Career Adviser Pushes New Paradigm for Job Seekers

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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As participants at the Orthodox Union workshop were filing out of the room, about 15 people flocked to the mysterious bald man in the back of the room. He proceeded to tell them all that he felt was wrong with what they had just heard.

His name is Shlomo Gewirtz and he might be called a prophet of sorts, out to expose the fallacies of the traditional job-hunting methods. He has self-published a book on the topic, “Don’t Say Yes When They Offer You Coffee,” in which he argues that traditional job-hunting methods are killing the chances of job seekers. He also shows up at workshops planned by other agencies and offers free workshops anywhere that will provide space.

Gewirtz is one of the many career advisers who have appeared in Jewish synagogues and community centers in the New York area during the past year, responding to growing unemployment. But Gewirtz is not like the others. For one, he has no background in job counseling; in his 54 years he has been a fundraiser, a cab driver and sightseeing guide but, until very recently, he has never been a job counselor.

As he tells his students, though, what matters is not “experience,” but the skills you have gleaned from your experiences. His method is based on the long hours and days he spent finding jobs for which he was not particularly qualified — a situation he believes is increasingly true for all job seekers in the modern world, when most people switch careers an average of seven times in their lifetime.

For these people, Gewirtz counsels, the old methods just won’t work. He tells job hunters to ditch the resume and the stories about personal experience and to focus instead on what the interviewer wants. Don’t tell them anything, he counsels, until you know what they are a looking for.

It’s a small change, but Gewirtz is convinced that it represents a “new paradigm” for job hunting.

He is an unusual man with unusual ideas, but he has managed to find some unexpectedly prominent takers for his workshops. In the last few months he has been brought in by some of Manhattan’s most respectable synagogues to offer his two-session, 12-hour class. In July he was at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, which hopes to invite him back, and four weeks ago he closed a workshop at the Lincoln Square Synagogue.

At both workshops all 12 spots quickly filled up, mostly with middle-aged people coming from management positions they had not counted on losing. In January, Gewirtz will be preaching to a similar audience at The Jewish Center of the Upper West Side.

Many of the unemployed are reaching a point where they are willing to try an untested method. Marilyn Englander, 56, who has been to the Federation Employment and Guidance Service and even tried her college’s guidance office, last month decided to attend Gewirtz’s workshop.

“He adds to the weaponry that I have going out to search,” said Englander, a former teacher in search of a new career. She said the other Jewish organizations have been incredibly helpful to her, but “in these times, you need all the ammunition you can get.”

The full attendance at Gewirtz’s workshops, though, is based on more than just desperation. As synagogue representatives point out, he brings a fundamentally Jewish approach to the job search that no other counselors use.

Indeed, Gewirtz, in speech littered with biblical allusions, argues that his technique is an almost religious process. “It’s based on the notion of chesed,” he said, using the Hebrew term for acts of kindness. “You’re enabling people to help you by finding out what they need.”

Perhaps more importantly, he is a persistent and persuasive salesman, making a sale whenever the opportunity comes up, as it did after the Orthodox Union workshop. His energetic appeal was evident from the 15 people he spontaneously drew in and, in the end, even the O.U. workshop leader said that getting a job is essentially about making a successful sale.

Gewirtz’s students could perhaps learn the most just by watching him work. This is about “ambition,” and job counselors don’t teach you that, Gewirtz says.

His past students recognize that Gewirtz’s approach is not a panacea. There are still times when a resume is a necessity and even an advantage. And some of Gewirtz’s students felt they did not have the confidence to take control of an interview in the way that Gewirtz counsels, according to Carol Dikman, who set up the workshop at B’nai Jeshurun.

But Dikman said that aside from a few skeptics most of the participants were excited by Gewirtz’s new approach.

Englander, for one, had an interview three days after the workshop and tried her new weaponry. She was astonished by how “everything [Gewirtz] said would happen in an interview happened.”

“I haven’t bagged a job in four days,” said Englander, “but it’s making me feel in control of myself, and my job search.”

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