Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One month down, ready to hustle?

Today marks the start of my fifth week of unemployment. At this point last year I had two job offers, plus strong leads for two additional positions. I was a hard charger, pushing forward, determined to get a significant pay raise, an impressive title, and the flexibility to pick my child up from daycare by 5:30pm. And after three months, miraculously, I had that.

This time around, every thing's different. While I've done a couple interviews, the results have been slower. Some companies are waiting for funds to arrive to hire for their vacancies. Others are so inundated with resumes that only the applicants in complete alignment with a niche are considered. Positions at organizations that have had layoffs are considering people who were laid off first. To make matters worse, I've heard from several people who were hired only to be laid off months, or even days, later.

Like my house it appears my worth has depreciated -- despite the fact that I have more skills and experience. There's simply less demand. As a result, I am expanding my job search to include freelance and temporary contract work. Or, as some of my friends like to call it: hustling.

Now, as any of you who have been on unemployment are well aware, you must report any money you make as a contractor to unemployment. Any amount earned that week is subtracted from your check. So, it's important to be selective about the types of work you take. Otherwise, you'll waste time better spent on networking and applying for full time positions--not to mention your routines to savor time.

Before accepting freelance work, ask yourself these questions:
  • Does the project excite me?
  • Is it in alignment with my professional (or personal) goals?
  • Will I meet people in a position to help me find additional work or a permanent position?
  • Do I have the proper equipment, software and resources available to complete the job?
  • How much time will this take me?
  • Is it worth the money? And how/when will I get paid?
  • Will this project be too stressful to manage while I'm looking for a full time job?
If you like your answers to the questions above, then sign the contract and start working. If you don't like your answers, then by all means, don't take the gig. You will have other opportunities. Trust your gut. Remember, you've only got six months to collect unemployment benefits. After that you're truly on your own and won't have the luxury of being selective. So use your months wisely.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Escaping the Doldrums

I'm not going to sugar coat it. Today was a really tough day. It was one of those days, inevitable in a job search, where hope seems futile. A day where no amount of previous effort seems enough. Where interviews were mercilessly rehashed in my mind. Where my email box was devoid of good news.

I spent several hours this morning writing and rewriting a blog post that went no where. I had lunch with a very nice woman, but neither one of us seemed to have the right connections for the other. I walked home from lunch in a DC heat wave, sweating and crying. No hope. No hope. No hope.

Upon returning to the house, I sat back down at my computer. Looked at all the job boards but found nothing of interest. Sent follow up emails to some friends. Ate a hand full of Oreo cookies.

I had entered a total, utter, state of self-pity.

It reminded me of this scene in one of my favorite childhood movies, The Phantom Tollbooth, where Milo gets stuck in the Doldrums -- a sticky, gooey, kind of drugged out place where nobody does anything. To get out of the Doldrums, he has to do useful things, such as spell words or recite multiplication tables.

And perhaps I was channeling that scene this afternoon. It started with the memory of a promise I made to a friend of a friend to help him find a summer internship in DC. I dug the email up and read his resume (which impressed the socks off me). I brainstormed a list of people who might be able to help him. I wrote a pitch email and sent it out.

Next, I saw one of my good friends had just created a LinkedIn account. I logged on and wrote an endorsement. While I was on, I remembered two other people I wanted to endorse and posted recommendations for them as well. Then, there was another friend of a friend looking for work, and I realized I had a great contact for her and emailed a request to connect.

By this point, it was 5:15, and I needed to dash out to daycare. While I was there, I was talking with the woman who watches my daughter and discovered that her daughter was searching for a summer internship at a hospital. And, again, a friend came to mind who might be able to help. Got home and sent another email out. Oh, and then there was another wonderful friend of a friend, who wrote asking for some fundraising help. Again, I thought of someone right away!!!

And just like Milo was able to pull himself up out of the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth, I pulled myself out of a really crappy day by helping others. While it's true that my search went nowhere today, I like to think that I helped someone get a step closer to their goals. Plus, I got myself out of the Doldrums.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Get Recommended on LinkedIn

Yesterday, I dedicated my morning to a surprisingly fun activity: endorsing people on LinkedIn. Actually, I got started by asking people to endorse me.

For the longest time I ignored this function on LinkedIn, fearing it would be too time consuming for the recipient and uncertain as to whether anyone would accept the request. As it turns out, my fears were completely unfounded.

For starters, of the eight colleagues I sent requests to six agreed to endorse me right away. Of those, five have already submitted their endorsements, all in the course of 24 hours! Which means I now have a recommendation for every job I've had since graduating college. But here's what really struck me: the warmth, generosity and sincerity of the recommendations people wrote. Many of whom I have not seen in years.

