Gainfully Employed, by Elayne Riggs
Kids, it’s been a rough six months for me. Well no, I take that back, it hasn’t. I should start off by saying that I’ve had a lot of advantages to take me through my most recent period of unemployment. I was eligible to collect over $300 a week in unemployment insurance (thank you, FDR!). My former job kept me on COBRA so I also had health insurance, of which I took full advantage during my involuntary extended vacation to get all my medical and dental check-ups out of the way. The premiums rose considerably a couple months ago, but the unemployment payments (which ran out two weeks ago) helped a lot, as long as Robin took care of the rent and bills. Which he did, as fortunately he’s been employed during the entire time (thank you, DC Comics!). Plus, my mom has been there to help out when I’ve needed it.
Even with all that, even with the other built-in advantages (living in a big city, having a college degree, cultivating a pretty solid set of skills), it’s been scary. My heart goes out to people who don’t have that second income, that familial support system, that safety net for when stuff goes wrong. I can’t imagine how they get through it. My stress level was through the roof.
The illusion of job security has always been very important to me. I’m married to a freelancer, but I couldn’t see adopting that lifestyle myself. I’m a creature of habit, I like having set routines; in fact, I like having other people set them. Being a freelancer takes too much self-discipline. I tried catching up on my writing during this last six months, but couldn’t manage more than my usual ComicMix column, weekly roundup, and daily blog post. I was just too consumed with anxiety over my workless state.
Fortunately, I was able to summon up enough wherewithall to undertake an extremely detailed and organized job search, an avocation in and of itself, but the thing about looking for work is, it’s never in the same office from one day to the next, is it? And it’s exhausting, rather like I’d imagine it would be when you’re finishing up an assignment and your brain is busy worrying about where the next assignment is coming from. Nope, one freelancer in the family is quite enough!
So, because I’m organized (hey, it’s what I do), here’s how it all went down: My ex-boss had me type into my severance agreement a guarantee that I’d come into the office pretty much a third of the time during my severance period to help train the part-timer who’d be taking over the last vestiges of my job, so I wasn’t actually free to go on interviews until January. Then I got the flu, then I hurt my toe so badly I couldn’t walk, then I had jury duty, and of course it was winter… well, in any case, by the time I got into the job search routine (sending out resumes, searching the usual places on Craigslist and CareerBuilder and Monster) it was already the end of February. Still, I was getting nervous, I’d already been receiving unemployment insurance so the clock was ticking on that, as well as on the health insurance premiums.
But I did well in March, April, May… tons of interviews with direct employers, all over the city! I roamed Manhattan from the Presbyterian Hospital and Yeshiva University area all the way down to Battery City, and saw more of NYC than I ever would either working steadily there or as a tourist. I visited some amazingly gorgeous lobbies, and some cramped and disorganized quarters that I knew were bad news as soon as I walked in (particularly if the building featured a rickety elevator with enough room it in for only one passenger). I discovered the best places outside to sit and change from my sneakers into my interview shoes. I memorized timetables for the three express bus routes to the west side, the east side and down Fifth Avenue. I explored various eateries and bought practically nothing at any of them. I pretty much had fun, but after awhile it just got to the point where I wanted to stop and have someone pick me already.
I didn’t fare that well insofar as staffing agencies. Ever since I’d first seen the handwriting on the wall at my ex-job, it had been my experience that no agency had ever sent me on any interview. They called me in, they tested me (I always tested pretty high, consistently getting over 100wpm in typing, mid to high 80’s in PowerPoint and Excel, and 90’s in Word and Outlook; do you know one agency actually abbreviates that as "the WEPO tests"?), they made all sorts of promises, and I heard back from them precisely — never. The agencies that do call back are few and far between, and I can recommend those via private email to anyone interested. I can also tell you which ones to give the widest berth possible.
There was one I won’t easily forget, that guaranteed me a same-day interview (I resolved not to waste $5 each way on the express bus only to come into an agency, so my rule was that I either had to have a direct-employer interview same day or they had to guarantee me I’d go right from their offices to such an interview) for a job that, lo and behold!, mysteriously disappeared as soon as I entered their offices. The agency head was this sleazy guy who could have been right out of The Sopranos, and he was like, y’know, pleased ta meet me and all, but I wouldn’t want something should happen to my unemployment status, knowhatimean?
They never mentioned the employer was looking for someone bilingual (I used to be multi-lingual back in college over half a lifetime ago, so I don’t count that any more), plus they weren’t interviewing any more, plus the agency had already sent over about three others. The guy kept contradicting himself with every sentence. I couldn’t get out of that atmosphere fast enough! The one lesson I took away from those experiences is that, if one is internet-savvy and organized enough, if one’s resume is good enough and shows sharp skills, there’s no real reason to go through an agency unless you want a temp-to-perm position (i.e., one where you won’t have health insurance for awhile).
And during my 2008 search I secured tons of interviews and a fair number of call-backs (second interviews) on my own. Most of the time with the call-backs, it came down to me and like one other person, and that’s just the luck of the draw.
A lot of the interviews that didn’t call back were just plain looking for a different type of person. Maybe I was too old, too fat, too smart, you can never tell. Most places don’t tell you why they decide not to pursue you further. About 95% of the time I thought I did very well in the interviews. I was asked some weird-ass questions; the ones that really bothered me were usually phrased something like "Can you name a time when you were particularly happy about completing a project or meeting a challenge?" No, no ma’am, I cannot name a time. I did my job, I did it well, nothing stood out as particularly this or that. Gad, I dreaded those questions! But I cultivated my spiel, and more or less learned how to sell myself in what’s clearly (thanks Bushco!) a buyers’ market nowadays.
And the job which I start next Tuesday is in one of those offices with an amazing lobby (in which I will occasionally find myself doing relief reception duty) and a gilt elevator and a terrific midtown location about equal distance from my friends at DC Comics and the southern entrance to Central Park. And I’m spending the rest of this week filling out the mounds of new employee paperwork they sent me. This is what I wanted — a fairly large, established yet growing corporation with an actual internal structure — so I actually welcome the bureaucratic paperwork. I relish it! I drink the milkshake of bureaucratic paperwork! After all, I’m a secretary. A damn good one. And an employed one.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and is more determined than ever, now that she no longer has to worry about looking for a permanent full-time job, to get on with her writing. But first she wants to catch up on some sleep.