The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 22, 1992
crash course in careers
Americans say, "We'll keep your resume on file," and other
Report on America's exotic
NEW YORK - Looking for a job?
Here in America, you must smile during that interview.
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
"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
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
But from the start, Americans were unimpressed with her credentials -
her 15 years' teaching, her professional papers, her patents for
Rather, they seemed more concerned that she maintain a cheerful
"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.