These endorsements were an excellent reminder for me of what I do best. It's one thing to write a list of qualities you embody in your work. Quite another to see what you're remembered for by colleagues and business partners. And knowing your strengths is a path to greater self-awareness and success in life.

But the real joy for me was reciprocating the gesture. Endorsing my colleagues brought back memories and a true appreciation for the talented individuals I've had the pleasure to work with over the years. It's nice to see how people have grown and flourished in their careers. I am so proud of the work they are currently doing and the amazing work that is yet to come.

Whether you're employed or not, I highly suggest dedicating an hour or two to endorse former colleagues and classmates. And don't be afraid to ask people to endorse you! LinkedIn manages the process with ease -- if you've never endorsed, or requested an endorsement before, here's a quick overview:

Request Endorsements:
  • Click the "Request Recommendations" button under your job title
  • Select a LinkedIn member from your contact database
  • Next, there's a form letter -- delete that and write a personal message to the recipient (Note: do not enter a name, LinkedIn automatically inserts "Dear [contact's first name]"for you although it doesn't show it to you in the form letter)
  • Once your contact has entered an endorsement, you will be alerted via email and instructed to review and "accept" the endorsement -- nothing is posted publicly until you approve it
  • After you accept the endorsement, you are immediately prompted to reciprocate the gesture and endorse your contact
Submit Endorsements:
  • Visit recipient's LinkedIn profile and click "Recommend" beneath the company where you worked together
  • Next, there's a form where you can submit the recommendation
  • Write a brief (2-3 sentences is fine) entry with a focus on positive attributes and qualities of the person you're recommending--also remember to state how you worked together, particularly if this is not apparent from your job titles at the time

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Resolutions

Being unemployed is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Earth Day to the fullest this year. And as I was pondering just what to do, I came across a Tweet from Whole Foods announcing a "simple green resolution" contest on their blog. The idea is to commit to one simple green resolution to start on Earth Day (to enter the official contest, visit the Whole Foods blog).

This inspired me to make some green resolutions of my own.

1) Stop using disposable bags. For some time, I've taken reusable bags to our grocery store, but I need to start using them for all shopping trips. To that end, I have two, compact bags that I carry in my purse. It's my mission this year to use them for all purchases!

2) Stop using disposable soda & water bottles. Luckily, giving up caffeine makes this resolution much easier. Still, with summer on its way, bottled water become ubiquitous at outdoor events. I think the key here will be planning. Drink plenty of water before leaving the house, and make sure to put some tap in a reusable bottle.

3) *Visit Theodore Roosevelt Island. Ever since moving to the DC area, I have gazed with curiosity at Roosevelt Island -- that small, easily missed National Park to the side of the GW Parkway in N. Arlington. This year I'm going to finally cross that footbridge and take a look around!

If you're unemployed like me, I hope you'll consider spending some time outdoors to celebrate nature today (even if in the rain). If you're at work, allow yourself a break to walk outside and appreciate the flowers, birds, and other creatures in your environment. Look up at that big beautiful dome of sky and think of the massive, endless space beyond it. We are living a little miracle here on Earth. Lets protect and appreciate what we've got.

*Addendum: I did, in fact, make it to Roosevelt Island today. Note to others considering a visit: bring a friend! It's a bit creepy walking around alone. That said, I saw the most amazing Pileated Woodpecker directly upon arrival -- a not so subtle sign that this is a place worth visiting.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Filing for Unemployment

If you've never filed for unemployment, the thought alone could quicken your pulse. Last year I had visions in my head of long lines, cranky government employees, piles of paperwork, and an entirely bureaucratic, outdated system that I would have to fight tooth and nail to get benefits. Well, I am here write: that could not have been further from the truth.

Compared to getting a passport or drivers license, obtaining unemployment benefits is remarkably easy. Or, at least, that has been my experience in Virginia (last year) and DC (this year). Both have a simple online submission process that requires minimum information and effort on the part of the filer. Once your account is established, your only work (aside from the obvious) is filing a weekly claim. Here's where Virginia and DC vary in their forms, though. Both require you to apply for a minimum of 2 jobs per week, but only Virginia requires you to enter specific information on the jobs in the weekly claim. While the extra step is annoying, I did feel an odd sense of security having my stats on file with the state. This time, I'll have to remember to keep a written account of the jobs I apply for, in case DC wants it. But, in the meantime, filing online takes less than a minute in DC -- and I love that.

Furthermore, once your claim is approved, it can be direct deposited into your bank account. Easy, easy, easy! The flip side is that you don't get very much money. My weekly payment is about what I made in a day at my last job. But, every little bit helps.

