One Job Seeker's Ruse To Check Out His Competition

Aug 1, 2012
Originally published on August 2, 2012 7:49 am

Eric Auld wants a full-time job. He completed a master's program in 2009 and has a part-time job as an adjunct lecturer, but that provides barely enough to cover the bills.

After a fruitless job search — endlessly scanning and Craigslist and tweaking resumes and cover letters — he grew more curious about his competitors. So he created a fake Craigslist ad for an administrative assistant position and, in one day, received 653 responses from applicants with a wide range of education and experience. He wrote about what he learned from the applicants for Thought Catalog.

"I usually apply to two types of jobs, the first being teaching positions or publishing positions or any position I can use my master's in English for," Auld tells NPR's Neal Conan, "and those other jobs being those lower-end, entry-level kind of positions that everybody seems to be applying for nowadays."

Auld estimates that out of 100 jobs he applied for in the course of a month, he heard back from 5 percent. "And actually," he says, "most of the 5 percent I did hear from seem to be job scams trying to get my personal information."

So he modeled his fake ad on those common, entry-level postings, and in just one day, was overwhelmed with applicants. As he sifted through resumes, he found that not many people with master's degrees were applying, but lots of them listed bachelor's degrees — all of this for a $12- to $13-an-hour job in midtown Manhattan.

He also found that the majority of applicants — "at least three-quarters" — had experience as administrative assistants. And the number that shocked him most? "10 percent ... had 10 or more years of experience, applying for this job that really, based on their previous experiences, seems to be ... beneath them."

So, Auld learned, most of the applicants to these entry-level, administrative assistant positions really were more qualified than he is. And though some might warn him he's also not getting called back for starting positions because his advanced degree makes him overqualified, he's not concerned.

"With the state of the job market, it's just a cold fact that people with bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in all sorts of areas have to apply to these types of jobs," he says. "I would give anything up" — including his part-time job as an adjunct lecturer — "to become a full-time administrative assistant, because those are guaranteed hours, and it's all year round."

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Eric Auld wants a full-time job. The master's degree he earned three years ago led to part-time work as an adjunct lecturer, but that barely covers the bills. After months tweaking resumes and cover letters, endless scans on Monster and Craigslist, he decided to take a reconnaissance mission to the dark side. He posted a fake job on Craigslist to gauge the competition for the kind of position he applied for all the time: administrative assistant. He joins us with lessons learned in just a moment.

We want to hear from overqualified applicants in our audience. What's your job search strategy? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Eric Auld wrote on - about his Craigslist experiment in a piece on the blog Thought Catalog, and he joins us now from member station WAMC in Albany. And nice to have you with us today.

ERIC AULD: Hi. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And so you designed a job that - the kind of job you applied for all the time, administrative assistant. You tried to make it as generic as possible.

AULD: Yeah. This was the type of job that I regularly came across while searching for jobs, especially on Craigslist. I usually apply to two types of jobs. The first being teaching positions or publishing positions or any position I can use my master's in English for, and those other jobs being those lower-end, entry level kind of positions that everybody seems to be applying for nowadays. So I just wanted to see what my direct competition kind of looked like for those types of jobs. So...

CONAN: And why essentially you weren't getting them.

AULD: Yeah. Well, what really inspired me to create this job listing was the fact that I had applied to maybe 100 jobs in a course of a month, and I know that that's nothing compared to some other stories that I've heard, but I had heard from fewer than 5 percent of those positions. And actually, some - most of the 5 percent that I did hear from seem to be job scams trying to get my personal information.

CONAN: I see. And was part of this a little, you know, I've got a master's degree. After all this, they should take me more seriously.

AULD: Yeah, yeah. That was a bit of my frustration. My original assumption was I, you know, I have a master's degree. And I know other people with master's degrees and even PH.D.s who apply for these types of jobs, and they just never hear back.

CONAN: Hmm. So interestingly, you post the ad on Craigslist, and in the space of 24 hours, you are overwhelmed.

AULD: Yeah. I received about 650 replies just in that one day alone. So I immediately took down the ad because I couldn't take anymore.


CONAN: And the analysis of who was applying, the ad said experience preferred but not mandatory. So you were looking at the various qualifications of the candidates, and it turned out that only a very, very small fraction have master's degrees.

AULD: Yeah. I was a bit surprised by that, that not so many people with master's degrees were applying for this type of position, but I was intrigued by the fact that the highest number of people who applied with a degree had bachelor's degrees. So there was still a bit of a college education or a lot of a college education applying to these lower-end kind of positions.

CONAN: The $12 an hour job.

AULD: Yeah, $12, $13 an hour in Midtown Manhattan.

CONAN: And it was interesting, though, you also got a lot of responses with people who have a lot of experience as administrative assistants.

