Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 22, 1992
Ex-Soviets get crash course in careers
Learning why Americans say, "We'll keep your resume on file," and other facts.

Report on America's exotic job-search customs

NEW YORK - Looking for a job?

Here in America, you must smile during that interview.

Don't smoke.

And - perhaps most important - don't drink vodka.

The art of the job interview is pretty basic here in the heartland of capitalism. But the whole process of finding work in the U.S.A. is downright bewildering for people who grew up on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain.

"You must persuade an American employer that you will bring in more money than they will pay you," Stephen Rosen told a group of sullen scientists and engineers the other morning. "In the communist system, this is called exploitation. In this country, we call it capitalism."

Heads shook in disbelief.

The 19 people - all unemployed emigres from the former Soviet Union - were enrolling in a class called Scientific Career Transitions.

Call it "A Crash Course in Capitalism."

Rosen, an intense American physicist who serves as career guru for the course, was delivering a dose of shock therapy.

Rosen said that Americans frequently changed jobs - even careers - every few years. In the Soviet system, scientists and engineers held jobs for life, whether they liked them or not.

The audience of mechanical engineers, metallurgists, computer programmers, an organic chemist and an oceanologist learned that the free 12-session course would teach them what they already suspected: Under capitalism, everything is topsy-turvy.

Here, Russian resumes have about as much value as yesterday's newspaper, and success at landing a job hinges as much on their ability to schmooze, network and display a sunny personality.

When Nina Suslina arrived from Ukraine four months ago she believed the fabled capitalist system would eagerly absorb a person of her technical talent.

But from the start, Americans were unimpressed with her credentials - her 15 years' teaching, her professional papers, her patents for construction techniques.

Rather, they seemed more concerned that she maintain a cheerful American pose.

"People ask how I am, and I always have to say, 'I am well, I am fine,' " said Suslina, who has learned to wear the perky smile of a party hostess. "But really I am not well."

Rosen tells them that getting a job is hard work. Responding to ads and mailing out hundreds of resumes are not enough. They must establish contacts and research the companies where they want to apply. They must, above all, sell themselves.

"We say it's not what you know, it's who you know," Rosen said as eyebrows furrowed. "That is an American expression."

To the Russians, a job interview is an alien concept. Rosen tells them they must dress well, get a haircut and show up on time. Ask questions, but don't argue. Don't be depressed, he warned. "Americans can see it in your face."

And some customs are unappreciated in America: Do not smoke. Do not order vodka during lunch.

Other behavior is seen as evasive. For instance, the emigres were asked, should they try to avoid eye contact on the theory that this is likely to make the job interviewer uncomfortable?

"Of course," said Lyudmila Goldmakher, a 45-year-old programmer, who fell for what we call a trick question here in America.

Other lessons were similarly confounding. Rosen said that Americans do not like to say "no," so they say things like, "We'll keep your resume on file."

"This is the American 'no,' " said Rosen, as befuddled expressions swept across the room.

Vladimir Minden, an environmental engineer who introduces himself as "Minden, Vladimir," went through the course earlier this year and returned last week to impart his wisdom.

"There is a large difference between the American mentality and the Soviet mentality," intoned Minden, 52, who has adopted the appearance of an aspiring entrepreneur, down to the suspenders and gray pinstriped suit. "Be optimistic is one of the most important things in the United States."

Minden remained brightly confident, even though he has not found work after a year in the Land of Opportunity.

Most of the scientists and engineers who take the course are Jews who entered this country as refugees fleeing religious persecution. Rosen estimates that 20 percent of the 40,000 who arrived last year have advanced technical skills.

They are part of perhaps the biggest migration of technical talent since World War II. And Rosen, whose grandparents emigrated from what is now Belarus, has taken it upon himself to help them adapt. His organization, called the Science and Technology Advisory Board, is supported by grants and donations.

Rosen has found that most of the scientists' technical skills translate across borders, but they need major retooling in terms of their attitude and their work ethic.

"Some of these people think that I give them a job, and I have to explain to them that I help them to help themselves get a job," said Rosen. "From where they come from, they were given jobs."

Rosen warns that appearances often can be deceiving. Just because IBM is laying off 40,000 employees does not mean they are not hiring workers. He explained that American companies often hire entry-level personnel to replace the higher-paid specialists they have just fired.

See how capitalism works?

"I can't understand sometimes," said Talap Tleuliyeu, who had been a department chairman at a university in Kazakhstan but now wondered whether he should apply for work as a technician.

Similarly confused was an engineer named Boris, who said he still feared for his family in Odessa so he preferred not to use his last name.

"In Russia, we have proverb," he said, struggling with his English. "If you have papers, you are person. If you do not have papers, you do not exist."

Here in America, he has the papers. He only needs to cheer up. home page   
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