Some people don't file for unemployment out of pride. They consider it a benefit for "other people". I think this recession is starting to change that perception though. I mean, look at me, I've got a bachelors and masters degree. My last title was chief operating officer. And, yet, I am on unemployment right now, like millions of others across the country. There's no shame in that. There's no shame in saying, I did my best and now I need help.

When I was younger, I used to think: couldn't these unemployed people find work somewhere, doing something useful? Retail, food service, entry level office work. And while it's true, it might be easier to find something if you look outside your field, it's equally true that taking a job you hate is the quickest trip back to unemployment. It's a vicious cycle. Better to take advantage of the resources available to you, empower your search, and find a job that excites, motivates, and pushes you to the next level. Having a regular, albeit small, unemployment check each week is one such resource.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What I'm Giving Up

Unemployment is a time to consider what's essential. Last year when I was laid off, I had a really generous severance package and with lots of job prospects, I felt pretty secure with moderate adjustments. I reduced my gym membership to a restricted hours plan. I cut my allowance in half. We ate out less.

This time around, I'm not quite as confident. For starters, it's possible I'll be out of work longer than the 3 months it took me last time. And without severance, things get real pretty fast. I'm erring on the side of caution and giving up as many non-essentials as I can stomach. In particular, my entire allowance and entire gym membership. If you read my entry about working out for less then you know giving up the gym is not a big deal. I'll run and lift weights at my house for free.

Allowance is the real sacrifice. When my husband and I first got married, we opened a joint checking & savings account, but also opted to each keep a private checking account. All individual purchases come out of this account: clothes, shoes, haircuts, makeup, dining out, classes, entertainment, gum, magazines, books, music, etc.

Luckily, I had a bit of reserve saved up before becoming unemployed, which should get me through the next couple of months if I'm frugal. In the meantime, it's a fascinating study in what is and isn't essential to spend money on in the short run.
  • Clothes: I shouldn't need to buy new clothes. I have enough suits for interviews and jeans and t-shirts to wear around the house. Nonessential
  • Hair: My hair is really short right now, but no job = no bob. I'll need one last trip to the salon to get things evened out and ready to grow. Semi-essential
  • Makeup: I don't wear very much, but I stockpiled the expensive stuff at a Christmas sale. All the rest, I buy at the beauty bodega down the street for less than $6 a piece. Semi-essential
  • Entertainment: First, DC's full of free museums and many lovely parks. Second, my bedside drawer is stacked with books I haven't read. Third, we've got NetFlix, TiVo and various online viewing options. Nonessential
  • Eating out: This is both an easy & hard one. It's extremely easy for me to eat what's in the house. On the other hand, one expense that's always worth it (especially in unemployment) is connecting with people over lunch and drinks. Essential
All told, this is a pretty lush life. And while I guarantee there will be times when I am lusting after some it shoes, clothes, or gadgetry...I'm going to try very hard to keep things in perspective and wait. I know what it's like to have credit card debt, and I don't want to experience that again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Refinance Denied

Five years ago my husband and I bought a severely neglected 1940s era condo/townhouse. The windows were shattered, the bathroom destroyed, and the kitchen a virtual cockroach morgue. And yet, at the tender age of 25 & 26, we saw potential. We also thought it might be our last chance to buy something. The market was steadily rising above our means.

The first year in our home we saw drug deals on the street and sidewalks littered with used condoms, diapers, and half drunk 40s. We had neighbors knock on the door asking to borrow money for beer. A cop stopped my husband, on a walk with our dog, to say: "This is a bad neighborhood. Better walk your dog somewhere else, buddy."

Undeterred, we focused on what we could control. We replaced the windows, the back door, and the bathroom. We tore up the cheap carpet and refinished the hardwood floors. We removed the kitchen cabinets (and the shower of cockroach carcases behind them). We replaced the banister and the radiator covers. We painted the rooms. Put wood blinds up on the windows. Bought a new range for the kitchen.

And as the years passed by, the neighborhood started to prosper. New owners made similar improvements to their units. The condo association hired a professional groundskeeper. The condo board became more pro-active. And a really cool collection of neighborhood kids started hanging out in our cul-de-sac -- skateboarding, riding bikes, playing games -- adding a sense of community to the place. More neighbors moved in with dogs and kids.People learned each other's names.

And I suppose with all of the improvements to the external and internal landscape of our life here, I thought we might have some hope of refinancing our home this year. We didn't enter the process blindly. We stay current with housing prices on RedFin and Homes Database. We're aware of foreclosures in our neighborhood. So, two weeks ago, I cleaned every inch of our home. Decluttered, organized, vacuumed, scrubbed. I bought flowers. I baked cookies.

