Know someone un*employed? Here’s the right thing to say…

I blame Job adKen Karpman for the predictable questions I get from family, friends and even strangers when they hear I’m among the long-term un*employed, going on four years now of being a single parent with no child support and no permanent-position-with-benefits. Ken is known for reportedly moving from his $750K/year CEO position to taking a pizza-delivery position at $7.50/hr. One of the most vexing questions I get is something like this: “Have you checked at WalMart/Jordan’s Furniture/the supermarket? They’re hiring!”

While it’s usually asked by well-meaning strangers who don’t know me, I described in my last blog post how that that kind of job just isn’t helpful for an educated woman or any person who has a science writing or any other meaningful career. I can get $8/hr copy-editing work, a basic skill I possess along with most English-speaking natives in India; I don’t need to apply as an unskilled supermarket clerk to get that (no offense to my son). Actually, I can get likely get paid more than that. As a substitute teacher I can get–woohoo–almost $11/hr before deductions.

I don’t know why Ken couldn’t do better than a $7.50/hr job; it’s hard to imagine, but perhaps I have more practical skills than he does. More likely, he moved up quickly to the next bigger lily pad (nothing like Oprah to increase your recognition) and is back on his feet.

People who suggest such a thing should understand that that the problem is getting paid what we’re worth and in high-enough volume (full time would be nice) to make a living. Certainly my industry and career area is sluggish and unstable at the moment, but that’s part of the current crappy economic reality (what industry IS stable right now?). I don’t find it insulting that someone suggests a job because it’s any old job; I just hope it’s not insulting if I explain that I can’t afford to settle for that. We’ve all had to cut back. It’s hard to find anyone who’s making a killing at the moment (oh yeah, no it’s not: American multinationals). However, limping along with low-paying freelance or temporary positions in my line of work while I look for that full-time position is still far better than toiling away at something that would make me miserable and not be worthy of adding to my CV. Maybe Ken really loves pizza and driving around late at night.

The list of questions I posted might have made my acquaintances seem insensitive and insulting, like they don’t think much of my intelligence or expertise in job hunting–something I am very experienced at–you could even argue an expert at. Very occasionally that’s true, when someone suggests something like, “Have you posted your resume on the Internet?” I just figure they don’t know me, and it’s nothing personal. (Just kidding, I’ve never gotten that question, and of course my resume is posted all over the place.)

But what I didn’t focus on are the numerous, very helpful, intelligent, probing questions I’ve had from my nearest and dearest, and even strangers. The majority of the questions I get from people who know me are thoughtful and very helpful.

One of my favorite questions to answer is, “What kind of position are you looking for exactly?” so that they really understand what I do. In my case, I’m a science and technology editor and writer. But often people don’t understand what your industry title means. What is an editor, anyway? Commonly, people confuse my job title with that of “technical writer,” which I have no experience at. My expertise is in creating the content in magazines and journals, whether online or in print. So usually I say I’m a science writer or science journalist (even though my degrees are in physical science rather than journalism).

A technical writer, on the other hand, creates content for user manuals or software documentation; they might have certifications in certain types of documentation standards, mil-specs, or in the writing of software user guides. Frankly, it’s unappealing to me to write software documentation, but I could probably be a technical editor, if (big IF) I could get hired. But with no experience, and no certifications, that’s unlikely. A hundred other people with established technical editing careers apply to the same jobs I do. I apply nonetheless, but it doesn’t bother me that I’m not getting any calls about technical writing jobs.

Mostly, the reason I get numerous poorly-thought-out if well-meaning suggestions is that I tell so many people that I’m looking for work. I’m a networking fool, a blabbermouth, a blogging, facebook-posting, twittering addict borne of desperation to reach out to EVERYONE, everywhere I go, whenever possible, about my situation. I might throw in my (un)impressive statistics to get their attention (it’s been four years since my last 401K, I’ve been through eight layoffs). It’s no coincidence that it sounds like a sacramental confession. I sometimes mention it to clerks at WalMart and the supermarket because I make it my job to network. More often than not, they’re underemployed too. And they know a lousy employer who’s hiring…

Stay tuned for some more helpful things to say to the un*employed, and powerful ways to find supplemental work while searching for the next better thing.

Predictable questions I get

With grandpa at camp

The author with her paternal grandfather, Herb, at Birchcamp in Stoddard, NH, 1992.

After such an illustrious career of layoffs (eight since 1992, but who’s counting), it’s fascinating to me that when people hear about my situation and want to help me, the follow-up questions are predictable. That doesn’t make their questions any less thoughtful or helpful; they most certainly are. It’s just interesting.

The questions go more or less like this:
Q: “Do you ever think of switching to another line of work?”
A: Yes, every damn day. I have a masters in astronomy, and I’m a science-writing professional, but…I’d do anything that would pay the bills, believe me. But in another way, I don’t want to switch. I love science writing, it’s what I’m good at, even if it’s an unstable profession at the moment. A wise friend once told me that our chosen professions are practically preordained. We have less choice than we think.

