Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Finding balance after job loss


Losing your job—especially if you lose it unexpectedly and through no fault of your own—can be dehumanizing, terrifying, and can raise the stress level of your entire family in an instant.

I should know. It’s what I’m dealing with right now.

After 6 years as a contractor, and after surviving several corporate reorganizations and shifts in management, funding for my job was cut off and I’m back on the job market. What bothered me at first was that there was still work to do and people counting on me to do it. Someone made a financial decision that had nothing to do with my position. It’s not the first time. This is my third contract in 10 years with the same company. And it’s certainly not personal. But that doesn’t make it any better.

Now I certainly don’t live with the na├»ve expectation of a “permanent” job. I’ve been in the workforce long enough to know that there’s no company loyalty to workers anymore. Just about every position is “at will”, which is code for “we still expect you to give us 2 weeks’ notice, but we’ll fire you at the drop of a hat.” While that may sound bitter, it’s just realistic.

Being let go is particularly harsh when you work as a contractor. Suddenly you’re let go from 2 companies at once, the one you actually did the work for and the one who wrote your paychecks. Because unless they have something lined up for you, the agency is going to let you go as well.

Once you lose your job and deal with the shock of it, you have to jump into emergency mode and triage your entire life. What resources do you have? Do you have any savings? How long can you cover the rent or mortgage? How long can you keep the lights on? What’s in the pantry? Do you have enough medication or any upcoming doctor appointments? (Because, let’s face it, COBRA is prohibitively expensive.)

Once you’ve gone through all this, told your family, maybe some friends, and screamed into a pillow for a while, it’s time to start looking for a job. If you’ve been a good little worker-bee and stayed at your previous job for several years, you’ll probably have to start from scratch. You’ll need to re-do your resume and try to figure out what that’s even supposed to look like now. You’ll find it extra challenging if you were let-go without notice, unless you kept a log of the things you worked on.

Once you’ve got a resume worth posting you’ll need to set up profiles in all the job sites: LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Indeed, and other’s you may never have heard of before now. It’s exhausting and begins an endless cycle of updating your profiles over and over as you refine your resume.

Finally comes looking for a job. You comb the listings. You discover that a lot of listings you thought sounded like you on the surface are for completely different jobs. So, you adjust your resume, and all of your profiles, to weed out the words that describe the positions adjacent to, but very different from, your skillset.

Every job you apply for will ask you to enter your work history…again. You’ll get to upload your resume too. But they still want you to enter it all. Or you can pull it from LinkedIn, but then you’ll spend just as much time reformatting it.

Every one of these jobs will ask for a custom cover letter asking you to explain, not why you’re a good fit for the job, but why you excited to work for this company you’ve never heard of before today. If you’re a sarcastic pragmatist, like me, you’ll have to avoid being honest. Don’t say, “because you’re hiring” or “because I really like being able to pay my electric bill.”

I wonder how people who aren’t comfortable writing even DO all of this.

The entire process is exhausting. And then there’s the icing on the cake. People who tell you that looking for a job should be your full-time job.

I’ve had it said to me quite recently. But I have to disagree.

See, I tried it.

After losing my job on New Years Eve, I took a few days to regroup. First, I tried not to spoil the holiday for my family. Then, I jumped into triage mode. I was living, not quite paycheck-to-paycheck, but I was our household’s primary earner. Also, we’re still getting settled in our new home. So, savings were, not just limited, but largely earmarked for household projects. We had to look at which projects could be postponed, and which still had to happen, regardless of our situation. We marshaled support from family, which we are very lucky to have. I applied for unemployment. And we formulated a financial game plan. That took a few days.

After that, I locked myself in my office. From 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. I tried to keep the same schedule I’d had before. I worked on my resume. I tried to cobble together a portfolio—which I’d never needed before and which is a challenge because everything I’ve done for the last 6+ years has been proprietary. I kept on like this for weeks. 9 to 5. 9 to 5. 9 to 5…

I did what they say you’re supposed to do. I treated the search like it was my job. But it quickly became obvious that looking for a job isn’t really like having one. It’s a lot harder and required a different mindset and skills that don’t come naturally to everyone.

For one thing, I fell into my current career; I didn’t train for it. It’s work I’m naturally suited for and, over the years one job evolved into the next to the point where I’ve become rather specialized.

I write user-interface (UI) text for apps and for devices like smart phones, routers, smart watches, and those trackers you clip to your stuff so you don’t lose it. More than that, I analyze the text throughout the user-interface to make sure it’s all cohesive, that it makes sense, and that it makes the product easy to use. I also use my detailed knowledge of those user interfaces to improve user guides and the on-screen help so that every word contributes to a great user experience (UX).

