Taking one's fate in one's own hands is a not uncommon expression and one that rolls easily enough off the tongue. But I discovered that taking one's fate in one's own hands could turn out to be much more exhausting and distressing than you would suppose, even without the added stress of the morning's unsettling events. Since the first item on the afternoon's fate management agenda was to find employment I sought out the various labor exchanges. Before the present crisis I hadn't been overly concerned with such operations beyond a vague knowledge that such things existed. It came as something of a surprise that the city supported not one or two but five of them. You'd think it would be a cut and dried sort of thing, one agency sufficing for the needs of any given city. You'd think everyone looking for employees would punch in their needs to a central database, everyone looking for employment would punch in their desires and there you'd have it. But such was not the case.
On further interrogating the public information kiosk that informed me of the five agencies I determined that one of them was in fact the official appendage of the government's labor administration. I was in no way inclined to deal too closely with any branch of the government at the moment. The other four exchanges were all private initiatives whose brief introductory messages all seemed to indicate that their purpose was to match special skills to special positions. Well, good enough. I noted down their locations and began navigating the slidewalks.
In the interests of efficiency I aimed for the agency in closest proximity. Arriving at the listed address I felt a sense of promise. It was located in a small office building; modest and understated surroundings but the sort that gave off an aura of respectability and quiet professionalism. None of the glitter and pretense of a firm pushing their image, just the sense that these people knew their business and had no need to put up a show to convince the world of the fact. Following the building's directory I identified their particular corner of the building and entered through a plain but substantial, highly polished wooden door.
The reception area of the firm's office was in keeping with the image projected so far. All very quiet, walls of subdued colors, plentiful but unobtrusive plants, a selection of very tasteful artwork artfully arranged. Behind a semi-circular desk, guarding the inner-sanctums, sat a youngish fellow, gray of suit and pink of face, intently working away on a display console. He glanced up, seeming a bit surprised at my approach.
"May I help you?" he asked, the tone making it sound more like an unaccustomed question than a standard greeting for a potential client.
"Yes," I replied, putting out as much positive energy as possible. "I am in search of employment and I am given to understand that is your stock in trade."
"Well, ah, do you have an appointment?"
"Um, no. I wasn't aware that an appointment is required."
"Actually, Mister, ah..."
"Malvern. Dunstan Malvern."
"Actually, Mister Malvern, we are an agency that services the needs of employers requiring a variety of highly specialized skills. As a general rule, they provide us with their requirements and we seek out likely candidates to meet them. As a general rule we do not encourage drop-ins, but if you'd like, you may provide us with details as to your area of specialization and your qualifications and, if your skills are appropriate, we will add you to our database for consideration should an appropriate position become available."
"I was rather hoping you might have something more immediately available?"
He looked dubiously at me, then consulted his console for a few moments.
"You wouldn't happen to have a background in sub-molecular engineering, perhaps? A very hot field at the moment. We have a number of positions going begging."
"No, I've never delved into that."
"Marine bio-mechanics with expertise in ultra-deep life zones?"
"Not that I can recall."
"Never been off-world."
The look that came into his eyes and the slight downward twist of the mouth told me all I needed to know. I mumbled a thanks for your time and hastily slipped out the highly polished wooden door, feeling as out of place as a mouse in a cat show.
By the time I reached the next agency I had regained at least some of my composure. It was just bad luck that I'd selected the most exclusive job agency on the planet to begin my job hunt. Things would pick up shortly. I consulted my list and steered for the next closest address, several slidewalks and a fair bit of walking away.
This firm proved to be a bit more like what I would have expected of a job agency. It was located in the midst of an office district, a bustling area near the financial district. Somberly professional looking people were moving purposefully along the streets, coming and going from the granite and marble faced buildings through imperious bronze framed doors. It was the very picture of commercial vigor.
I located the agency with no difficulty, a suite of offices on the fourth floor with a steady stream of, I presumed, clients coming and going. The frosted glass automatic doors were in constant motion, sliding back and forth and often not making it to the closed position before reversing direction again. That was a promising sight. Here there was no sign of the exclusivity exhibited at my first stop.
