Tag Archives: Jobseeking

I’m a day job superhero

keep-calm-and-don-t-quit-your-dayjobA Writer’s other resume.

I’VE been writing full-time for six years, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually told anyone I am a writer.

The jobs of wordsmith – writing, rewriting, editing, selling, waiting – have occupied so much of my time that I have gone through two (diminishing) eyesight diagnoses. If I was a Hipster using a real typewriter, by now I’d have RSI…

But what I do carry is a certain amount of shame about my vocation.

“All-you-can-eat free popcorn is not a great deal after all.”

I know exactly why this is. Firstly, I have not had any of my major works published or performed (yet). Secondly, I still suffer from the illusion that it’s one’s day job – that which you get paid for – that is the only acceptable answer to that most difficult of questions for anyone who has not chosen a safe career: “So, what do you do?”

I worked on a print floor in my last year of school, and waited tables to put myself through university, but I don’t count these as real ‘day jobs’.

Day jobs are those employment periods you undertake to survive while keeping dreams alive. The Queen of day-jobbers was New York writer Helene Hanff, who floated her writing on the greatest number of day jobs I’ve ever encountered in a creative.

I’m proud of my day jobs. They’ve saved me from hunger and homelessness, and given me great inspiration for writing.

So, here it is – my ‘other curriculum vitae’ – another way to look at what I’ve done with my life.

Male applicants considered

When I moved to London a friend lined me up with her employment agency, who leapt at the chance to have a man on her books. I only managed to type 36 words a minute (40 was the minimum), so was sent to walk the halls of HarperCollins publishing in west London as a mail trolley boy. Most annoying moment: being so close to real publishers on a daily basis, but having nothing to submit. Career defining moment: deciding I was meant to start writing seriously.

Catering experience essential

If you can’t get a traineeship with the BBC, and you weren’t in the Cambridge Footlights, you can still have a career in London entertainment if you start as a post-production runner. Like ‘sandwich artist’ is designed to net desperate creatives, so ‘post-production runner’ entraps desperate media wannabes… it’s basically catering for the fabulous people. Most annoying moment: not having enough ciabatta to serve lunch to a hungry media maven. Career defining moment: resigning in order to find a job making programs instead of catering for them.

The misunderstood usher in Edward Hopper's 'New York Movie'.
CINEMA LEGEND The misunderstood usher in Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’.

Good screen presence preferred

Ushering is the staple income of performers – it’s so close to the stage and the screen you can smell it, yet it’s far enough away to keep you driven to find your break wherever you can take it. South of the Thames in the genteel village of Greenwich I took to ticket collecting and didn’t look back. Most annoying moment: realising all-you-can-eat free popcorn is not a great deal after all. Career defining moment: seeing movies so many times I came to understand they’re full of the kind of mistakes media students routinely get shamed for.

Vegetarians need not apply

I came home from England, came out, and landed in career no-man’s-land. When the applications went nowhere, I went to the local Coles supermarket to work in the delicatessen. Refreshing the grey surface of trays of liver has never been as exciting. Warning for shoppers: deli staff give you nick-names based on your lip-licking, hungry-eyed facial expressions. Most annoying moment: having to hide in the cool room to avoid my high school classmates and teachers. Career defining moment: my Food Handling and Hygiene Certificate.

Willing to travel

It got me out of liver and shaved ham, but the travel industry was undiscovered country of its own. Daily struggles with brochure sorting, accounting systems, and fakey-fake customer service saw me come undone about the time I was let go because they only needed someone to cover the pre-Christmas rush. Most annoying moment: having to remind the boss that giving discount deals only to straight people was actually illegal. Career defining moment: seeing the new girl with the Ivana Trump hairdo go to lunch and never come back.

Mature outlook a positive

Suddenly widowed at 34, career dreams down the toilet, I joined the ranks of return-to-work mums and the recently redundant, caring for older people living in their own homes. Most annoying moment: when I realised the system was so stacked against many older people there’s almost nothing you can do to really help them. Career defining moment: it’ll come to me one day.

