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.