Inside was a spacious, well populated waiting area. A counter across the back wall held three workstations, crewed by three eager looking young people, two men and a woman. Just as I entered the young woman concluded her dealings with a client, who proceeded towards a vacant chair in the waiting area. Seeing none of the many seated figures move towards her station I stepped up and took the newly vacated position.
"Good afternoon," she said brightly. "How may I help you?"
"I am, of course, seeking a position. I trust you'll be able to find me a niche somewhere?"
"Our system is linked to affiliated agencies on all three continents. We always say, if we can't place you, then you can't be placed. But if that happens it will be a first for this agency."
"A high success rate, you say?"
"In the three years that I've worked here, I've yet to see us fail. Now, what is your particular area of interest?"
"Well, I'm rather at a crossroads at the moment. I've dabbled in a number of fields and I'm really not quite sure what direction I should steer now. Perhaps you could make a few suggestions? What's hot at the moment and such."
"Very well. If you'll punch in your particulars and authorize access we'll call up your records and let the system match you up to a selection of possibles which you may wish to explore in more detail."
Mounted on my side of the counter, unobtrusively set in the polymerized wood counter top, was a small screen, keyboard and veripad. I entered my name, clicked on the block indicating that I wished my work record released to the agency, thumbed in a verification and waited. The clerk opposite glanced briefly at the response on her display.
"Very good, Mr. Malvern. Our electronic matchmaker is shifting through thousands of openings at this moment and compiling a list of those most appropriate for someone of your skills, education and experience. When it's finished, one of our counselors will review them with you. If you'll have a seat, it shouldn't be more than a few minutes."
I found an empty seat and settled in for the short wait. With comforting frequency the door behind and to the side of the counter opened and a well dressed man called out a name. One by one my companions in waiting entered. Periodically other men and women emerged from the door, bearing small manila envelopes. I presumed they contained vital instructions pertaining to their new employment.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then still more minutes. It occurred to me that, of the occupants of the waiting area, there had been a complete turnover with the exception of myself and the three workers behind their stations. I began to grow just a bit concerned. Then the door opened and the well-dressed man emerged. However, instead of calling a name he went up to the young woman at the counter. They spoke in low tones. He toggled the keyboard. They both stared at the display. The well-dressed fellow retreated back to the inner sanctum. First one, then the other of the woman's co-workers came over and stared at the display. I began to get the feeling that I would not shortly be departing with my manila envelope. Finally she called out in a voice that was just a bit tremulous.
"Um, Mr. Malvern?" She signaled me to approach with a small gesture of the hand.
I approached, with a very bad feeling developing in the pit of my stomach.
"We, um, don't seem to have anything for you, Mr. Malvern," she said. There was a long pause. "Perhaps if you call again in a few days?"
There was a strange quality to her voice that hadn't been there before. It seemed slightly higher pitched than when I spoke to her earlier, somehow oddly tentative. I put it down to embarrassment at the agency having failed after her enthusiastic introduction. I said a brief thanks, yes I'd check again in a few days, and departed. Two down, two to go. I headed for the third of the private agencies with a growing sense of anxiety.
This particular place had a bit more of the workaday air about it. As did number four on the list, which turned out to be a near neighbor. In fact, when I entered the latter agency I had the strongest sense of deja vu, a sense which was even stronger when I departed. Both of them were in a section of town that hosted a variety of light industries, shops and offices. Both occupied premises in cookie cutter utilitarian buildings, sharing floors with drudge accountancy firms, discount materials brokers, design shops specializing in the cheap and expendable and similar unglamorous enterprises. Decor was of the mass produced and mass selected variety. No doubt a junior clerk had in the ancient past sent in a specification of how much floor and wall space were to be devoted to art of a sort and some firm specializing in instant offices had dumped in the appropriate quantity. Most had probably never been moved from their original places of deposition. Both offices had that air of scruffiness, of dust films and scuff marks that had been around a bit too long, that gave a sense that all the occupants, staff included, were merely passing through and not residents with enough of a stake in the operation to worry about it. It was not a promising atmosphere.