Looking for a new job has been an exercise in seeing my work in comparison to more visible jobs. I know there’s a need for what I do, but it’s not the first thing managers think of when putting together a design team.

It’ sounds like a riddle:

I’m not a designer, though I’ve influenced more than a few designs over the years. I’m not a researcher. But I do take research findings and use that information to improve the text on the screen. I don’t code. Though I’m always mindful of whether a suggestion to add or remove text may impact the code by making it more complicated. Finally, while I write, I’m not a marketing writer. My job isn’t to sell the product. It’s to make sure people can use it once they buy it.
 What am I? I’m a UI/UX writer.

Some would say, go learn to do ALL THE THINGS and then apply for all the jobs. But in my experience, that doesn’t work out for anyone. The employer tries to save a dime by getting one person to take on the responsibility of 2 or more roles, but that person gets stretched too thin to provide excellence in any capacity. They don’t last at the job and what they produce isn’t very good.

Looking at job listings, I see a hazy line between design and writing and between different writing disciplines. While I am sure that employers would ideally want someone who can design every aspect of the UI, both visuals and text and then build and market it, each job requires a different skillset.

Designers need to be focused on the aesthetics, architecture, and mechanics of the product—the look and feel. This is visual work. Language and writing use a different part of the brain. UX researchers need to be focused on teasing information from product testers without leading them. They have to focus on the open-ended question and then compile all that data. My job as the UI/UX writer is to use that data to improve the user experience. And finally, while my writing does focus on the user experience, this is very different from the “UX writer” positions that I see out there that are all about marketing and SEO. They sell the product. I help make it work.

I’m a specialist. I know there’s need for what I do and I know it sometimes takes project managers time to see that. I’ll find that position eventually. But after weeks of spending 9 to 5, combing through job listings, the constant message of “we’re looking for someone, but we’re not looking for you,” was getting old fast.

Yet I continued because, looking for a job was supposed to be my full-time job.

I think it was a Thursday afternoon when my husband insisted that I get out of the house. It was around 2PM. I resisted because I was still “on the clock.” But he was concerned. He’d barely seen me in 3 weeks.

Being out of work and dealing with a sudden decrease in resources was hard enough, but the stress of spending all my time looking for work was taking its toll.

We had a long talk and realized that, while looking for a new job is certainly a very high priority, this was also an opportunity that I can’t afford to miss. While I’m short on money, I suddenly have an abundance of time.

So, I’ve made some changes.

If you’re like me, when you’re working, breaks are few and far between. I’ve worked as a contractor for 10 years now. That means, if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid. No paid holidays, vacations, or sick time. As a result, I’ve taken very few breaks. I’ve worked while sick. I’ve done my best to make up for every hour missed for doctor or dentist appointments, etc. Add to that a very busy year where we lost a home, bought a home, packed our lives, and moved to a new state and it’s fair to say I’m a bit frayed at the edges.

I’ve no intention of treating unemployment like a vacation, but I do need to recharge.

My plan is to keep diligently looking for work, but no longer to the exclusion of everything else.

Since Paul and I had our little chat, I’ve spent more time knitting. I’ve started writing again—as you can see. I’m trying to take more walks and even little drives to explore our new town—which I didn’t have time to do while I was working. I’ll be working to get Inclusive Ceremonies established in our new area. And I’ve also started volunteering with the local chamber of commerce.

Finally, I’ve started planning a vegetable garden and you’ll probably be hearing more about that in the coming months. The garden was always on our household to-do list. We’re starting from scratch. I knew I was going to have to buy seeds and tools and fertilizer, etc. and I considered putting it off. But the garden serves so many purposes that it’s become a necessity. It gives me a project to manage—a highly-detailed project with timelines and requirements to meet. It gives me something to write about, so I can keep my skills sharp. The garden will (hopefully) produce food. Which makes me feel a little less worried, should my lack of employment be a prolonged one. Hopefully it will produce more than we can use, in which case we might try to have a little farm stand and we’ll certainly give some away as well. Most importantly, the garden is an investment in the future, a symbol of hope, and a reminder that we have things to look forward to.

It took a while for me to stop feeling guilty about not spending every waking hour looking for work. And there are those who will still say that I should be spending all my time looking, or training to do something else (though that would take money we don’t have), or networking, networking, networking.

But for now, I say no to that. For now, I’ll seek a “looking for work/life balance” and see where that takes me.

My snow-covered garden
as seen from my office window.