Filling in the Gap: What Five Years of Unemployment Has Taught Me

Filling in the Gap: What Five Years of Unemployment Has Taught Me
When unemployment happens, it sucks and the worst feeling in the world. It still is the worst feeling in the world, but you make the best of it by wits, survival, and determination.

Five years ago last week, I went from the working world to being unemployed. I wouldn’t wish unemployment on anyone…it’s been a rough journey, and at times, I feel like hiding from the world.  I don’t know how I have survived this long not having full-time employment, but I have and continue to do so. 

I have gone through experiences that has shaped and reinforced my perspectives and surroundings.

Here are a few lessons I have learned during the past five years of being unemployed.

“As the World Turns”: The world does not stop or end when you experience a life event. Losing your job, divorce, death, or an election (you see what I did there), it doesn’t matter, the world keeps moving. So do you. You can’t stay frozen in time, ruminating about what happened.

“Friends in Low Places”: Very good friends (better yet, friends you never expected) are the ones who know how talented you are and will find a way to help you find work. One pal had me work for him at his company for three months, and another friend got me work doing social media, writing online content, and stats for prep football.

Not all of your friends and networks are going to help you. Most of them don’t have the time to help. Be wary of the person who say  “I’m sorry for you” and facetiously act like they’re sad for you. They are the ones most likely never to offer support, encouragement, or assistance. 

“Jack of all trades”: After I became unemployed, I wanted to do something that was not insurance-related. When you’re in an industry or career for a period of time, you are stereotyped as doing that one thing forever. I went out on a limb and applied to be an unpaid intern for a local art agency. After that, three different stints as a temp for a human service agency, and two of the largest employers in my city. 

Since my first job out of college, whatever job I was supposed to do, evolved. I wore different hats and took on roles that I didn’t expect to do. Being adaptable in the workplace should be considered as a benefit, but most employers, sadly, prefer to hire a candidate who is proficient in one skill over one who is multi-skilled.  

Richard Lewis knows what it's like to get stood up.
Richard Lewis knows what it’s like to get stood up.

Move on after getting “stood up”: After a panel discussion in my mentoring class in 2013, a well-known retired local executive approached me. We spoke about my reasons for being in the class and my hope that the class could help me be fully employed again. He asked for my business card, told me there was someone who might be interested in me, said thank you and left.

I have not heard from him for two years now, despite attempting to reach out to this person.

This has happened several times with other local business leaders I have encountered. If I hold up my end of the bargain, how bad does it look if a leader/mentor doesn’t do the same?  

There will be people or groups that are not worth dealing with. If they have no interest in you, don’t bother attaching yourself to them. They are not worth the effort…and that’s their loss.

“Breakdown Dead Ahead”: All of us are going to have a breakdown. Not just mentally, but physically and emotionally. I have written about my health issues in the past. No, I don’t blame elected officials. That’s on me. I didn’t ask for help.

Just because we have a nation-wide health care plan, that doesn’t mean that you should let your health go south. Your doctors are not with you everyday to ensure that you are following orders. That’s your job.

What have I accomplished over the past five years?

  • created a personal blog (this one)
  • worked short stints in the human resource and marketing fields
  • created social media channels for a non-profit organization I serve on the board for
  • writing online content for a sports website
  • received two awards for community service
  • listened more to people (I already do that, but do it more intently)
  • learning about startups and entrepreneurship and its local impact (Bloomsnap, Dwolla, and Bawte for example)
  • not afraid to write something that could be unpopular or not considered as conventional wisdom

What do I hope to accomplish down the road?

  • be employed (of course)
  • start dating (I’m 38. How I haven’t done that is beyond astounding.  Hello Andy Stitzer.)
  • find another non-profit organization to volunteer for
  • do a better job of leveraging my networks
  • write a guest column for dsm Magazine (I doubt it’ll happen, but a guy can dream, right?)

The pieces we need in our lives are around us…we need to put them in the places that fit in our jumbled puzzle we call life. Hopefully, I will return to the working world. I need it, not just for the paycheck, but for the opportunity to have a passion and drive again to make something better and do good in society.


“Today, I Am A Bum”

Where this woman is at, is where I could be...shortly.

If I didn’t know about what I’m going to tell you today, please forgive me.  I was too busy with my volunteer obligations, trying to network with people, and sending feelers around town so that I can be one of you again…employed.  

I learned that my unemployment benefit has been whacked.  

After 16 months.  Not three years.  One year, 4 months.

I guess doing all of that networking and volunteering (without pay) was a waste of time.  Anyway, while I was busy hustling for work, the Iowa Legislature, notoriously known for being a “do-nothing” legislature (thanks and credit to David Yepsen), regardless of which political party is in charge, in March screwed around and missed a deadline to receive $14.5 million dollars from the federal government to extend benefits for roughly 7,150 individuals who have been out of work for at least a year.  7,149 folks, including me.  

At least I’m not alone.  

Regardless, it’s not a good thing.  

I'm not sticking my hand out for an entitlement. I want to shake your hand to thank you for giving me a chance to interview. This is what I want.

