Saturday, November 5, 2011

Milestone and memories

I had started this week intending to post this particular entry to my blog early on Wednesday morning to mark an unwelcome milestone. I forgot that one seldom passes such markers without reflection, nor without some level of surprise and likely with some level of wistful regret.


So for much of the week, each time I would try to write, my own thoughts would intrude upon my endeavor, interrupting and even wrestling with the very words my fingers dutifully typed.

Wednesday was the alarm clock, as it were, signaling it’s been nearly a full year since a company’s financial struggles left me without a job and nothing to fall back upon except my family’s retirement savings to pay the bills.

Time flies, however, and the longer I remain underemployed, the harder each milestone becomes. It’s funny — technically, I am “underemployed” because I am doing freelance work here and there — just enough to keep me off the unemployment rolls. Yet I am not bringing in near enough to make ends meet. I stay busy — when I am not doing work for someone else, I am trying to find full-time work for me, and I write this blog. Ultimately, I still feel unemployed.

I try to take the long view — patience is a virtue, as is perseverance. I can’t say I’ve mastered either, but I am grateful for faith in a God who ultimately allows all things for a divine purpose that I, as a finite man, am incapable of seeing. That faith ultimately helps me to be patient as well as to persevere.

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

As an underemployed job seeker, I have a number of accounts with Web sites where employers post job listings — there’s CareerBuilder.com, Monster.com, JournalismJobs.com, Indeed.com … the list seems endless. On many of these, you can set up automated queries using “keywords” related to your field, and when such jobs are posted, you receive an emailed list of those postings.

The automated searches are not perfect. One query I have for “writer, editor” draws a daily email listing a number of writing jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with journalism or any other career that’s heavy in writing and editing skills — service writer is one. That, apparently, is the guy who writes down what you want when you call the car dealership about having work done on your vehicle.

I also learned early on to avoid setting up automated queries focused solely on the word “editor,” which was more likely to draw scads of job listings for editors of html, Java, Flash and other coding related to the Internet. Right idea, wrong language. I’m conversant in English, not computer languages.

Some of these websites also periodically will send out emails with links to Internet articles for those who are seeking new jobs. Some are very helpful — putting together a strong resumes, writing a cover letter, the dos and don’ts of the job interview (remember everything your mother taught you about being polite, being honest, being appreciative and knowing when the heck to shut up).

So it was that Monster.com sent me an email early this week that featured a link to just such an article.

I found it humorous in a morbid, half-twisted sort of way: 11 Warning Signs Your Career Has Stalled.

Really.

I clicked the link, curious.

Your career can lose power for many reasons: a lack of opportunities, industry changes and plain old boredom are just a few of them.”

The author omitted the part about having a job end suddenly, unless, of course, that’s supposed to fall under the broader umbrella of “lack of opportunities.”

That took me back about six or eight years or so, when I was feeling very bored and frustrated by the lack of opportunities to learn new skills and broaden my horizons professionally. By that time, I think, it already was apparent that the industry was heading down what would be an increasingly tumultuous path, and I felt ill-prepared for other career paths within the field. Each time I explored other jobs, I would come to the same conclusion: My set of skills as an editor were too narrowly defined.

Other employers in the industry did not want “just a copy editor,” not even one who supervised the paper’s production each night. They wanted someone who could do it all — copy edit, design pages, even design graphics. I knew how to design pages, had done so successfully on any number of occasions in the past. But I had not been doing so often enough lately to be considered truly proficient at it, and I had good reason to believe that was not a door which would open to me any time soon.

I soon understood how an actor might resent being typecast for only a certain type of role, as if that was the only type of character he or she could portray. Ultimately, I struggled with my own frustration and resentment. I was stuck in a mold that would not change.

Eventually, I would learn, that which brought this angst mattered little — the print media, it would become apparent, actually had been languishing for some time, and the Internet offered alternatives that few would foresee — some good, some not so good. In this, however, I soon would find one avenue that had begun to appeal to me as early as 1998 but thus far had escaped me: working in online news.

That appeared to me to be the best and most viable option for the future. We lived in Elgin, however, and I did not want to commute. As the company continued to neglect the Elgin paper in favor of its flagship and its larger suburban papers, I waited impatiently. Finally, a Web editor position opened up in Elgin.

After having struggled for several years with the idea that my career was dead in the water, I had found something which excited me, both from the perspective of a newsman and in terms of the intellectual challenge I needed. That was in 2007; today, I wish that opportunity had presented itself much earlier. I’ve often said the work is so much more interesting when you’re learning something.

So I poured myself into this new position, wanting to be the very best but knowing all too well I was starting out with little training in this new media. The new position brought a modest pay increase, with the promise of more after six months.

I knew that making this move was forward-looking and was confident it held a future the printed word no longer assured. While we all knew the company that employed us was struggling, I’m not sure many of us realized how grave that struggle was — or perhaps we realized it but simply could not believe it could continue to go downhill for so long.

After six months, my pay was increased again, as promised. My bosses knew I was trying hard, as did the other members of the Web team, who truly were the teachers who brought me up to speed.

But the company’s position was deteriorating. When people left, there positions were not filled. Eventually, there were layoffs, then more layoffs, and more again. The company decided to consolidate its suburban operations into its Aurora office. Suddenly, a fair portion of the pay increase I’d received was being sucked into my gas tank each day as my drive to work went from 1.9 miles to and from The Courier-News office in downtown Elgin each day to a 48-mile round trip each day from Elgin to Aurora.

There were more layoffs, then a furlough, then pay cuts. My income dropped to about where it had been before I shifted to the Web desk.

Still, I worked hard, held out hope that the company’s situation would improve. Ultimately, the hard work didn’t account for anything more than knowing I had done my best. I also learned that placing any level of trust and hope in a company without a heart and soul is a fool’s errand.

That probably was the worst lesson I had to learn 11 months ago this week. It’s hard to believe I’ve been unemployed this long. Less than a month from now, on Dec. 2, it will have been a full year since I was laid off a little more than three weeks before Christmas, with no severance pay and little more than a thank you.

Your career can lose power for many reasons: a lack of opportunities, industry changes and plain old boredom are just a few of them.”

That’s true enough. The past 11 months have been lacking in opportunities, and the industry continues to change. And there is plain old boredom — but it’s not with a job — it’s with the absence of one. Reading job postings is nearly as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry.

Dear God, let this end soon.