Good night vision a plus

Taking punters’ tickets at the door, playing with sound and light in enormous accoustically-perfect caverns, telling stories with drama and comedy, and often getting a round of applause… well, cave guiding was a distracting day job and fitness program in one. Most annoying moment: the petty jealousies and power trips of the public service… can’t pick one. Career defining moment: fooling entire Ghost Tour groups into believing we were completely lost.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Face-to-face and kept waiting, but who cares

BEST FLIPPER FORWARD in the jobseeking game.
BEST FLIPPER FORWARD in the jobseeking game.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment, Part Two.

FOUR months and 70 applications since my last job, I gave up applying for work using the internet and employment agencies, doubtful of the software used to scan applications for keywords. Instead, I turned to my local paper.

There was no shortage of positions advertising a “no more commuting” lifestyle and I could have applied for any of them using pen and paper … but I’d have to think laterally about my skills. My interview drought broke.

First time was a local antique shop seeking a part-time sales person. With experience in design and decorative arts, in addition to sales, I had skills to sell. The interview began as most do, but out of the blue I was asked for one word which described me positively and negatively.

Keywords, again.

I panicked, blurting out “perfectionist”. That seemed to go down well. But the next day I got a message saying I’d come a “very close second”. It was during the Olympics, so I wondered if my bank would accept a silver medal for a mortgage repayment.

INTERVIEW INSIGHTS try not to be as weird as they are!
INTERVIEW INSIGHTS try not to be as weird as they are!

My second was for a part-time administration job with a local training company. I was interviewed by the vice-principal and the CEO, who was so enthusiastic about his company that I worried I might be asked to invest. It proved difficult to sell my training and admin skills against that energy, and as I left I was presented with a corporate-branded showbag full of company merchandising.

Lovely. They’d get back to me in a few days.

Over a week later I got a call saying they’d found someone excellent. The showbag went into the recycling bin.

A group interview for a housekeeping job at an eco-lodge started late when two of us got lost in the bush on the way. The manager scanned our physical fitness for bunk-bed making abilities, and said there was no probation – you were either an expert bed maker or not. One applicant immediately excused herself, citing back problems, , and the manager all but gave the jobs to me and the other guy, saying he wanted to increase the male staff.

Maybe I wasn’t man enough, since I got turned down. I saw the other guy at the supermarket later that week with his young family, beaming with new-found buying power, while I still had to budget.

A fantastic job requiring every shred of my communication skills taunted me throughout this period. I spent a week preparing the application but heard nothing for two months, when a call came with an apology for the delay and an offer of an interview. To me, a “delay” is a train 20 minutes late, whereas a two-month silence could be concealing a shemozzle.

Well after the appointed time I was left waiting, fending off annoyance by soaking in the wonderful natural surroundings of this cultural organisation. Finally I was in front of a panel and almost an hour of scenarios and questions. They took notes, asked me to extend on my resume and discuss my future plans and dreams working with them.

By then I really wanted the job, based on the human contact alone. At last I was being genuinely scanned by other souls, not computers or employers who felt they were the only ones with needs.

Two weeks later I got the offer. Relief flooded through my bones as I arranged my start date, which is not for another two weeks. But I think this will be a long, mutually beneficial association worth a lot of patience.

Since my job-seeking began the economic crisis has kicked in and I am no longer in the minority – I have crossed paths with many others desperate for interviews. Employers are advertising fewer jobs and asking staff to move sideways or take pay cuts.

PANEL SHOW Sometimes they're a relief.
PANEL SHOW Sometimes they’re a relief.

Employment agents are attaining minor celebrity status as they are asked how to secure a job in the current crisis. No wonder I had problems earlier on.

But I have come to understand that people get jobs in many unconventional ways. My friend who first told me about the application scanning software recently had a great position created for her because her company “just liked her” at an interview, even though the advertised job went to someone else.

Human contact, not human-computer contact, seems to be the real key – presenting yourself as you are, not allowing yourself to be filtered by technology. I was lucky that my search led me to a company which still expects its human resources staff to select candidates using gut feelings alone.