AULD: Yeah. I at least three quarters of the applicants all had some experience with this exact type of position, so administrative assistant or clerical experience. And 10 percent - this is the number that shocked me the most: 10 percent or around 62 applicants had 10 or more years of experience, applying for this job that really, based on their previous experiences, seem to be even beneath them based on the jobs they had worked in the past.

CONAN: And so you arrived at a set of conclusions about this - well, the first one obvious: you need to figure out a way to make your resume stick out from other 650.

AULD: Exactly. I - staring at those 650 emails, I came to the conclusion that what I had been doing with my Craigslist applications - essentially, metaphorically taking my resume and throwing it into the great abyss, hoping that someone would finally catch it. And I think many people, at least these 650 people, are doing the same, exact thing.

CONAN: It's interesting, though, as you look at the experience - no experience, 24 percent, one to two years, 22 percent, as many as 10 years, 10 percent - one of the reasons you're not getting responses from these jobs, there's a whole bunch of people better qualified than you.

AULD: Exactly. And that was one of my mantras, that - that was my main mantra that came out of this, as depressing as it was. Even for jobs, you know, like this, there will always be somebody better than you. So I'm kind of - I've took that and I've run with it and came up with a new mantra, which is that you really need to do whatever you can to stand out in these flood - this flood of resumes.

CONAN: I have to ask another question.

AULD: Yes.

CONAN: People will wonder: Aren't you being - well, this is deception. This is an ethical problem to post a non-existent job.

AULD: Yes. And I did consider that before I posted the fake job on Craigslist. And then I considered the number of jobs that I had already come across on Craigslist, which were doing more malicious things, like taking private information and not exactly being so honest with the applicants. So I didn't see that as as big of a deal because I wanted to show people that when you apply for these types of jobs, and when you do it in this way, you're not really making that much of an effect. There's more that you really have to do in order to make an impression.

CONAN: And what are you doing now that you think will be more effective?

AULD: Well, I've been networking a little bit more. I've - as soon as I saw all of those emails come in, I immediately went to my LinkedIn account and I updated it, so that I could become a little bit more noticeable. And I've also been using social networking more to kind of work my way up and expand my network. And actually, this article publishing - since I published this article, a few people have contacted me - not with job offers, but saying, you know, we can help you out in any way we can. Why don't you join my network online?

CONAN: We want to hear from those who are overqualified and underemployed: 800-989-8255. Email us: And let's see if we can begin with Gary, Gary with us from Louisville.

GARY: Hi, guys. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

AULD: Excellent.

GARY: Well, very simply, I caddied as a child and into my teens, and even into my 20s, and I wanted to break into a different sector. And I approached the private country clubs in my neighborhood, in my area, in my region by going to the caddy master and saying, I have experienced caddying. And I was able to make a lot of in-roads, especially within private clubs, because generally, the people in private clubs are financially a little bit more better off. And the people in golf, when they're there, are generally business people or owners of businesses. And it worked.

CONAN: And what business were you in before you went back to caddying?

GARY: I was in health care. I was actually a physician. And the only people I ever knew were my patients and, basically, drug reps. And I wanted to break into medical device industry. And during my MBA, I went back out on the course when I had free time - I didn't want to go back to clinical - and was able to make connections with a variety of different health care sector jobs. And when you speak about administrative assistants, the capabilities and functionality of walking under a course and meeting someone who owns an office - whether it'll be an insurance or banking or hospital or health care - is a really good place to go.

CONAN: Network...

GARY: Plenty of opportunity.

CONAN: Well, has it worked out, Gary?

GARY: Absolutely. I've never been happier. I work with a large company, a subsidiary of a large health care company. I paid some dues with that, and I guess that some people would say it's humility. But for me, I like the job of being outside, and the pay isn't too bad in the private clubs. And you just have to make connections with people that are either are members, go to them and say, hey, I'd like to try to caddy. Or go to the caddy master, bring your resume and say, hey, you know, I want to caddy here. It sounds fairly simple, but it's five hours of your time, you're outside, and it's a pretty nice kick while you're waiting.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Gary. Appreciate it. Interesting advice. I'm not sure if you have experienced caddying, Eric.

AULD: No. Not really. I do golf maybe once a year. I usually end up in the sand trap.

CONAN: Let's go next to Roger, and Roger's with us from Nashville.

ROGER: Yes. I was unemployed for two years, applied everywhere.

CONAN: And what is your claim to being overqualified?

ROGER: Well, I've got a master's degree in Divinity and Greek and Hebrew. I applied everywhere. I applied at Waffle House. To this day, they haven't called me back. And finally, they had the flood in 2010 here in Nashville.

CONAN: Oh, terrible flood there. Yeah.

ROGER: Oh, yes. And they needed all kinds of help cleaning and painting. And I applied at a painting contractor and told them I had an 11th-grade education, and they hired me.

CONAN: So, a little underreporting.


ROGER: Yes. Because - because I'm 54. Nobody's going to hire me with a master's degree in anything, you know, that - any job available to me. You know, they're going to hire somebody because they think you're going to be around. Of course, I've been here two years, and I don't have any plans to go anywhere.

