The Job Hunter

By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger

The following story is true. The name has not been changed. Embarrassing as it is, it happened over 50 years ago. I think I’ve gotten over it.

The first-grade class would quietly file down the hall to the music room, where we would sit in rows and learn the great American songs, like Frere Jacques. The teacher would stand behind an upright piano, so as she played we could see only her face and shoulders. Playing the piano looked like so much fun, and what could be easier than moving your arms a little from side to side? (In those days not only was it possible that you weren’t taking piano lessons, none of your friends were either.)

One day she invited anyone who wanted, to come up and play any song they liked. I jumped to raise my hand and skipped for joy when I was called up to play. Until I got behind that impenetrable barrier and saw all those keys. They weren’t even labeled. How was I supposed to know what each one was for? Then and there the career of a future Bernstein went down in flames.

My imaginary client, Beryl Klein, is researching career options with a focus on sales. Which leads him to look into the most visible feature of the sales landscape, the retail store. From earliest childhood, we all know there are stores where they sell things, from clothes and hardware (frequently needed basics) to jewelry and refrigerators. Beryl has a lot of questions to ask, but before he does I’m going to prepare him so that he doesn’t look as clueless as that first-grader. Far too many businesspeople have been approached by self-styled “managers” who have no knowledge or experience in the field. I have to make sure that Beryl doesn’t make a first impression that guarantees that he’ll never make a second one.

In the normal course of events, young people, even while still in high school, get jobs working as sales clerks in stores large and small. Over time, they learn the details that keep a store running. Making sure the displays are neat and accessible, the register secure, their timesheets accurate, their smile warm and genuine (which may make them as imaginary as Beryl), and a slew of other stuff, from opening to closing, slowly forms the education of a salesperson. Beryl might consider starting the same way, but he will have to deal with the low salary that typically goes with such a position. More likely, someone who wants to support a family by working in retail will have to be in management. Beryl’s research needs to answer two questions. First, does the work of a manager fit his skills and background, and second, is there an alternate route that leads to management without the years spent in the sales trenches? (Marrying the owner’s daughter doesn’t count.)

Managing a small retail store (which sometimes goes with owning it) is an entirely different job than selling the merchandise inside it. Worrying about payroll, schedules, inventory, shipping, physical plant, and the rest is what enables a business to run . . . and then the selling begins. But for the manager, selling will often not mean convincing a customer to make a purchase, but convincing a worker to make a commitment. When that salesman is smiling, patient, and knowledgeable, it’s because a manager has sold him on the need to do so. In turn, he may not even be selling the items on the shelves, but the experience of shopping in that store. Think of two similar stores, one where you enjoy shopping, the other, you don’t. The merchandise in them is the same. Your decision to patronize one over the other is based on how you are treated, the courtesy and knowledge of the people there. That difference doesn’t happen because one store hired good people and the other bad ones, but because a manager has “sold” his staff on the need to provide a positive experience for the customer.

Beryl needs to understand what management is about so he will have a context for understanding the information he will gather in his research. In some positions, the administrative tasks will be more important; in others, the ability to motivate, energize, and “sell” to his own people will be the key talent that the employer needs. Beryl will then have to do some serious thinking about the skills he can put to work, about what it is that he has ready to sell. v

Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at

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