Strictly Business: Benton lucky to be inside man

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Many years ago I ran into an old high school buddy while on a camping trip with my family. We spent an evening over a campfire talking about where our lives had taken us in the years since we'd parted ways.

Bob had spent his career up to that point at a short-line railroad where his father also had worked. He told me how he'd landed the job: while job seekers lined up outside the company office for the coveted position, his father took him through a back door to a job that was just waiting for him. "I feel a bit guilty about that," he told me.

Such is the unfair world of employment in which qualified, legitimate job seekers compete against candidates who come though the back door of nepotism, privilege, and inside connections. It's always been that way, and always will be. Many of us have been either victims or beneficiaries of such backroom deals.

That memory come to mind with last week's news that the Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke will hire state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as director of the county's environmental services department. Benton isn't quite coming through the back door: he's walking through a front door no one else knew was open, since the job has never been posted. The Columbian reported Thursday that Benton appears not to meet the minimum job requirements for the professional -- not political -- job, and that Madore has created a new job description, not yet approved, for the favored candidate.

Most of us can only dream of having a job created just for us. Instead, we're fighting ever harder for any employment as the number of skilled workers outstrips the number of jobs emerging in today's economy. In Clark County, with our slow economic recovery, there were 23,580 residents out of work in February. Many others were working part time because they couldn't find full-time work, or had given up the job search entirely. The unemployed who can't write their own job ticket receive plenty of advice. Some involves techniques: writing a sparking résumé and selling your strengths during a job interview. Other suggestions require difficult life changes: a new career, a return to school, lower expectations for job or salary.

But while networking is always included in the job seeker's toolbox, there's no way to win when a back door opens for competitors who wouldn't make it through the main entrance. It's one thing to lose out in fair competition; that can force painful self-evaluation that can force change for the better in the long run. It's another to lose in unfair competition, which produces only bitterness and the kind of anger that Clark County officials are feeling in reaction to Benton's backdoor entry.

Corporations aren't immune from favoritism and nepotism, of course, but the bottom line of profit and loss is a great check on such corrosive hiring practices. And sports offer the purest form of fair competition: the new movie "42," about how Jackie Robinson's talent was powerful enough to shatter major league baseball's ugly racism, speaks to the power of talent to win the day.

There will never be an end to backdoor deals, no matter how many mechanisms are put in place to prevent them. We don't know whether Benton will feel the tinge of guilt my old friend felt as he drove past the job seekers on his way to an inside job. But let's hope most employers will give a fair shake to those still standing in those lines, asking just to be given a chance.