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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Job Warrior: My Experience Losing a Job and Getting Another During a Hiring Freeze

I walked into my job a few weeks ago and was informed that I was unemployed. Pretty much that was it. Merry Christmas and good luck paying rent and buying groceries. Without getting into particulars, I went from being the top salesman to being a former employee. Not an easy thing to walk home and tell my wife when just about the entire country is on a hiring freeze. The first thing I did... in fact, the same day, I went to see my previous employer, a man who had not wanted me to leave in the first place. In fact, the only reason I left was because I was working both jobs at the same time, and the assistant manager making the schedule couldn't or wouldn't reconcile the two schedules. But what I did was leave on good terms with plenty of notice, and I kept in touch and on friendly terms with the previous employer. Granted, it was easy, because the previous job was in a supermarket. But my wife and I talked to the manager, a great guy named Matthew, like a friend. Sometimes it was no more than a greeting, a 'How are things, Matthew?', but my wife and I both kept him in our orbit. Part of the family. We genuinely like Matthew, and he has always been a friend regardless of the job. At the same time, I knew that my first responsibility when faced with unemployment was to get another job. And the obvious first move was to go back to the man who said that he'd love to have me back. So I put on some smart clothes (as my wife really taught me well, put your best foot forward. Dress for what you want to be) and went to see Matthew. I didn't try to BS Matthew. I didn't beat around the bushes. I told him I needed a job. He said that the company had a district-wide hiring freeze, but that he would see what he could do. He said I should come back in a few days and talk to him. At that point I have to admit I was let down. I'd walked in figuring I'd walk out with a job. Then I had to assumed that the hiring freeze would be non-negotiable. So I went home (I even stopped on the way home to try to pick up an application. No dice. This place that had a help wanted sign wouldn't even let me apply because they weren't hiring) and got onto Monster.com. I updated my resume and started searching for jobs that I am qualified. 'Retail' and 'customer service' were my keywords. That's because for the last 18 years I've been in the retail/customer service trenches. I have extensive experience in that arena, and most of those 18 years in fastfood, which is, to my experience, the most challenging customer service arena. My wife and I even considered leaving town while we had some savings to work with, but we were also concerned that we wouldn't find the job situation any better where we went. We settled on giving our town a week or two before we gave up on it and left. With that in mind, I opened up my job search parameters for some places we considered moving to. With all of that in mind, I set about applying for jobs via Monster.com. I should note that before I started job hunting, I got up early, had a good breakfast, showered, shaved, and dressed as if I was going to work. I thought it was important to approach the job search as a job itself. It might be tempting to sleep in and give up shaving and sit around in sweat pants and a ratty old shirt, but that is too much vacation mode for the serious work of job hunting. I also set a minimum of four applications filled out each day before I stopped. Discipline was vitally important for my motivation and mindset, and was necessary to get another job quickly. And I knew that I had to get another job quickly. And something else. I was told by many friends that I should apply for unemployment. Maybe I should have, but to be honest, I didn't want to ask for any kind of financial assistance unless I absolutely needed it, and at that moment I didn't think we did. I was paid for vacation time that I had coming (almost a week), plus a paycheck, plus a bit of savings. If we hadn't had that, or if it had taken too long to get another job, it would have been different. But I thought that to apply for unemployment would also have been bad in a motivational sense. And, to be honest, pride got in the way. It wouldn't have remained in the way for long, but it was there at that point. I didn't want to see myself on the news as part of the huge number of jobless claims making headlines.So, on to the job search. Monster.com showed (what was for me) a surprising lack of opportunity for retail/customer service specialists. What I had failed to take into account was that one of the hardest hit sectors of our economy is retail. People are simply less and less encouraged to go out and spend money if they don't have to. And of course, especially close to the end of the year, companies don't tend to hire full-time, permanent people. I did get a quick response from a local advertising firm, and dressed up nicely and took 3 buses to get to their office for an interview. It turned out that they were hiring people to sell things from booths (I won't get any more specific, as I don't want to identitfy the firm in question) on a strictly commission basis. That is okay for some, and they said that people could make quite a bit of money doing it, but I have regular bills and a family that depends on me. I need a regular paycheck that I can depend on. But the point is, I tried. I put my best foot forward. I went to a bit of effort.At this point, the few days that Matthew had said to wait had gone by. I called the supermarket to make sure he was in, and dressed nicely again and went to see him. Then the really bad news. Matthew said that the hiring freeze was still on. He couldn't hire me. I was pretty disappointed at that point, but I thanked him for trying and tried to not show my disappointment. That was really the worst moment of the job search, because I'd put a lot of hope in getting that job back. Ah, but then two days later, I found out that Matthew hadn't given up. He went to bat for me with human resources and managed to arrange to bring me back as a rehire rather than a new hire. To start, I would actually have to take an almost 4 dollar an hour pay cut, but after the first of the year there should be a departmental manager position opening that needed to be an in-house promotion. It was just important that I get my foot in the door. I took the offer without hesitation, and my job search that really had me scared only lasted one week. I was very lucky. I know that people have spent six months or more looking for work and not found any. I know that there are lessons to be learned from my situation. First and foremost, don't burn your bridges. Give plenty of notice, treat employers with respect, and don't be afraid to go back to them. Treat your job search like a job, not a vacation. Listen to your spouse. They are intelligent and resourceful, and can help you. I know mine helps me. I wouldn't take this world on without her. Don't dismiss jobs that you think are below you. There is no such thing as a bad job if it is honest and supports your family. For example, I was prepared to go back to fastfood if I had to. I wasn't enthusiastic about the possibility, but I was prepared to do it anyway. Pride is important, but you can't support a family on pride. In fact, Matthew was concerned that I might not want to take the pay cut and come back as a courtesy clerk (among other things, we bag groceries and retrieve shopping carts). My wife and I both said that I'd take anything. I'm happy to have it. And one other thing. If you have the opportunity to go to college, take it. Get yourself a degree in a subject that interests you but that is also marketable. I was in the military, but failed to sign up for the G.I. Bill, and I have regretted it ever since. I'm not saying that my professional life would be better if I had a degree (because there are plenty of unemployed college graduates), but I certainly would have had more opportunities.

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