• Susanna Williams

The More Things Stay the Same

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

I am preparing for a presentation next week and, as part of my research, began going through old New York Times help wanted ads (if you don't know their Times Machine site, it's a phenomenal resource). I've been thinking a lot about the "skills gap" and wondering why it seems to be such an issue right now. How did people used to find work? So I started poking around.

Here's a help wanted ad from 1888:

And this is a situation wanted ad from the same year- a practice that went out of fashion some time in the 1960s:

What would it be like if we brought back the "situation wanted" ads today?

By 1908, employment agencies have emerged:

Look at the requirements-

"practiced in developing ideas and writing copy for small ads"

"Clean-cut young man of at least High School education and good personality, not under 18, who wishes to learn the printing business from the bottom"

"must be able to transcribe cables, handle bills of exchange, figure costs, and look after correspondence"

Education is mentioned just once.


1941, in the midst of WWII:


"courses or life experience"


"submit letter stating education and work experience"

No requirements laid out, but education is mentioned.


This is more precise work. Education is specified in ways it's never been specified before. This is at the peak of the science era in the US.

"Requires trade school apprenticeship plus 5 years prototype experience. Some oxygen-acetylene welding experience preferred."

It was interesting to see the number of computer science jobs advertised at the same time. We forget, sometimes, that this digital revolution has been in process for a more than a generation.


8 years of experience.

"Steady work, liberal benefits _PLUS_ cost of living"!!!!

Can you even imagine a job posting like that these days? Most work is pretty much the exact opposite of those things. An honest job ad today would say

"Irregular work, inconsistent hours, zero benefits, wages not in line with cost of living"

Aaaaaand then we get to 2018:

A few things to note:

- This is by far the most detailed in education requirements

- This is also by far the longest job posting

- No salary is mentioned

What we're seeing, however, is that more isn't necessarily better (a lesson Americans seem particularly inured to learning).

And here is the application:

We've come a long way from the "submit a letter stating your education and experience".

I know that employers are frustrated with the volume of candidates applying for jobs. I know that employers have justifiably lost faith in formerly credible verifications like degrees. I know that employers just want self-sufficient employees who have a strong work ethic. But maybe, just maybe, asking people to jump through more hoops only serves to exhaust everybody involved?