This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I discovered my grandfather’s published articles all over the web. I didn’t know Herbert B. Nichols that well, and he died before the Internet came into existence, so why did he have more Google results on his name than I did after ten years of being a published writer? Turns out he wrote much the same kind of science articles I did, from 1934 to 1968, and often on the same topic–physics, astronomy, and cosmology. He interviewed Einstein! I didn’t know any of that. Wow, I thought, as I read his articles, his writing is a lot like mine. I was an established science writer before I realized my grandfather had co-founded the National Association of Science Writers! This was a very spooky way of discovering that my “chosen profession” was less of a choice than I thought. It’s a calling.

Q: “Have you ever thought of getting certification/going back to school so you can be a physics teacher/tutor/therapist/ultrasound technician/technical writer, etc.?”
A: Yes, I have considered at length switching to occupations that are tangential to science writing, and continue to. I’ve actually diversified quite a bit without certification: I substitute teach, I have taken editor positions/contracts that were outside my area of expertise/comfort zone, and hey, I started blogging! I haven’t written off getting more formal training of some sort, but I inevitably have concluded that going back to school or pursuing training in another line of work just isn’t worth it–it’s not an efficient, practical plan for me, personally. Not right now. My goal is to keep my current home in MA for the next 2.5 years until my son graduates high school. To obtain a six-month certification of some sort, I would need about $24,000 just to cover our very basic household expenses. Then there’s the cost of tuition and fees. We would lose our home long before I could get any certification or extra education that would make a difference and enable me to pay it back. Getting expensive loans so that would enable me to start over at a new entry-level career at which I could make maybe $50-60K salary (if I’m lucky!) is not worth it and wouldn’t solve my problem.

Q: “Have you checked out Jordan’s furniture/car dealerships/BJ’s/Lowe’s? I hear they’re hiring furniture salesman/car salesmen/clerks, etc.?”
A: I have considered it. However, the day does not have enough hours for any combination of $8-12/hr jobs to save us. For now, freelance work and subbing is the lowest-hanging fruit; it doesn’t pay enough either, but at least I’m good at it, it’s what I like to do, and it looks good on the resume. I just have to hold on until I get a job close to my line of work or the economy turns around so that freelancing will pay off (OY!!!). I’m good at getting freelance work and jobs. Consider this: to be laid off as many times as I have, I have managed to get hired that many times as well! It will happen again!

Q: “Have you considered downgrading your lifestyle?”
A: (*Stifles sarcastic laughter–usually asked by someone who doesn’t know me.*) Yeah, and oh how we have! Have you read my blogs about the food pantry? We can’t downgrade much more! My son and I live in a small 2-bedroom condo in a rural suburb of Boston. It’s relatively expensive (I bought in 2005), but it’s not fancy, it needs a lot of work, but it’s everything to us. As I mentioned in my first blog, one cannot find housing when one does not have a job. If one loses one’s current housing, you are on the street, or couch-surfing–same thing. You’re homeless.

Q: “Have you considered getting a roommate?”
A: Yes, but not for long. Our place is small enough for two family members much less another stranger. We have two bedrooms. We have one shower. I would do it if I found someone I would be comfortable sharing my bedroom, couch, refrigerator, bathroom, and closet with. But until then, my son and I already squabble over what to watch on our one TV. And for those who think, “Oh! We need to find you a man! He could move in and share expenses!” Ohh, please, no, we don’t. All set there. I love guys, particularly all my guy friends, but I wouldn’t want one to move in with me. I’m better off single, thank you! Even if he were a tall, hot, very smart, wealthy, handy, very neat, vegetarian atheist (within my age range and geographical dating area), I wouldn’t have him move in with ME. We’d move in with HIM, where he lives in his royal palace! Hey, it could happen.

Q: “Have you considered moving somewhere else/moving in with family?”
A: Moving is an intriguing proposition, but complicated. Believe me, I have considered it. I have warned my son that this last round of unemployment might do us in. We might have to move to another community no matter how much we want to stay here. My family lives across country in places that are not conducive to either my son’s education or my ability to get a job. The idea of ripping him out of the only good part of his life that has been stable (school) is horrible.

Speaking of couch surfing, I’ll say it again: the best thing about my situation is this community containing my beloved “family” of friends. If we ever do lose our home before my son graduates high school, we won’t have to go far, because I know we would have places to stay. It took me 20 years to find these people, to feel at home in my community, and it’s this support network that keeps me sane. They come from all walks: my bestie girlfriend from “before husbands/before kids,” the parents of my son’s classmates, my neighbors, the post-office clerk (I owe him), my ski group, my single-parent group, my vegetarian group, my atheist group, my writing group. More than once, this wonderful extended community has given to us in ways I can’t possibly begin to repay. Life is tough, and we may have to lose our house, and have to move away from “home” but I’m going to make an assumption that it won’t be far. Strike that–it won’t be necessary because things are going to get better soon! 🙂

Here’s one question that is less predictable but particularly amusing (and usually asked in jest…I think). It certainly does cheer me up:
Q: “Have you considered exotic dancing/escort services/selling it?”
A: Yes, and thank you for thinking I have mad skills at or could do the above, but no. We all have to draw our line in the sand somewhere. I don’t want to embarrass my 15-year old.

While I search for better circumstances, one of the most valuable things I get from my extended community–whether near or far–is a predictable question. In the process of answering them, often something comes to mind that hasn’t before. Difficult situations that require hard decisions should not be endured in a vacuum. So ask away!