It's Not What You Know, It's Who Knows You (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Last week I mentioned the former editor of the Nashville (Tenn.) Business Journal, who gave me my first business writing job and turned me into a banking reporter. Through the magic of the Internet, that editor saw that column and emailed to say, “Glad I played a role in changing your life.”

I’m not going to wax nostalgic again, but my own career serves as a good example of a phenomenon that has been on my mind as my firstborn graduates from college: how the job market works.

That editor did help me. He hired me when I had considerable experience as a government reporter but knew absolutely nothing about business. But there was someone who was even more instrumental in my getting a shot at the business reporting job that changed my career, and that was my husband.

I was desperate to get out of a very bad workplace, but we had lived in Nashville only two years and I didn’t have much of a professional network. My husband, who was a reporter for the afternoon daily newspaper, heard through the grapevine that a reporter was leaving the Business Journal, so I called the editor and submitted my resume before the job opening was ever advertised. I suspect I looked better on paper than I really was, and hiring me may have seemed like an easy fix to an unexpected staff opening.

As anyone who has ever looked for a job knows, your chances of getting hired increase exponentially if you can find out about a job opening before it becomes public knowledge. If I had learned about the Nashville Business Journal job from a classified ad, there’s no telling what I’d be doing today.

Assuming all went according to plan, my son graduated from the University of Arkansas Honors College on Saturday with the strange left-brain, right-brain combination of a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in drama. He plans to move to Chicago and try to break into the theater — not as an actor, thank God, but as a stage hand.

His father and I are as excited as any parents watching a well-prepared child venture out to pursue his dreams, but we are helpless to be of any assistance in finding him a job in his chosen field. The theater is as foreign to us as the newspaper world was to my parents, who worked for the North Little Rock School District. He’ll have to create his own luck, which generally means starting at the very bottom rung.

All of this was already on my mind when I heard an NPR interview with Nancy DiTomaso, a business professor at Rutgers University, who has written a new book about job networking. Specifically, her book is about how favoritism toward people who have extensive professional networks has replaced racial discrimination in creating the workplace disparity experienced by African-Americans.

“Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States,” DiTomaso wrote in a commentary published last week by the Dallas Morning News.

I suspect the truth of this statement is intuitive for most Arkansas Business readers. DiTomaso went on to make the same point that I have long recognized about my chance opportunity at the Nashville Business Journal: “Whenever possible, Americans seeking jobs try to avoid market competition: They look for unequal rather than equal opportunity. In fact, the last thing job seekers want to face is equal opportunity; they want an advantage. They want to find ways to cut in line and get ahead.”

Yes, of course we are willing to work hard and prove ourselves. But we first have to get that foot in the door — the kind of help that, according to DiTomaso, few people even appreciate later.

“When I asked my interviewees what most contributed to their level of career success,” she wrote, “they usually discussed how hard they had worked and how uncertain the outcomes were — not the help they had received throughout their lives to gain most of their jobs. In fact, only 14 percent mentioned that they had received help of any kind from others.”

I had to make my own luck in getting my first reporting job at the Pine Bluff Commercial, but that’s not unusual in entry-level jobs. “You don’t usually need a strong social network to land a low-wage job at a fast-food restaurant or retail store,” DiTomaso wrote. “But trying to land a coveted position that offers a good salary and benefits is a different story. To gain an edge, job seekers actively work connections with friends and family members in pursuit of these opportunities.”

So, does anyone know anyone in the theater business in Chicago? I know a bright young man who absolutely deserves a look-see.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at