Trial by hire

Patrick Rathbun is a December 2002 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s School of Mass Communications and Information Studies

You’ve seen me before. I might have been the greeter at that conference you attended last year or the warehouse attendant who boxed and shipped your exercise equipment, or I might have been selling a home-security system at your doorstep.

I’ve worked so many places lately that you might recognize me from somewhere I don’t recall ever working at. As a recent college grad and entrant into the sagging job force, I’ve been so muddled, I can’t separate one job from another. They all run together, and they only remind me of what I don’t want to choose as a career.

In June, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 6.4 percent national unemployment rate. And 900,000 more people have become unemployed since March, according to the bureau’s Web site. Temporary employees increased by more than 300,000 and total more than 5 million in the United States, according to the bureau’s May statistics.

Given this gloomy news, I’m preoccupied with productivity. I’m constantly comparing my output to that of other employees. I’m caught up in a look-over-your-shoulder job paranoia because I’ve seen so many temps dismissed, and I’m afraid of being let go.

I don’t know whether to keep to myself or stand out by introducing fart jokes into the office chatter. I don’t know whether to work through lunch or bring pizza for everyone. Should I be deadpan or diligent in the workplace? There has to be some way to prove myself a desirable candidate for full-time employment.

I’m careful never to show emotion or even to snack. A glum expression might be viewed as a sign that I’m carrying too much emotional baggage. Snacking might be disruptive to my working neighbors, and if I don’t have enough to share, that might result in dismissal for being inconsiderate.

I’m inquisitive but mindful that too many questions could be interpreted as attempts to eschew responsibility or procrastinate. I ask full-timers how long it took for them to be hired, but then I lament that the question might be perceived as presumptuous.

It’s OK, though; at least I have temporary security. I’m not sure how much being exposed to these jobs and workplaces has enriched me, but they’ve surely made me feel fortunate to have a job, if only for a short while. But it’s hard to keep my nose to the grindstone when I’m always looking over my shoulder.