CONAN: And so you're still painting?


CONAN: And you're getting by with that?

ROGER: Well, you know, I've got a peanut-butter-no-jelly sandwich, no chips. But you get used to it.

CONAN: Well, stick with it, and better luck.

ROGER: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. We're talking with Eric Auld, who put a fake ad on Craigslist to gauge the competition for an administrative assistant job. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And that call, Eric, raises another question. Not only are there people with 10 years experience of being an administrative assistant, why would anybody hire a guy with a master's degree when they figure that the first time a teaching job or a publishing job comes open, they're going to go do that?

AULD: Well, that's exactly what a lot of HR representatives - they responded to this article, and they said, actually, your master's degree is hurting you for jobs like this. But I think the - with the state of the job market, it's just a cold fact that people with bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in all sorts of areas have to apply to these types of jobs. And I think a large part of the appeal is the fact that it's a full-time job.

I'm an adjunct lecturer, but that's only part-time. I would give anything up. I would give up my part-time job as an adjunct lecturer to become a full-time administrative assistant, because those are guaranteed hours, and it's all-year-round.

CONAN: And health care, maybe.

AULD: And health care. Yes, benefits.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bill, and Bill's on the line with us from Iowa City.

BILL: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

BILL: I was just - I just wanted to make a comment. I have - no higher education, and I've been all over the country, and I've never had a problem getting a job anywhere. And I feel like me telling prospective employers that, you know, that I've been working full-time since I was 16 years old and call any of these people that I worked for and they will tell you that I'm dependable and I will do a great job goes so much farther than having any sort of degree - which, at this point, everybody has.

AULD: Yeah.

CONAN: That's - it's an important point, Bill, a work history and people who will vouch for you is obviously very important. Yet you look at the statistics, and people with college degrees are doing a lot better than people who don't have them.

BILL: Yeah. And I'm not sure if that's - I don't know if that's such a straight statistic. I'm wondering if, you know, most people that go to college are maybe more ambitious people, and maybe people that don't go to college are held back for some reason or another and are less ambitious. But maybe an ambitious person without an education is actually the combination that you would want to go into, because you don't have debt and you're still, you know, guaranteed work even in - I've lived in Portland, Oregon, which is, you know, very high unemployment rates, especially for young people. And even there, immediately, I was able to get a job that people with college degrees were applying for, but they had no experience. They'd never worked a full-time job.

CONAN: Well, Bill, thanks very much for the call, and it's a good point.

This is John writing us from Oklahoma City: I'm 51 years old, and here's my dumbing-down strategy. It got me my current job. I provide a one-page skills resume that highlights my experience that only pertains to the job I'm applying for. At the bottom, I put the phrase: chronological resume on request. In the interview, I mentioned no other jobs that didn't pertain to the job for which I was applying. You have to be humble and discreet if you are overqualified.

And, Eric Auld, does that sound like good advice?

AULD: That sounds like excellent advice, and that seems to be what many people are telling me if I'm applying for these entry-level positions.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, and let's go to - this is Greg, Greg with us from Nashville.

GREG: Hi. I'm on the other end of the spectrum, here. I just turned 61 years old. I've been working in marketing for 35 years, and I find myself now out of a job and trying to find employment as an older person, for one. But secondly, I don't have a college degree. And, you know, I've been vice president levels at several companies. I have had entire crews of marketing people working for me. And now, filling out a resume, sending it in, people just look the other way and say, no, you don't meet minimum requirement. You don't have a degree. So getting past the filtering system has been really quite difficult.

CONAN: And those filtering systems, especially if you're applying online, they - what they pick out and what they kick out is pretty substantial.

GREG: It is. You know, it's the sorting system. And if you don't hit, you know, nine out of 10 qualifications, it's into the circular file. And so that's really tough. Now, I don't want to have to lie on my resume to get me past the filter, because then there's a lot of explaining and the downside to that.

CONAN: And they might want to check with the Nobel Committee to see if it was accurate. Yeah.

GREG: Yeah, well, there it is. But at this point, I'm trying - I'm writing - I wrote 135 personal letters to friends on my LinkedIn network to ask, you know, who they know that might be hiring to get me at least an introduction past the HR department. Then when it gets kicked down to the HR, at least I'm a known quantity.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck, Greg.

GREG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

AULD: Good luck.

CONAN: And, Eric Auld, good luck to you. Are you back teaching in school this fall?

AULD: Yup. I should have two classes, but hopefully something else will come up.


CONAN: Well, good luck with that, too.

AULD: Thank you.

CONAN: Eric Auld is a writer and adjunct lecturer at SUNY Adirondack. He joined us today from member station WAMC in Albany. You can find a link to his piece "Get a Job: The Craigslist Experiment" on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, Ellen Langer, the mother of mindfulness joins us, and Murray Horwitz returns. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.