Coming to terms with employment in the 21st century.
In February 2009, I received a letter from the management of the place where I worked saying that my contract was not going to be renewed. I had three more months to work there, then they were done with me. I was devastated with the news but my devastation grew greater with time. At the time I was devastated because I considered my coworkers to be a second family. I thought that it was a place I would work for the rest of my life. I had been told over and over again that this was not only a possibility, but quite likely. I was devastated because I had just gotten married and had moved my wife 1000 miles out to be with me and now she was going to have to move again. I was upset because I'd found a church I liked that also taught things I believed (an odd combination for me). I was sad because I knew that for this to happen, people I really liked and who I thought really liked me would have had to have given the nod to see me axed. I was upset because I knew I’d done nothing wrong and that if they had any reasons (which legally they didn’t need) they were really excuses for restructuring in a way that favored managements short term self-promotion, rather than that considered my long-term value to the organization.
I began applying for jobs, thinking a guy like me (someone with good recommendations, someone with a great work record of never ever calling in sick no matter how sick I was and always volunteering for the extra work no matter how overburdened I was, someone who knew all the best people in the field, someone who was generally well liked, someone who had good advanced degrees from good institutions, someone who was eloquent and energetic, someone who genuinely loves to work) would have no trouble getting a job. I was wrong.
Oh, I found jobs. They were short-term and part time, but I found them. Most of them were minimum wage. The best paying one I had for a few months was $3 more than minimum wage. None of them had an office, a computer or business cards. A couple of them were very rewarding (helping people with special needs learn job skills was great, and teaching at a Bible College, which I did one night a week, has actually always been kind of a dream). Most, however, were not rewarding. Standing thigh deep in a methanol pudding of rotten beans in a hole in the dark wasn’t great. Cleaning the restrooms of the elderly people in the rest-homes who no longer quite understood how to use them properly was much better. Being laughed at and verbally abused by people who didn’t even finish high school and were now my bosses was more draining than any of the work I did, but I did it. My wife and I did not take public assistance or go out begging. We also didn’t make enough to pay our student loans, which is still hurting, but we paid rent on a tiny apartment, bought our groceries, kept our lights turned on and kept gas in the car to keep going. We did it with dignity and integrity.
Now, I don’t live like that anymore (I still have dignity and integrity, but I also have a professional job). I am almost back to where I was before. I am renting a house again with a lawn I have to mow. I have a job with an office where I get to wear a tie that is not too different from what I did before. We’ve moved another thousand miles and live in a place with better weather and a more hospitable culture to people who don’t like too many extra rules. Most of the people who disappeared when I was underemployed suddenly find me on Facebook again. I actually get calls to do little projects with people for whom I did not exist when I was between jobs. The fact that we struggled with our student loans still hurts us, but we are working with the collection agencies to rehabilitate them. I think, now, I have the experience to give some advice to those who are not in a good position.
- Apply for jobs. I honestly don’t know how many jobs received applications from me. I went back and looked at all my applications and I wrote 112 cover letters between February 2009 when I lost that job and July 2010 when I was hired for this one. Not all jobs require cover letters. Some are entirely electronic. Some are simply the type where you fill out applications. Among those who rejected me include McDonald’s and my application to flip burgers. Hits like that can be discouraging. Keep on applying.
- Tell the truth. I heard from so many people when some low-level job rejected me that I should just leave my doctorate off my application. I was told I shouldn't talk about my last job, since they let me go. I was told that I should make up titles for the jobs that I did as part of my previous job to pad the resumé. I was told that I should make stuff up and lie. I am not talking about putting a positive spin on things: I was told over and over to either leave stuff out or lie. I didn't do it. If I had, I would have taken every job in fear that they'd find out.
- Take the bad jobs. Take as many as you can handle. You need money because looking for a job costs money. You need money for food and shelter. I took some truly awful jobs during this time. It is okay. They are not your forever job, they are the job that is buying your resumé paper. Furthermore, there is a psychological bump that you get from doing any kind of degrading work at all as opposed to not working. A person feels like he or she is actually doing something about the situation when it they go to bed tired from hard, low-paying work.
