Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Early in chapter one of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich notes that, in terms of low‐wage work, “the want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time.” Explain why this is so. 

The author finds that want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time. This is because establishments that hire poorly paid workers often run want ads even when they don't really need new employees. Such high turnover means that employment slots can open up overnight, and establishments must be ready to fill them immediately with resumes provided by want ads. Such highly unreliable ads are only meant to furnish these establishments with an ongoing selection of resumes so that when a position opens up managers can quickly fill it. Housekeeping staff are crucial to a motel's viability. Dirty rooms (even at a low-cost motel) will negatively affect customer satisfaction rates. By extension, unhappy guests never become repeat customers.

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To her disappointment, the author discovers that want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time.

This is because the want ads are an "insurance policy" for establishments that hire only minimum wage workers. Since such workers are poorly paid, they often leave when better job offers come along. The high turnover means that employment slots can open up at any time. This is why these establishments must run constant ads for non-existent positions.

Take for example a motel or bed & breakfast. There is usually a high turnover of housekeeping staff in these establishments. Poor pay, unreliable hours, and grimy work make it a challenge to keep such positions filled for a reasonable length of time. The want ads have only one purpose: to furnish the establishment with an ongoing selection of resumes so that when a position opens up managers can quickly fill it. Housekeeping staff are crucial to a motel's viability. Dirty rooms (even at a low-cost motel) will negatively affect customer satisfaction rates. By extension, unhappy guests never become repeat customers.

In chapter 1, the author discovers that want ads do little to inform anyone about the availability of "real" jobs. Frustrated by the fact that she has had no response to the many resumes she sent out, she finally approaches a big discount chain hotel for a housekeeping job. At the hotel, she is instead directed to the hotel's "family restaurant." There, the manager asks no questions before hiring the author on the spot for a waitress position. For her part, the author is tempted to tell the manager that she is merely conducting an experiment and not necessarily interested in a job at his restaurant.

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Ehrenreich finds out after applying to many jobs through the want ads, that most of the jobs aren't available. These ads are, instead, what she refers to as the "employers' insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce" (15). Many businesses such as hotel chains constantly run these want ads, even if they don't actually have jobs available at that time. Their workforces do not tend to last long in badly paid positions and are constantly quitting and leaving; therefore, the employers never know when a position might open up. The employers run these ads, but they only employ people if applicants show up at just the right moment when a job is actually open. The employers want to fill these jobs quickly, but simply responding to an ad is no guarantee of a job. Instead, an applicant must show up at a time that turns out to be right for the employer. This is another way in which making a living at minimum-wage jobs is quite difficult.

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Barbara Ehrenreich is a writer who decides to see what it is like for a person without a college degree or training (things she does have in her actual life) to live solely by working minimum-wage jobs in different parts of the country. She documents her findings in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

In the first chapter of the book Ehrenreich starts her search in Key West, Florida. After she rents a rather questionable place to live, she begins her job hunting. She fills out applications at many different kinds of places based on the want ads, but after a few fruitless days of searching she discovers the truth about these ads. 

Only later will I realize that the want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time. They are, as I should have guessed..., the employers' insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce. Most of the big hotels run ads almost continually, if only to build a supply of applicants to replace the current workers as they drift away or are fired, so finding a job is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and flexible enough to take whatever is being offered that day.

Obviously, at least in Key West at this time, the want ads are nothing more than a list of places which have hired in the past and will undoubtedly do so again in the future; however, for now none of those jobs are available. It is one of the first lessons she learns on this journey across America.

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