Job Searching In a Pandemic: The Struggle Is Real
This weekend marked five months in (relative) quarantine and four months of being unemployed. I ‘m not sure which fact seems more unfathomable at this point, but I do know which one has produced the most uncertainty, anxiety and self-reflection.
I was 15 when I got my first job at the dry cleaner in the strip mall in Springfield, Virginia, where my family ran all our errands. I worked with two of the badass punk girls I was somehow cool enough to hang with socially and, aside from the fact that we were literally handling people’s dirty laundry, it was pretty much the best first job ever, with some combination of the three of us running the show from 3:00 to 7:00 every weekday and all day Saturday. We played, we gossiped, we tagged and bagged each load and ran the cash register, developing more inside jokes along the way than anyone could count. I’m sure I made like $4-something an hour, but it wasn’t about the money. To this day, I think of that place pretty much every time I walk in to a dry cleaner.
I’ve rarely been without a real, paying job for the 30+ years since. I finished out high school with stints at Garfinckel’s and Benetton (I can still fold a sweater like a mofo). Then worked off an on throughout college and grad school with more retail (hello, Macy’s candy counter) and hostessing. Before my 20-year stint with agency life, I was a video dating service rep, an art gallery assistant, a receptionist at an investment banking firm, a paralegal for DOJ and a lobbyist for the ad industry.
During that 20-year agency stint, I’ve been laid off three times. The first time was in 2001, when the economy was tanking and The Martin Agency decided digital (then called “interactive”) was a flash in the pan and laid off the entire division, I was out of work for about two months before landing a copywriting gig at the Virginia Department of Transportation, aka evermore in our household, the Department of Highways, which was what it was called when my mother-in-law took a similar gig there back in the 70s. Yeah, the joke about Spy marrying his mother runs deep. She also hated that job. Good thing my side hustle (a new agency, of course) took off quickly and I was able to Heisman the bureaucracy in short order.
The second time was in 2013. There are a lot of catty things I could say about that one, but objectively, it was a wrong place/wrong time situation. It’s never good when the main client you work on decides to bring 80% of its work in-house. That time, I was out for about six weeks before finding what ended up being one of my top three favorite agency jobs ever.
This time is different. And the differences are huge.
Agencies and in-house marketing departments have been making cuts like crazy for the past four months. There are so many people like me out here looking for work that the competition is like none I have ever faced before. The deep talent pool also makes picking up freelance pretty difficult, though I have worked on a few small projects.
And despite what they’re probably saying on Fox news, the economy is incredibly uncertain, and guess what: nobody wants to spend a lot on advertising in this climate. So until things stabilize, my prospects for finding a job in my industry aren’t great.
Add to that the fact that with 20 years’ experience, I’m a pretty experienced hire and senior roles are harder to land, even in normal times. I would happily take a more junior role, but nobody seems to want to take me seriously for one because (I assume) they think I’ll just leave when things get better and I get a better opportunity. Plus, all that available talent.
I cannot even begin to express how angry it makes me to see pundits and especially friends opining or posting memes implying that people are lazy and won’t go back to work because the PUA rate is too high. Or that they should have spent their $1200 stimulus check (for which I was ineligible) to start a business. Literally, I want some of whatever they’re smoking . . . but god forbid anyone accuse me of spending my meager unemployment check on it. The bottom line is that for many of us, the jobs are just not there.
Here’s a snapshot of how it’s been for four months looking for work. In this time, I have
Applied to over 70 jobs and never even received a response about 90% of them
Spoken to every staffing agency and worthwhile headhunter in Atlanta (as well as my entire contact list, obviously)
Had friends and colleagues recommend me and get my resume in front of a hiring manager
Reached out to people I am connected with but don’t know personally on LinkedIn and desperately tried not to sound desperate (crickets.)
<eyeroll>Gotten pursued by a business coach on LinkedIn, who wanted to sell me a package to help me build my freelance business</eyeroll>
Been contacted by a few interested parties who would like to work together but don’t have a project
Been hired to help market a small agency only to have them lose a client and cancel on me before we even started
Written sample blog posts for free and never even received a response that the company was not moving forward with me (yeah, I keep checking their site to make sure they haven’t posted my work)
Written a cover letter from my dogs recommending me for a job at a pet products company (I mean, have y’all seen my dogs?)
Been told I was too expensive
Been told my Master’s degree from a top advertising program is the wrong kind of Master’s degree
Been told they’ll get back to me when they open up a more senior role
Updated my portfolio at least six times
Updated my resume probably 20 times
Put a profile on every job board and turned on notifications so I get 300 emails a week about the same six jobs out there
Checked to see if anyone looked at my LinkedIn profile 10,739 times
Only scored fewer than 10 actual interviews from all of this
Have I tried hard enough yet?
So yeah. It’s different this time. It’s taken four months for that reality to hit me as hard as it probably should have up front. In the first month, there was a lot of activity, disbelief and a sense that in six weeks or so, something would suddenly come along and life would get back to normal. That’s pretty much the way it’s always been, right? Months two and three were a blur of scouring the internet, working contacts, sending resumes and trying to stay positive while obsessively questioning my talent and whether I’d made the right career choices. This past month, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to embracing being a stay-at-home mom and earnestly started wondering Well shit, what else can I possibly do to make money?
I’ve got a couple ideas cooking, but finding the focus to get there has been challenging. School starts virtually next week and, as always, back-to-school time feels like the right time to hunker down and get things done. I plan to give myself this week to percolate a bit more, then hit the ground running next week with some kind of movement, even if that just means writing more here for the time being. I’ll also probably check to see who’s viewed my LinkedIn profile 436 more times between now and then, and possibly re-fold everything in my closet, just to remind myself I do actually have a hard skill or two.