Re-inventing yourself for jobs can be tough…

January 10, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

There was a commercial some years back about a couple of suspect chicken characters trying to sneak in the gate passing themselves off as Foster Farms chickens. The security guard shined his flashlight into their car and said:  “what’s this? it looks like freezer burn”.

Pretending to be someone or something you’re not is not easy.

It made me think about the plight of those looking for work in this dismal economy with the biggest yearly job losses recorded since the end of the second world war and in an economic climate reminiscent of the Great Depression.

More specifically, I was thinking of cast off newspaper journalists who find themselves in the unemployment line because newspapers after so long being on the deathbed are really dying. I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer for some 15 years (it seemed like a lot longer). And several times during that so-called career, as I call it, I found myself looking for work, sometimes due to my life decisions and as the years went by due to circumstances beyond my control.

Anyway, I found it particularly hard to get work out of my field in between newspaper jobs. And I write this not just with unemployed newspaper reporters in mind, but anyone who has to re-invent himself or herself to find work.

I know, the employment counselors always say you need to point out your transferable skills. I never was good at that, at least judging by the written and face-to-face responses I got.

Let’s see, as a reporter I wrote – but most people conjure up some eccentric novelist and don’t see any connection with their business. I typed (and the first part of my career I typed on a manual typewriter) – but even though I did take a couple of typing courses, I never really learned how to touch type, as they used to call it, as the secretaries do, although I do have my own modified touch typing system (keyboarding is what folks do today, I suppose). And reporting is not clerical work. I used the phone a lot, and then again, doesn’t everyone? I had to interact with people. But real journalists, I have read and I believe, are not people persons, as much as they are observers. As a reporter, even off the job, you’ll find a lot of people in social situations are either put off or intimidated by you. One wise guy glad handing loquacious local insurance agent once greeted me at a social affair with this gag line: “oh you tell everything you know.” And back to those supposedly transferable skills: yes, I was a photographer, but really the only kind of photos I was at all good at – and I was good – were on-the-spot news shots. And really, newspapers and magazines are the only ones in the market for that (and not so much now). These days with YouTube and everything else there is so much out there floating around for free there’s not as much demand. Guess I could have become part of the paparazzi – but not my thing. (Well, you see how this is going).

I firmly believe that telling someone or admitting to someone that you have worked in journalism is an interview killer right there. I could detect it on the faces of interviewers, even when they tried to smile and be polite and pretend to be impressed. Some of them even told me: “well, that’s fine, but we don’t put out a newspaper here.”

And once after I had gone back to college and got my BA degree (in political science and please don’t laugh as so many do when I mention that) and along with that obtained a useless paralegal degree from my university, an attorney interviewed me and noticing that I had worked as a reporter observed: “so, you’re used to telling the truth.” That would be a problem, he implied. That firm specialized in fighting against workmen’s comp claims, as I recall.

I didn’t get that job or any other in the paralegal field. And I should warn anyone here. If you think about going into a field, do a lot of research on it. Talk to a lot of people actually in the field and don’t fall into the trap of eliciting just what you want to hear.

But it’s not hopeless. If there are any jobs to be had you can get one. I did. And that proves it right there.

I’ve done quite a few different jobs over the years. I irrigated farm fields with ditch and sprinkler irrigation, picked fruit, was a tank crewman in the Army, worked at a sawmill, worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer, harvested worms for tropical fish feed, and drove big trucks. And I’m sure I left out some, but those were representative.

As I have blogged before, I lost my last newspaper job due to a corporate downsizing. And, due to various considerations I was not ready to simply move to another town at that time, so I took the drastic measure of totally changing my way of making a living.

I read an article in a free job news sheet that the long-haul trucking industry had such a demand for drivers (this was in the mid 1990s) that in some cases companies were offering free training and guaranteed jobs.

Strangely enough, I actually was rejected by a couple of companies (that journalism on my resume did not help). But finally, a company recruiter found on my resume that I had been a local delivery driver for a paint store (I forgot to mention that one earlier in this blog) and decided I could fit in.

That sent me off on a trucking career that lasted more than a decade, ending up with a shorter-haul outfit that paid well, very well. If I had not come down with cancer, as tough as times are now, as far as I know, I’d still be working. And I was paid a lot more doing that than in journalism. And, overall, I liked it. My last employer often demanded long hours and work in not always pleasant weather conditions, but paid well and paid for every minute of work, something more than I can say for a lot of journalism jobs and a lot of trucking jobs.

The best skills I brought with me into trucking I think are reliability, being able and quite willing to work on my own and make decisions without direct supervision, and being able to read a map and have a sense of direction (even that fails sometimes – all truckers have their nightmare getting lost stories).

Oh, and I have a quite extensive history in the strawberry root stock business too. On two occasions I worked out in the fields hefting burlap sacks and working on the back of a plant digger and working in the sheds dumping them onto tables for cutting. As a trucker I hauled those plants from fields and sheds to strawberry growers. And I hauled the finished product, fresh strawberries, from growers to the supermarkets or to the supermarket distribution centers.

I don’t consider myself to be handy enough to tag myself as a jack of all trades, but something akin to that – you know, a jack of all trades and a master of (almost) none.

Even though this post may not prove it or might even serve to disprove it, a writer is what I am and always have been.

And about the best advice I could give to any young person is to try to be what you really are and then be darn good at it. And I guess that applies to the not-so-young too.

Generally speaking, there is always a demand for people who are darn good at what they do.

Eagerness to do the job at hand and being able to express that enthusiasm is important too. I was on the other end of job interviews a couple of times and you’d be surprised at the number of applicants who just don’t give a darn. Why do they show up? I ask.

Showing up is the biggie, though. As Woody Allen put it: “half of life is just showing up”. 

P.s.  Never let a school counselor or any counselor sell you on a career. First of all, they usually have little to no real-world experience, and second of all, they may have something to sell. You are responsible for you and you have to do your own research. That means talking to real people, a lot of them, in your prospective field (and don’t worry, people usually love to talk about themselves).

Of course if you aspire to something that is not in big demand, you may have a problem – you have to decide if it is worth it. And, no matter what, you are likely to have to work out of your skill area for a time. But I would advise not turning your back on your true calling.