In the spirit of George Constanza’s dad, let me have my “Airing of Grievances” and tell you honestly what I think of all of this.  Trust me, I’m not angry or mad.  It’s too late for me to be upset.  I’ve resigned to the fact this is it.  

  • Thank you legislators, from Pam Jochum, Mike Gronstal, Kraig Paulsen, and that lunatic Kent Sorenson, for spending your time fronting your party’s (and your own personal) agendas and “willfully” not being proactive to address this and pass it.  I understand that some of you have never lost your job and don’t understand what it’s like to be in that spot.  

Unemployment isn’t supposed to be long-term, but damn, even some short-term relief could’ve been nice.  Not for me directly, but to those who have families and are trying to do everything to land a job.  

Remember, we are not bums or welfare queens.  We are one of you.  

  • Thanks to Iowa Workforce Development, Iowa Works, or whatever you call yourself these days.  I didn’t know that my benefit was out, until I checked my bank account and had to search like hell online to find out the balance of it (which was $0).  You didn’t bother to send a notice, letter, or an email to the 7,150 to let them know that they could lose their benefit.  We’ve been considerate of your time when we call or stop by your office.  

You couldn’t return the favor to us.  

  • Memo to Pam Jochum:  that McDonald’s comment you made when you were describing Governor Branstad’s budget?  Give Mickey D’s some credit:  they give a damn about people and want to see them back on their feet.  You and your colleagues get a stipend, on top of the salary you get at your “regular” day job, to camp out at the Capitol for a few months.  I bet you are too damn proud to find yourself flipping burgers with the rest of society, including those who voted for you, Paul McKinney, Ako Abdul-Samad, and Kevin McCarthy (Wartburg grad).
For as much as we joke about McDonald's, they're hiring 50,000. That's 50,000 people who will have a glimmer of hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Personally, I don’t lean either way politically, because I’ve learned that donkeys and elephants are not very bright animals people and their view of the world is different than those who live in real life everyday.  

Living in a political Ivory Tower will do that to some power-hungry people.  Except for those who are genuine about making the world a better place, and are willing to put aside their differences for the best interest of their constituents.  

Today, I’m expecting a new couch to be delivered.  Not out of my own pocket, but my mom’s.  She wanted me to have something new and nice.  The old couch was a hand-me-down from my little sister when she was in college…in 2001.  I would like to hand the new stuff back, but that’s not going to happen.  

So, while all of you “lawmakers” bitch and fight about “nothing” as you have done for the past 40 years, I’m faced with a multiple choice question:  A). put gas in my car; B). paying for the 140 Character Conference; C). paying the light bill; or D). go without insulin.  

Today, I’m no longer “unemployed”, a job seeker, or “underemployed.”  To all of you at the Iowa State Capitol, I am a bum, the bum that Brianna Karp hearkened that we are not.  I shouldn’t be saying that, but it is what it is. 

If you know anyone who wants an individual who has data entry, administrative, and filing skills, plus experience in volunteering, and is a quick learner, please send them here to this post and have them write in the comment section if they are willing to have me come in and talk to them.

I’ll be sitting in a coffeehouse, cell phone by my side, figuring out what my “passion” is and where to apply next, while lawmakers continue to tinker around and talk tough, while “doing nothing” and getting paid for it.  

This “bum” has to move on with his life.  

Unemployed, do not apply…

Yesterday, I received a heartfelt comment that was posted to the homeless and unemployed blog I wrote (“Unemployed and Homeless…in a new light”) on May 20, 2010.  I suggest you read the latest comment.  This subject has touched a nerve in a large number of people who are fighting to survive in this rough time.  As many of us are trying to find a silver lining and a glimmer of good news, some businesses and companies are making it tougher to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

CNN Money reported yesterday that businesses who are looking for new employees are going as far as to tell unemployeds to don’t even bother applying for jobs.  They want to only interview and hire those who still have jobs.

Personally, this is one more slap in the face to the growing number of elitist thinking by companies and the employed.  Rich Thompson, vice president of learning and performance for Adecco Group North America said he thinks ruling out the unemployed is a bad idea.

But he said that part of the problem is that recruiters and human resource departments are being overwhelmed with applications for any job opening that is posted. So they’re looking for any short-cuts to get the list of applicants to consider down to a more manageable size.

So, if HR is overwhelmed, may I offer a suggestion?  Why not hire someone with HR experience, who is unemployed and looking for a new job to get back on their feet?  Using short-cuts to eliminate unemployed who might be the best qualified is a travesty.

Unemployed and Homeless…in a new light

What is the one, or few, things you can’t afford to part with?  That worn out comfy couch?  That brand-spanking new CD/DVD burner?

What about your home, furniture, bed, everything?  Being unemployed forces you to sit down and figure out what can you sacrifice and prioritize your needs and wants.

U.S. News and World Report, in conjunction with Yahoo Finance, tells the story of one such person in Brianna Karp.  After losing her job, she sold her belongings and moved home.  After an incident with her bipolar mother, she was forced to move out and ended up with a truck and a trailer hitched to it and called it a home.  With no electricity, water, or the basic necessities, she was homeless.

