When I finished University I spent the following three years unemployed. I won’t for one second put all of the blame on other people. I was not in the right headspace to move to London to pursue a journalism or editorial job (given that my degree was in Creative Writing) and so my options were limited. They became even more limited when I moved out of East London and further into the countryside (my parents moved and as I was unemployed I went with them).
My list of jobs that I could do became considerably smaller given the rural area I was now living in. I was overqualified for the factory and cleaning jobs that were the mainstay of the area, in fact with a degree I was considered overqualified for most of the jobs in the local area.
But I want to tell you a story of a time when my ideal job opened up for me. It was working in a bookshop. More specifically it would have been working at Waterstones. For those that don’t know Waterstones, it’s possibly the largest book retailer in the UK (I’m unsure of it’s status outside of the UK). At face value you would see this as just another basic retail position, and in essence it is, unless you actually love books like I do. To be surrounded by books, to have people come in and want to talk about books with you, it’s a dream for me. There’s just something about books and literature that I can’t quite explain to people who don’t get it.
So, back to this job opportunity. The briefing said “must be knowledgeable about books, confident to give recommendations and talk about books” and “have experience in a retail environment”. Tick and tick. I had both of those given my three years studying literature to degree standard and my six months retail work before University. I was a shoe-in for this job and I actually spent an entire day tailoring and crafting my opening letter and CV because I was that excited about working in the store.
I submitted my application and waited. It wasn’t long before I got a reply.
“We’re sorry, your application has not been successful.”
Not my first rejection letter but definitely the first one I couldn’t understand. Did you mean to tell me I hadn’t even made it to an interview? On paper I was the perfect candidate for this job yet I’d been turned down. Thus I pursued the company and followed up with them, phoning them to find out just why I had been turned down without even an interview.
After waiting on the phone I got through to the department that would have deemed me unsuitable for the job. I enquired as to why I was rejected at such an early stage in the process, given my experience, and they couldn’t offer me an explanation. We spoke on the phone for a while and then they told me they would try and find my application to see what exactly happened.
I waited while they searched.
“Oh yes, here it is. You don’t have any retail experience in a book sales environment. That’s why you would have been turned down.”
Hold up. Hold up. So I couldn’t work in a bookstore because I had never worked in a bookstore before? It was a horrible circle that wasn’t all that strange to me, I’d encountered a lot of these “must have specific experience AND specific degree” adverts before (journalism being one of the worst culprits for it). But I had a Literature degree AND retail experience. Surely a three year degree could fill in for the “spent time around books” section. And who is more comfortable and confident talking about books than a Literature student/graduate? Nobody.
Now, I’ve been in Waterstones a lot both before and after this application. The people I have encountered (not naming names or stores) aren’t exactly passionate about books, they aren’t literary enthusiasts and they probably couldn’t tell you the difference between The Divine Comedy and The Odyssey without looking it up on the computer.
So this is what I took away from this experience; two weeks work experience in a second-hand bookstore is more valuable and appreciated than a three year literature degree.
It still makes me sick to my stomach that Waterstones rejected me based on that stupid and juvenile criteria. I want there to be an investigation into every single Waterstones employee and anybody who didn’t have book sales experience before they joined should be let go because they don’t fulfil the criteria for which I was apparently being judged.
It’s a sickening state of the world when companies can give honest and genuine people the runaround when all we are trying to do is find a job we are comfortable in. Literature has always been one of the most important things in my life as far back as I can remember, but because I’ve never worked in a bookshop apparently I can’t work in a bookshop. But add on top of that I’m not experienced enough to go into journalism or editorial positions (because like hell are they giving people a chance these days) and it sort of makes me feel like my entire degree was worthless.
No wonder I find myself disillusioned in this world when companies are more willing to take a sixteen year-old school-leaver with no love of literature who has done two weeks work experience in a bookshop over somebody who has lived and breathed literature for most of their life and studied it to a degree standard.