Job Hunt's Wild Side in Russia

With employment no longer guaranteed by state, applicants face frustration of cryptic want ads, sexism and overly blunt bosses. Some aspiring office workers even try go-go dancing to gain attention.


MOSCOW — Yulia wanted work as an accountant. So she pulled on a tight green miniskirt, squeezed into saucy high heels and pranced onto the stage of a hotel ballroom one recent night, batting her lashes and swinging her hips as she tried to win a job balancing books.

Nearby danced Valeria, hopeful of landing a managerial post. Also Irina, in body-hugging white, her law school courses all but forgotten as she flirted behind a cat-eye mask and dreamed of finding secretarial work.

Music boomed. Champagne corks popped. From the audience, businessmen studied the stage, looking, they said, for the perfect typist or waitress or nurse or assistant. An employment agency had set up this "job fair"--with 150 young women strutting their stuff to reel in a paycheck.

To introduce themselves, the women answered questions such as: "Describe your ideal boss." At the emcee's command, each dragged a man from the audience and shimmied with him on stage.

In her turn at the microphone, Valeria Yelatushkin was asked to explain how she might turn away a pesky visitor demanding to see her boss--her sole chance to display her professional skills.

Although a summary of her work experience was available backstage, for those who bothered to ask, she acknowledged that prospective employers might find it "hard to see my qualifications."

Still, she thought that this show might help her snag a job.

"I still have hope," she said.

And why not? The go-go atmosphere of this job fair might have been slightly unorthodox, but surely not much crazier than the average hunt for work in Moscow. With the economy crumbling and politicians fumbling, finding a job has become a wild free-for-all.

In the old days, when the Soviet system made unemployment a crime, the government funneled every able adult into a job. Bureaucrats sat in on oral exams at universities and technical schools, then assigned graduates for state enterprises. No one needed a resume. No one sent out a portfolio. That cushy system dissolved with the Soviet Union.

Now citizens are on their own. And they're finding job hunting remarkably frustrating.

"They're not used to it," said Alexander Tkachenko, a demographer who heads the Labor Ministry's population department. "Before, everything was well-defined: You got a job when you got out of school. That was our planned economy."

The capitalist system, which requires a good deal of self-promotion, "is only now beginning to grow," he added. "We understand we need to work on it."

A few helpful hints have hit the market--the Russian version of Cosmopolitan magazine recently printed tips on writing resumes. But many students still graduate with no idea of how to write a cover letter.

Job fairs of the Western sort have popped up on a few big-city college campuses, including Moscow State University. But there, too, students are on their own, with no career counseling or placement service.

Sitting and Waiting for Offer

The old method of finding a job--sitting and waiting for an offer--still works for some graduates. Invitations from government ministries flow to young scientists and economists.

Ambitious students, however, tend to scorn such jobs.

"Maybe it's interesting work, but they have no money and no good equipment," said Volodya Kozlov, 24, an honors physics graduate who turned down several research posts to take up work as an accountant for a small American firm.

At least Kozlov had the luxury of rejecting offers: Many of his peers hold degrees in fields now dismissed as irrelevant, such as communal agriculture, textile manufacturing or food processing.

"Our system of preparing professionals has not adjusted," Tkachenko said. "We put out people [ready to work] in fields that we need to get rid of."

Thus, even though young adults are stereotyped as ideal hires--supposedly more energetic and more flexible than their parents--people younger than 30 account for 36% of Russia's unemployed.

Only one group has it easy: well-educated Russians who speak fluent English.

The English-language Moscow Times runs pages of advertisements from Western firms offering good salaries for accountants, translators, computer specialists and sales representatives. Secretaries and drivers are in high demand too.

But tough luck dogs those who do not speak English.

Of course, there is that cafe around the corner from the Moscow Circus. They're looking for janitors. And a few blocks away, there's a grungy alley bakery that needs a cashier.

The only way to learn about those vacancies, however, is to walk by and read the hand-lettered signs taped to the business' doors--not the most efficient method.

A few openings are easier to spot. In nearly every Moscow subway car, a poster woos potential train drivers with promises of fat pensions and free uniforms. Yet only men ages 18 to 40 may apply--and only if they have served in the army and completed middle school.

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