My husband and I attentively greeted the home inspector. Pointed out all of the improvements to our home. The place never looked better in its history. And I couldn't help feeling a sense of pride. We had transformed this modest crack house into a warm, inviting home. We had done everything possible to make this place presentable. There could be no regrets.

And I think that's why I cried when we got the estimate. We bought our home in 2004 for $235,000. In 2005 and 2006, similar condos in our association went for well over $300,000. In 2007, it dropped to $270,000. And now, here in 2009, our home is worth an estimated $145,000. Refinance denied. We would have saved $450 per month on our mortgage had it gone through. That would have helped ease the burden of being unemployed.

I know this is not a unique story. People all over the country are experiencing it. And I could be mad at the banks for irresponsible lending; or borrowers for irresponsible dept; or the government for allowing it to happen. But, in truth, I am responsible. The buck stops here. We haven't been lucky in many respects this past year or two, but it's material. We've got our health. We've got each other. And, really, we've got a home that is so darn full of love I can't help but feel joy in what we've accomplished here. It reminds me of that old camping adage: leave your site cleaner than when you arrived. We've done that here. We're living it. Regardless of what it is worth, we came here and made this house a place worth living in.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Vacation Patience

Last week I was out of town for a long anticipated vacation. Even though it was only my second week unemployed, I committed myself to the break: no job hunting, no Tweeting, no blogging. This would be a true break from all work.

And, you know what? It was really hard. As much as I wanted to stay present and enjoy every millisecond of my break, those creepy, lingering thoughts popped up in my head:

"You're not working hard enough. You'll never be able to afford another vacation. If you don't Tweet, blog and email this week, people will loose interest. You're just one in a billion people looking for work right now, and those people aren't on vacation."

Meanwhile, I'm in a visual paradise. Ocean views out the front window. Steps away from a nature preserve of wetlands speckled with egrets and a driftwood beach. Gorgeous 70 degree weather, sunny with a light breeze.

I still got lost in my thoughts, replaying interviews and responses in my head. Plotting out action steps. Fretting over details.

One thing that did help: I made a conscious effort to observe my thoughts. Each time I started to wander into a critical, self-defeating diatribe, I could hear another voice calling out in the distance:

"Give yourself a break, Katie -- you're on vacation! There's nothing you can do about the past or future. You're living now and you're in paradise."

And now I'm back. Sitting on the old couch in the living room, looking out at our budding dogwood tree. The world went on while I was gone. It was good to have a break. And it's also good to be back: blogging, Tweeting, emailing. Enjoying the work that is my life right now. Trying to be patient as the future unfurls itself like the buds on our tree.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Social Networking and The Organic You

It strikes me how completely different the start of my job search is this year than last year. For starters, social networking. I know there have been a million blog postings and articles about this already. But it's one thing to read about it, quite another to experience it.

Where as last year, I sent an email announcement to friends and colleagues that I was looking for work, this time I put it in my status on Gmail and Facebook. I Twittered. I blogged. And the responses came in, just the way they did last year. So what's changed here? Different methods. Similar results. Well, yes...and no.

Getting leads is about the same. But the process after that is different. This time, I'm prepared for employers to follow me on Twitter, read my blog, friend me on Facebook, join my network on LinkedIn. They will have access to my hobbies and pastimes, causes and interests, past jobs, current thoughts, future aspirations.

And, there's something very organic and lovely about that.

Because, after all, humans are not very good at describing themselves. I could write you a novel about who I am, but you would get a more accurate view by:
  • observing my interactions with friends;
  • seeing how I align myself to causes, interests and ideas; and
  • reading my thoughts about topics other than myself.
That's why a cover letter and resume only tell a very small part of the puzzle.

I'd like to think that this "organic me" available online is a better representation of my potential as an employee. That if a company takes the time to see me in my native surroundings, they will know pretty quickly if I'm in alignment with their company culture and ultimately a good fit for their team. And that's what I'm really searching for in the next job, the ideal alignment of my interests, goals and aspirations with that of my employer.

So, if you're thinking of hiring me: thanks for visiting. This is me -- the organic Katie Kemple.

If you're looking for a job (like me), I suggest embracing your organic online self and be active!
  • Showcase your interests: Blog, Tweet, and comment about things you love and care about. What's important to you and when is the last time you sent a link, posting, or comment about it?
  • Increase your interactions: Show future employers how you collaborate with others, lend support, and share ideas. Are you a team player online? Do you comment on other people's posts? Do you offer help?
  • Follow prospective employers: Read their blog posts, follow them on Twitter. Discover who they are organically online. Do they have a similar hobby? Are their work ethics and philosophy in alignment with yours?