Brianna Karp, right, and her boyfriend Matthew Barnes.

With the one thing she couldn’t live without, a laptop, she frequented Starbucks as she was searching online for jobs, sending out resumes, and started a blog titled “The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness.” Karp’s blog garnered so much attention, she landed an part-time magazine internship and an upcoming book deal in 2011.

While U.S. News focused on the 10 things that we can’t afford to live without, Brianna’s story stood out because she wrote about being homeless.  Homelessness cuts across the socioeconomic fabric of our world.  The homeless isn’t always the drunk, the drug abuser, the poor, or the one with constant bad luck and making bad decisions in life.  Brianna, through her blog, showed that even the most successful people, college graduates, those who work hard, can end up homeless through situations that are beyond our control, such as being laid-off.

Parents desperately taking low-paying jobs to ensure their children have a home to go to after school, the single person who tackles three part-time jobs and lives out of their car, or the person who searches and interview jobs, after using a restroom in a Wal-Mart, Perkins, or any other public places to wash up and brush their teeth.

We like to call the homeless “bums”, but should we be quick to call them “bums” when they are college-educated, smart, and are doing everything they can to land a job and earn income once again?  The shame of telling anyone that they are homeless, or even telling friends that they need help is challenging, as Karp explained in this excerpt in her first blog entry in February 2009.

Could I ask friends for help? Possibly. However, my closest friends have so many problems of their own right now – many of them are out of work, or live in small apartments, or have various other personal problems and I am certain that I would be a burden and an imposition on them. There is also the problem of my (very large) mastiff, who I would not dream of selfishly dragging with me into someone else’s home.

So, here I am.

-Brianna Karp, “Initiation” from “the Girl’s Guide to Homelessness,” February 23, 2009

As much as we want to ask friends, they are too busy with their lives and problems to help out.  We don’t want to bother them.  In the case with family, as painful as it sounds, some will be empathetic and some will look down with disdain. It’s like a badge of shame and failure.

It shouldn’t be, as Brianna wrote in her subtitle:  “You are homeless.  You are not a bum.” Unfortunate things happen, by our decisions or by something we can’t control.  It should temporary, but if there is no support, no direction, and no place to go, sadly it becomes permanent.  Some choose to give up because they are hopeless.  Other choose to keep finding a way, no matter how low life can be.

Has a “real” recession hit here yet?

Has the recession really "hit" Des Moines like Phoenix? Are we suffering through a recession "light"?

A few times over the past two weeks, I had a chance to talk to someone who recently returned here to Des Moines after living and working in Phoenix.  She had returned home after being laid-off and spending nearly a year trying to find a new job in Phoenix, but to no avail.

Currently, she is working part-time for a local restaurant.  She commented that her hours were being reduced due to slow business.  By no means is the restaurant is going to suffer much.  It’s a very reputable and long-standing establishment.  She went on say something that took me by surprise.  I will paraphrase her comments:

I don’t think Des Moines has gone through a “real” recession yet.  My hours are being reduced, even at a part-time job.  Financial services and insurance companies has taken a hit here, but has the recession affected everyone, or just in small pockets?

I thought Des Moines and Iowa were going through a recession, but I had to think about what she said in depth.  While it was no surprise that Wells Fargo, Principal, and other insurance/financial services business has been directly impacted by the recession, but what about the other business sectors like restaurants, engineering, and service industries?

Outside of the financial service sector, how has the recession affected other industries?  Has there been a downturn, upswing, or have things stayed steady here where we live?

It’s a fair question to ask, because we tend to see things from our own personal view and experiences.  An architect may see his profession as remaining steady, whereas someone working in insurance will think things are getting worse in that industry because of the “blood-letting” of layoffs and reduction of the work force.

Has the recession affected Des Moines or have we kind of “dodged” the bullet to a certain extent?

Lack of Empathy for the Unemployed from the Employed?

The Mighty and Proud Wall Street Journal
The Mighty and Proud Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has been following unemployed professionals in their journey to gain employment or to pursue their own dreams.

Today’s column by Gregory Lynn struck me as compelling because it’s feel like my voice is saying what he writes.  Are the employed empathetic to the unemployed and the employed who in jeopardy of losing their jobs?  I think some are, but not too much, because they do not want to imagine themselves out of the job.  It’s a natural fear.

I attend networking stuff a lot because I’m interested to learn more about people and their careers they have.  I’ve never had a career.  The career I had was one that I was never comfortable in.  As a result, I feel that I’m stereotyped in that career and my chances to explore a new career is severely limited. To add, I always get the vibe that we, as Young Professionals, don’t know how to relate and offer support.

We don't have bread lines like we did during the Great Depression, but the sentiment and the fear of being on the unemployment line still looms.

For Young Professionals, the zeal to shoot up the “ladder” is  good, but do we really help each other when one of us falls and has to pick up the pieces of what we lost?  Our jobs or careers is our identity.  They help others know who we are.  That philosophy is changing at a rapid growth and many of us are trying to catch up, but falling back every minute.

Here is Lynn’s column, as he expresses is concern that employed people do not show empathy or understand what unemployed people are going through.