Another peculiar similarity between the two agencies arose when I'd finally wended my way through the lines to the clerks who were taking down the vitals and initiating supplicants into the system. At both agencies I'd barely seated myself in the waiting area after registering before being called back and informed that, we're terribly sorry, but there's nothing available at the moment. Perhaps if you call again in a week, or two or three? I left both agencies with an incrementally heavier heart. All that was left now was the official government labor exchange. Noting that the afternoon was growing old I hastened along to my last hope, with all fingers crossed that they wouldn't close early. I had developed a paranoid sense that if I didn't line something up this afternoon, tomorrow would be too late.
Fortunately, with the help of the slidewalks I managed to make it to Government Center, located the labor exchange office in a sub-basement off to the side and slipped through the doors moments before the closed sign flashed on. There were still a handful of applicants in the lobby area and office policy, I discovered, was to service all who were inside at closing time. It did not appear to be a policy that sat well with the clerks at the dozen or so stations. They were all clearly anxious to get it all done with and be gone for the day. I took a seat on one of the hard benches that were the primary furnishings of the place to catch my breath.
"Read the sign," a sharp voice commanded. After a very pointed pause it appended an even sharper "Please."
I looked around for the source. The clerk at the nearest station, a dark haired, dark eyed, middling aged woman with a distinctly unhappy set to her mouth was glaring in my general direction. Following the direction of her eyes I looked behind me. A display station was mounted in the wall near the door. Above it, in very large letters, was a sign reading "Check in here. You will be called."
I went to the terminal and entered the required information. Names, last, first and middle. Verify it with a thumb. This part was getting routine. The display blanked for a few moments, then flashed a "be seated" message. Trying to be very inconspicuous I returned to my seat and sat quietly while, one by one, the stations cleared and my bench companions were called up.
Finally all the benches were empty but for myself. Then a station cleared. Unfortunately, it was the dark haired woman's station, someone who I sensed had already developed a dislike for me. I had a distinctly uneasy feeling about this. She pounded a few keys as the departing customer made his way to the door. Then she called out "Malvern, Dunstan." I gingerly went forward and stood before her station.
"Have a seat, Mr. Malvern," she said in a tired voice. "Any preferences in work positions?"
"No, no. I'm open to most anything."
"OK. That's good. Makes it easier. Let's see what the computer has come up with in your line."
She toggled a key. I watched the expression on her face. After the last three agencies I had a terrible premonition as to what would happen next. Scarcely breathing I waited for the expressions of surprise and confusion. But they never came. The woman's face remained a mask of weariness overlaying boredom, with touches of irritation thrown in. She studied the screen for several long minutes. She toggled the keys a few more times. Then her face brightened. I allowed a small flame of hope to flicker into existence.
She called out to her co-workers. Several of them who had just finished up with their customers came over and glanced at the display.
"Did you verify it?" one asked.
"Certainly I did. It's for real."
They clapped her on the back and offered congratulations, then returned to their stations. She turned back to me, her dark eyes now bright.
"Were you aware that your file has been flagged with a J25W, Mr. Malvern?"
"No, I wasn't. I don't even know what a J25W is."
"Not surprising. It's the first I've ever seen. Old Jermond's seen a dozen he claims, but he's been here twenty years or more. Actually, it's so unusual we have a little office pool on it. Whoever comes up with a J25 code wins the pot. And it's been so long since anyone's won it that it should pay for me to go on a nice trip to somewhere sunny, warm and quiet."
"May I ask what a J25W is?"
"It's a code placed on your work record by Central Labor Statistics. It indicates an excessive number of complaints of unsatisfactory job performance. The W portion of the code indicates pending litigation related to prior job performance. While it doesn't bar anyone from hiring you, it doesn't exactly encourage them, obviously. I do show a few positions you might apply for anyway. I doubt they'll accept you but I'll forward your application if you want."
Her fingers, a good deal more energetic now, flew over the keyboard. She sat back and waited, eyes half closed, a trace of a smile turning up the corners of her tight mouth. No doubt she was already mentally on vacation. A soft beep brought her back.
"Well, that one's a negative. And that one. Two more have closed for the day. You can call back in the morning, if you like, for the replies on the other two, though I doubt it'll be any different."
"Thank you. I'll do that," I said. I knew I wouldn't bother. It was clear to me already what the replies would be in the morning. I left her drifting back to her vacation.
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