Last week Women’s Agenda ran an article on how to nail a job interview. It prompted a reader, who was made redundant last year, to write out of frustration and exasperation: the article really got her down. She has been looking for permanent employment since September 2013. Contract work is getting her by but the 26 year old says months of trawling jobs boards, writing applications every night, getting ready for interviews and the subsequent knock-backs when she misses out is taking its toll. She would like to develop her career and to do that she needs a job that suits her skill set.
I felt a great deal of empathy for her as I read her email. It reminded me of my own experience being unemployed. Several years ago my husband was offered a scholarship to complete a masters degree in Oxford. It was an opportunity we didn’t consider turning down.
It meant we moved from Australia to the UK and, obviously, in the process I gave up my beloved job in Sydney. I cried while writing my resignation letter which was addressed to the wonderfully kind and talented editor who, eighteen months earlier, had gone out on a limb and given me the job of my dreams . Even though I was emotional about leaving I didn’t anticipate a difficult road.
I was excited to be embarking on an exciting adventure, taking up an opportunity too good to pass up. That it was not my opportunity – at least not in a day-to-day sense — escaped me.
I had assumed I would find work easily but unfortunately I assumed wrong. I spent months building up a healthy collection of letters thanking me for applying for various positions and kindly letting me know that I would not be interviewed, let alone needed. I was applying for anything: administrative work, legal work, research, secretarial roles. Anything. I spent hours writing applications and getting my hopes up that a job would come my way. I rarely even got an interview.
Rejection letters from recruiters and prospective employers might not be a great yardstick to measure your identity by, but when they pile up it is difficult not to take it personally. We are more than the jobs we do but the cruel irony of being unemployed is that not having a job leaves an awful lot of free time to wonder.
I had studied at university for six years, in the hope that it would help me build a career. Now I couldn’t get a job as a secretary and it eroded my confidence. I genuinely believed my fledgling career was in tatters. Unemployment felt like it was going to be a permanent state of affairs and it was demoralising.
Eventually I got some temping work, the highlight being a job manning the phones at a garage. Actually the real highlight of the role was the dealership manager pointing at my then-pregnant stomach and asking how that had happened. Seriously.
In hindsight the experience taught me a lot. It forced me to navigate the truth that no job or job title represents my whole identity. Whether I worked at a car dealership answering phones (and vile questions) or as a lawyer in the city or as a journalist with a business magazine, I was still the same person. It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn but it has stayed with me. It was particularly valuable when it came to the first few months home with new babies.
Of course I can say all of this now with clarity and certainty because I have the benefit of hindsight. And, in particular, the benefit of knowing that my period of unemployment wasn’t permanent. It was one chapter, albeit long, in the book of my life.
And that is the thing I say to anyone and everyone who finds themselves, unwillingly, out of work: it won’t last forever. It might feel like it but if you keep applying and keep putting yourself out there something will come up. In the meantime take some comfort in that fact that you are not alone. I can assure you that if you speak to the people around you whose careers you admire they will tell you they have had at least one period in their life between jobs. No career is perfectly linear; redundancy and unemployment are part and parcel with life.
Yesterday I read that since the global financial crisis there is clear evidence that the job application and interview process is taking longer and longer . That obviously means job hunters will be out of the workforce longer. If that’s you, then seek out people who have experienced some unemployment, however brief.
Being out of work isn’t easy or fun but it won’t define you.