White Collar Reset: Only a test

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Bloomberg L.P. may be the last bastion of actual, paying journalism jobs in America. At a time of near-universal layoffs and hiring freezes, when even Conde Nast is bringing in consultants to slash payroll, the $25 billion financial news and information juggernaut employs more than 2,200 reporters and editors, hundreds of them in midtown Manhattan just a 30-minute train ride from my house. Every week the company's website advertises dozens of new postings, and not just he phantom kind populating Monster or Media Bistro.

And I had a connection. A former employee had a former boss who had an opening on his team for an editor, and he invited me in for an interview. We hit it off, and I must have done a passable job glossing over the gulf between my extensive general-interest magazine and minimal online financial editing experience because he agreed on the spot to sponsor me for the vacancy, cutting through the usual red tape. After six months spent holed up in my den in suburban New Jersey with little to show for it, this was the break I was looking for. There was only one thing standing between me and a return to financial solvency: the standard Bloomberg writing and editing test.

So a week and a half later, I arrived at Bloomberg's Lexington Avenue headquarters to take the test, my first since a traffic court judge ordered me to attend a driver's safety course in 1989 (I scored a 98 percent on that one, btw). "Welcome to Bloomberg Mr. Cohen," said the concierge who greets every visitor by name the instant they step off the sixth-floor elevator into the arena-sized glass-and-steel atrium housing the main financial news nerve center. "Would like something to eat?"

Just beyond the reception area, dozens of people in their twenties helped themselves to a snack bar of free cookies, chips, yogurt, fresh fruit, espresso and fountain drinks. Clutching their freebies, they crossed the koi pond to the outdoor rock garden and rode escalators to broadcast studios and news floors that seemed to extend hundreds of yards in every direction. Overhead LCD screens flashed with images of clouds and temperature readings and outtakes from Bloomberg's live news feeds, while all around glass conference rooms named for Bloomberg bureaus glowed with vibrant mood lighting, creating the illusion that I was actually looking in, Star-Trek-style, on the holograms of meetings in a blue Boston, green Dusseldorf or lavender London.

"Mr Cohen . . . Mr. Cohen, are you ready for your test?"

My human relations minder led me into one of the newsrooms, sat me in front of a computer and explained that I would have three hours to complete all five sections. "Are you ready to start yet?" she asked, as I fiddled with the mouse and nonchalantly tried to sneak a peak at the first couple of questions. "Okay, go."

. . . Question 2. What is the difference between a futures contract and an options contract?

Oh sh*t.

Luckily, I knew the answer to the next question and a few of the ones after that, and my heart rate eventually settled down below 120. By the editing and writing sections, I actually felt myself getting into a groove, and when I reached Part 5, the essay question, I still had 45 minutes left to wow them with the charming self-deprecating essay style on display in this space every week.

Post test, I called my wife from the in-house snack bar. "Hi honey. I think it went well . . . How many kiwis do you want me to bring home?" I asked, pocketing the fruit. "And these plantain chips look good."

Five days later, I got a call from my sponsor. "We got your results. You did fine," he said. "Unfortunately, I just don't think it would make sense for us to push forward with your application right now."

"It's just a weird time," he added charitably. "They're really only considering candidates who score a 95."

I screwed up my courage to ask for my score. "Um, a little under 80." I apparently got the futures/options question wrong on the quiz and one other. "The other area that really hurt you was the essay," he said. "They thought it was too specific."

The next night was my weekly career counseling session with the Five O'Clock Club. For various reasons (being out of town, the July 4th holiday, pure inertia) I had missed the previous several sessions, and many of the people I remembered from the last time I was there looked to be gone. "Does that mean they found jobs?" I asked, with the slightest twinge of envy.

"Oh no," responded my job coach, setting me straight. "Summer is just a busy time for people to be away."

The night's lecture was "Getting The Most Out of Your Informational Interviews." The gist of it was how crucial these encounters are for generating the six to ten serious leads that the Five O'Clock Club urges all members to be pursuing at all times. The speaker walked us through how to structure these interviews (Pleasantries, the Pitch, the Q&A, etc), and the proper format for the thank you letter after, not to be confused with the "influencing letter" you want to send following a formal job interview. For scaring up more informational interviews, she strongly encouraged us to spend time hitting the company profiles at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue. "I shouldn't have to tell you what a great resource it is, and the librarians are extremely helpful."

Later, we broke into our individual groups. As we went around the table sharing our progress from the previous week, I thought about my Bloomberg test and all I had gotten wrong, and not just during those three hours. At some level, I think, I've been operating on the assumption that talent and experience will be enough to see through this crisis as it always has in the past. In the process, I think I may also be guilty of not doing everything I can to counter the astronomical odds against me. That it never would have occurred to me to try something so prosaic as hitting the library is obviously a problem that needs fixing, and fast. This isn't a game. I'd say there's a science to it, but that wouldn't be quite right either. This is a serious business, a deadly serious business that could drop my wife and I out of the middle class to a place we may never recover from.

At the end of the evening, we came to Harry, a senior sales associate with 25 years in the telecommunications industry who had a story to share about a job he first started interviewing for last March. He described how over the course of the past four months, he had interviewed with 15 different people at the firm, while unbeknownst to him, 45 other candidates were simultaneously being run through the same drill. In fact, it wasn't until that very afternoon that the company had called to inform him . . . they wanted to make him an offer.

We burst into applause. Although I'd never met Harry before, I felt like clapping him on the back, but then he said something that really floored me. It turns out Harry had only been attending the Five O'Clock Club for three weeks, so he still had 13 sessions remaining on his membership. "So I was wondering if it would be okay if I kept coming?" he asked. "With this economy, I figure you can't be too careful. And if I ever get laid off again, I want to be more prepared. Besides, I've come to realize how much about the process I don't know."

Our group leader told Harry of course, we'd be delighted to have him. It's a lesson worth remembering.

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