- Don’t take Public Assistance. It is tempting, but it’s a trap. I thank God I did not do this. It is tempts you not to take the bad, degrading, low paying jobs because it’s a better deal. Those jobs may be degrading, but public assistance is absolutely dehumanizing. You simply do not get the dignity of work and can easily get to a place where you “cannot afford to work.” In many of the jobs my wife and I have worked at, we saw what it did to people. Technically, under TANFA, no person is supposed to be allowed to continue to receive public assistance for longer than 5 years in their entire life, but we’ve known people trapped in it much longer. I’ve known too many people who went in to get public assistance as good, hardworking people with dignity who have been who have been trapped by the system and become sick degraded versions of themselves. I know people who, like me, have Doctoral degrees and, like me, lost their positions but unlike me they got caught in the public assistance trap. Now I call them about positions I know and they say “I ain’t takin’ no ___ ____ adjunct position that will pay less than I get from the state.” I think, “good, because you’ve lost your ability to form grammatically coherent sentences and I don’t want you teaching college students.” The system was designed with the hope of keeping people’s dignity, but it has failed.
- Let individuals help you. Don’t ask for help unless you really need it and you think it would cost the other person neither time nor money. On the other hand, many good people who saw I was not giving myself to the public dole helped me out without me asking during this time. People came by and worked on my car. People brought me a sandwich every now and then. People gave me medicine when I was sick. Sometimes I’d pray that God would send help, and He didn’t. Other times he did. If someone knows that you’re broke and gives you some deer meat, take it, eat it and enjoy it. It is much less dehumanizing to receive charity that people chose to give you than it is to receive charity they were forced against their will to give you through taxes.
- Remember the Four Walls: Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned from a very useful series I’ve taken, Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, was the concept of the four walls. 1)You need to pay rent. 2)You need to pay utilities (which I believe for a job seeker now includes Internet). 3)You need to eat. 4)You need to be able to get to job interviews, so you need your car to be operable. You don’t need a nice place to live. You don’t need cable television. You don’t need to eat well. You don’t need a good car, just operable. If you’ve paid for this, THEN you see what else you can pay. I got behind on my Student Loan payment, but we didn’t freeze.
- Go to the interview. Your chances may be slim, but if they give you the interview they’re interested. It is hard to come up with $300 for a plane ticket when you’re struggling to buy macaroni and cheese, but that is why you have to take all those awful jobs. Unfortunately, many places want to see if you’re really serious and use your willingness to drop money on the interview as a test. Then when you go on your intervew do all the right things. Wear the right clothes. Send the thank you note. Do all those things that are silly, but you know you have to. You might not get the job, but they will for sure not give it to you if you don’t go. A couple of times, a company has reimbursed me for interview expenses when I didn’t get the job. This shouldn’t be expected, however.
- Be willing to relocate. When I finally found a job it was 1,000 miles away in a part of the country with which I was unfamiliar in a culture I knew nothing about. I was willing to go further. My applications went to every state except Hawaii and Mississippi (I didn’t find any job openings in those places). I also applied for jobs in five other countries and on three other continents. I was ready to go. In the 21st century I just don’t think people can be tied to a place anymore. The days of settling into a place went away with the 30 year job.
- Find somebody to love. I have heard of so many marriages ending over situations like mine. When I married my wife, I was pretty darned convinced that she loved me. When she stayed with me through this Hell (I don’t think I’m using that as a swear word, but as a metaphor), I knew it. We argued a lot during this time and cried a lot during this time but we stuck together. Without her also getting awful, low paying, hourly wage jobs, it might have been worse. I needed her unwavering belief in me during this struggle. It wasn’t just my wife who loved me. After three months of not finding professional work, we lived with my parents for a couple months. Then we rented an apartment in the town where they lived. Not finding real work was hard, but it actually made me bond with my family more than ever. Eating with Mom and Dad a couple times a week can make a big difference when you’re underemployed and the funny thing is, they enjoyed seeing me!
- Keep the faith. My faith did not just sustain me during this hard time, it invigorated me. If you know anyone who claims that miracles don’t happen anymore, send them my way, I can give you a list. I experienced miraculous healings when I couldn’t afford to be sick. I’ve seen miraculous provision again and again. When I finally took the job down here, do you know what I paid to rent a moving truck? I didn’t pay anything because God had told a man I barely knew to help us. I suppose I can’t prove it to an atheist, but I am pretty sure that without divine intervention, I would not have made it through this experience. I received this intervention, I believe, because I asked for it. Now God and I talk all the time and he still is doing miracles in my life. I got to the point I needed miracles, and that’s how I learned to ask for them.