I heard some of the best work search advice I've come across in a long time at a career event sponsored by a Boston university where I was invited to give the keynote address.
After I spoke, a panel made up of career counselors from the university and a former executive recruiter answered questions from the audience and talked about how they managed their own professional lives.
The former recruiter had recently been elected to a leadership position with a volunteer organization serving professionals under 40 on Cape Cod (a minority here!) and each time she spoke, she would bring up some activity she had participated in with the group.
She talked with unrestrained enthusiasm about spending time the previous weekend, restoring the landscape around one of the Cape's precious kettle ponds, and then she announced:
"If you're looking for a job, go plant trees. You'll probably find yourself digging in the dirt with a bank president or a business owner."
I could barely contain myself!
Whenever the same question comes up more than once in a short period of time, it gets my attention, so when feedback from a program I did for an agency which helps women in transition mirrored a recent comment on my blog from a career coach who works with low income people, I accepted the invitation to re-examine my thinking.
Both comments expressed the concern that people at the lower end of the employment spectrum would not be capable of grasping and utilizing an entrepreneurial approach to work-search, nor would they be likely to benefit from it if they did. They suggested that my thinking about the entrepreneurial mindset was all very well and good for some people but not for those with very few resources and a lot going on in their lives.
It was cabin fever, the need for a broader view of world than the one of the bird feeder outside my office window, that gave me the idea of going away for few days.
The snow began the afternoon I arrived, and by the next day, over a foot and half had fallen on Salem, with layers of ice and freezing rain for good measure, in effect closing down the town. The new snow fell on top of an already substantial buildup from earlier storms, causing unexpected problems, such as what to do with all the additional "white stuff" (it’s against the law to dump it in the harbor) and roofs that collapsed from excess weight.
Watching people laboring to shovel a path between snow banks almost as tall as they were, or improvising a solution by hanging out a window to clear off a porch roof with a rake, it struck me that their efforts had a lot in common with long-term unemployment. The work is arduous and all too familiar; "caving in," i.e., giving up, is a real danger; and it feels like spring will never come.
After the holiday break, I was not surprised to start 2011 with a full inbox, but what has been startling is the number of emails I have received from people over 50 who have been laid off and can't find work.
For months, in some cases years, these people have carried on discouraging job-search campaigns directed toward securing the kind of work they did before "the bottom fell out" of their professional lives.
They have reached the point where they feel they "can't buy a job" and are at their wits end as to what to do next.
At first I wondered, what do I say to these people? But then I noticed that none of them mentioned doing anything to create something new.
Sitting across the table from me is a very bright, articulate, mature woman with an underutilized law degree.
She has a vision—a family law practice to serve an ethnic community with which she has a shared heritage, and for whom she has been a volunteer advocate for years.
She is at a point in her life where she wants to claim her professional status in ways which honor her social consciousness, but the opinions of others have stopped her in her tracks.
"There are so few encouraging voices," she says. Her head droops and she begins a litany of the dispiriting comments she's heard from people with whom she has shared her goal—the economy is awful, you'll be competing with young attorneys right out of law school who will work for nothing, immigration law is very complicated, etc.
Building upon this foundation of negativity, she adds obstacles of her own: "Maybe I don't have the skills, the experience, or the stamina ...."
I have a strong urge to jump in and remind her of her many positive attributes, but I keep quiet and let her finish. When I speak I don’t argue with anything she has said, but softly observe, "It's all about working the process. When we make a choice to pursue a particular goal, our task is simply to do our very best to stay in the process of working toward it, which includes not abandoning it prematurely because of what ‘they’—whoever they happen to be—have to say.”
Summertime and the living is easy—but not for a Mini-Mart cashier at a rest stop on the Mass Pike.
That was the assumption I made when I stopped there for an iced coffee on a hot, sunny Saturday last month on my way to visit family in Connecticut.
The store was packed. A long line of customers in a hurry to be somewhere else snaked its way around the junk food displays, inching slowly toward the older woman on the other side of the counter.
"What an awfully hard job," I thought, as I watched her selling lottery tickets and sodas.
The weather outside is beautiful, and you're stuck inside. You're on your feet all day, under constant pressure from impatient, sometimes rude people. You're exhausted at the end of your shift and you don't have much of in the way of material reward to show for it.
But even as I was creating this scenario in my head, I still was able to take in the attentive cheerfulness with which she waited on those who preceded me.
At the Daily Grind coffee shop in Cortland, New York, I watched a steady stream of farmers in overalls, contractors in flannel shirts, and 9-to-5 employees in business dress, and I thought about how every town or neighborhood has a hub like this. Find a Daily Grind, full of regulars who stop in on their way to work, and you've found the heart of the work life of a city.
Listening to what was being said there, it became clear to me that the Cortlanders whose daily ritual I was observing were trying to make a living in a place where that is not always an easy thing to do—the town has an 11% unemployment rate and negative job growth.
People usually go about about dealing with work being hard to find in three distinct ways.
An editorial cartoon recently appeared in the local paper showing a massive traffic jam. In the picture, one driver is standing on the roof of his car, looking off into the distance at lines of cars that stretch as far as the eye can see. Heads are popping up through moon roofs. A sad-faced man leans against his car and looks at his watch. Another grimaces at the viewer. Plumes of steam rise from radiators. A sign with an arrow pointing down the gridlocked highway reads, JOB MARKET, and below the arrow is written, EXPECT DELAYS.
I saved the cartoon in my clip file because, for me, it makes the emotions that underlie today's unemployment statistics accessible.
As much as I would like to, I simply can't relate to a number like 236,000 jobs lost in September, resulting in a 9.8% unemployment rate with a total of at least 15.1 million Americans out of work. But I do know what it's like to sit in seemingly endless traffic.
It's important for me to get out of the office on a regular basis and talk with groups of people who, in the neat language of business jargon, are part of a statistic called "job churn," the movement of people in and out of the labor market. Right now, churn—which suggests violent splashing—is making us all feel like we're traveling on very rough seas and producing a lot of queasiness.
Although I regularly see individual clients in career transition who often feel as if they are in a small boat in an ocean of uncertainty, I find being in the company of a group of people who have given up an evening or Saturday morning to attend one of my presentations a very different experience.
It is more like riding the subway or a bus rather than driving my own car. When I use mass transit, I'm just another passenger sharing a journey with others from one stop to another. It's no longer the other drivers and me in our separate vehicles en route to different destinations. We're all in it together, which is exactly how it feels when I step into a library meeting room, community center or church hall and start to talk informally with people who have come to hear me speak. And, just like the subway, I never know who will sit down next to me or how my world will expand as a result.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when I met an attractive middle-aged woman at one of my seminars who claimed she already knew me.
In response to growing concerns about financial survival, the news media is full of information about ways to save money, conserve energy, etc., but very little is being said about people's biggest worry—secure employment!
Work, either through job-employment or self-employment, is the levee that protects us, and as long as it holds, we can weather the storm of uncertainty. But what if the traditional approaches to sustaining and finding work can't stand up to the current surge of events?
Hard times require more vigilance in taking care of your professional future—or as I said to one of my clients recently, "Being wishy-washy or needy isn't going to cut it!"