feel that employers acknowledge the intangibles, but are turned away because of the ethical framework point? Or, do you think employers are still under the assumption that the skills are non-transferrable? I feel that more conscientious and progressive employers might acknowledge the skills but have questions about how a person will acclimate and use those skills, but wonder if many employers still adopt the ideas articulated in the NYTimes piece? Anyways, good foor for thought!