I’ve been asked my advice about online job seeking, keywords and application scanning, but since none of these involves human contact I avoided them, and stopped applying for any job which did not provide access to a real person within the company. It’s been a challenge to swim against the tide.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Keywords don’t tell my story, and scans fail me

SCANNING NOW But not by a person.
SCANNING NOW But not by a person.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment.

FOR three months I’d been applying for jobs like a mad thing, sending my details to agencies, job sites, networks, and written whole novels responding to advertisements. Yet in 70 applications I’d completely failed to secure a job.

Advice columns advised: “Don’t take it personally”, but that was getting harder to cop as I endured a shame spiral. I was a highly employable, qualified, and experienced media worker, with a resume spanning 16 years and three continents. I couldn’t see what made me so unattractive to employers.

Counselling from a fellow jobseeker gave me a clue. I was under the illusion that I was communicating with the gatekeepers of the land of the employed – agents, human resources staff – people, basically. But my friend enlightened me about the software used to scan many job applications.

I felt complete shock. All that time I’d been blocked by a computer? What did they want? Keywords, apparently. Like passwords in fairy tales, they hang in the air magically bestowing access to an income – if only I could name them.

I did some footwork and found whole websites devoted to keywords and sample resumes which made sample applicants sound like Orwellian robots.

The software had been around since my career began. A decade ago it was the tool of Fortune 500 companies wanting to filter top applicants from time wasters. Now no one is keen to admit how prevalent its use is.

Sympathetic friends suggested I cold-call companies. It became apparent that this once tried-and-true technique is now used by agencies seeking jobs for their clients and commissions from employers. Human resources departments don’t take calls or give out contact details much anymore. They don’t need to if their agency is seeking candidates for them.

The online resume forms for employment agencies smacked of the software, so I tried a few keywords I’d seen suggested in advice columns. Mirroring the vocabulary of the selection criteria, I just regurgitated the kind of words found in annual reports and mission statements. I was dumbing myself down to a degree I’d never experienced.

FILL THE FORM If there's a form to fill, that is.
FILL THE FORM If there’s a form to fill, that is.

I yearned for the good old days, when a job application letter and resume was acknowledged with at least a written response.

Now the average job application takes days to complete and months for companies to process. By the time you’ve responded to all the ‘essential’ criteria, the ‘desirable’ criteria loom on the horizon like the second half of a marathon. If you still apply knowing you don’t possess all these wish-list skills (could any candidate on earth match them all?) you must then relate a demonstrated ability or some proven skills in all of them, and keep the application short. It still baffles me how it’s possible to demonstrate or prove anything using words alone and remain succinct.

If you’re lucky you’ll hear the outcome of all this work. Invariably you’ll hear nothing.

One of the few replies I received was a rejection letter for a job I didn’t even apply for. Wonderful to open a letter from a real person, but pitiful they were letting me know the outcome of my non-application and my non-addressing of the selection criteria.

I have no problem admitting there are a few challenged in employing me. I live a two-hour commute from the city. I have some anomalies in my resume resulting from a bereavement period and a temporary illness. I have a mainstream career pathway in media, but also worked in sales, hospitality and aged care at times to get by.

Does this not exhibit tenacity, lateral thinking and honesty? If the software didn’t value such keywords, then I was going to need a bit of self-help.

I started doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Working through much anger to unearth what I enjoy doing, I realised that in all those job applications, I was seeking validation, an answer to that most judgmental of social questions – “so, what do you do Mike?”. When I can’t answer that, I feel a deep sense of shame.

Not securing that validation this time around could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I have dusted off my writing and illustrating skills, converted the shed into a studio, downsized my finances, applied for local jobs, and started telling people I’m using skills which I love.

It feels frightening at times, but I am forging ahead regardless.

I don’t want my epiphany to let employers off the hook. A wish list of what is required in an employee deserves to be met, and the candidates thrown up by the software might meet all the criteria and more, but isn’t that just a system being cleverly played?

Whatever – you won’t ever know me if you just scan me.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.