I've been lucky.
For years I did secretarial and administrative work. I managed to get a job as an entry level programmer because I'd shown that I know my way around a Mac and wasn't intimidated by computers. I'd already taken a couple of grad school courses, and he gave me a break. Without that, I would have been stuck in secretarial work in perpetuity, like most other sociology majors.
I have a master's degree in Management Information Systems, obtained almost entirely on the dollar of employers. It took me five years to do it, one class at a time, but it didn't break the bank for me to get it. That one of said employers nearly drove me to consider suicide and the other ended up not having anything to do is not the point. The point is that when recruiters were telling me that I was "light on the tech", the degree gave me a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to later potential employers.
At the end of August, 2008, I was laid off after eight years in the same job. For the first five years, the work I was doing gave me some passing familiarity with the area in which I work now. After that, it was mostly make-work web and marketing projects until the grant funding dried up. I had six weeks notice of when my last day would be, and I'd been hoarding vacation time (when your job is at a nonprofit associated with a state agency, you can do that). So all told, by the time I walked out the door for the last time, I'd had six weeks to find a job, I had six weeks of full pay coming, and then another six months of unemployment. I was at least hopeful I'd find something.
I was 53 years old.
This is not an age where you want to be laid off, not when your skills are primarily web development using tools that are not what most of the industry wants. But I was intrepid. I knew the kinds of things I could do, what I wanted to do, and I tailored resumes for each. I think I sent out over a hundred resumes in the first two weeks after I got the word. I got lucky, in that a co-worker contacted a friend who checked her employer's job postings and found one in one of the areas at which I was looking. I applied for the job, got a response that the job had been filled, but that there was another one in the group. That was the one I got.
It wasn't that I was so wonderful. I recall answering many questions on the interview as "No, haven't done that....No, we had a guy who did that....No, I wasn't involved in that." But apparently what I do is this screwy little niche in which there aren't many people. There were a number of openings, and I got one of them. I think some of it was that I interview well and I have a pulse.
The learning curve has been unbelievable. I've spent a year and a half cramming information into my head as fast as I can; medical terminology and practices, preposterous deadlines, dragging international teams kicking and screaming through the development process. It's been 80-hour weeks, bouts of frustration that make me want to jump out a window.
But at least I have a job and I was lucky enough to get laid off literally right before the U.S. economy and job market went completely into the toilet.
I was lucky. I could have ended up like this
The tough environment has been especially disorienting for older and more experienced workers like Cynthia Norton, 52, an unemployed administrative assistant in Jacksonville.
“I know I’m good at this,” says Ms. Norton. “So how the hell did I end up here?”
Administrative work has always been Ms. Norton’s “calling,” she says, ever since she started work as an assistant for her aunt at 16, back when the uniform was a light blue polyester suit and a neckerchief. In the ensuing decades she has filed, typed and answered phones for just about every breed of business, from a law firm to a strip club. As a secretary at the RAND Corporation, she once even had the honor of escorting Henry Kissinger around the building.
But since she was laid off from an insurance company two years ago, no one seems to need her well-honed office know-how.
Ms. Norton has sent out hundreds of résumés without luck. Twice, the openings she interviewed for were eliminated by employers who decided, upon further reflection, that redistributing administrative tasks among existing employees made more sense than replacing the outgoing secretary.
One employer decided this shortly after Ms. Norton had already started showing up for work.
Ms. Norton is reluctant to believe that her three decades of experience and her typing talents, up to 120 words a minute, are now obsolete. So she looks for other explanations.
Employers, she thinks, fear she will be disloyal and jump ship for a higher-paying job as soon as one comes along.
Sometimes she blames the bad economy in Jacksonville. Sometimes she sees age discrimination. Sometimes she thinks the problem is that she has not been able to afford a haircut in a while. Or perhaps the paper her résumé is printed on is not nice enough.
The problem cannot be that the occupation she has devoted her life to has been largely computerized, she says.
“You can’t replace the human thought process,” she says. “I can anticipate people’s needs. Usually, I give them what they want before they even know they need it. There will never be a machine that can do that.”
Ms. Norton has spent most of the last two years working part time at Wal-Mart as a cashier, bringing home about a third of what she had earned as an administrative assistant. Besides the hit to her pocketbook, she grew frustrated that the work has not tapped her full potential.
“A monkey could do what I do,” she says of her work as a cashier. “Actually, a monkey would get bored.”
Ms. Norton says she cannot find any government programs to help her strengthen the “thin bootstraps” she intends to pull herself up by. Because of the Wal-Mart job, she has been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she says she made too much money to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid last year.
“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help and any hope of finding work out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”
Ms. Norton, for her part, may be reluctant to acknowledge that many of her traditional administrative assistant skills are obsolete, but she has tried to retrain — or as she puts it, adapt her existing skills — to a new career in the expanding health care industry.
Even that has proved difficult.
She attended an eight-month course last year, on a $17,000 student loan, to obtain certification as a medical assistant. She was trained to do front-office work, like billing, as well as back-office work, like giving injections and drawing blood.
The school that trained her, though, neglected to inform her that local employers require at least a year’s worth of experience — generally done through volunteering at a clinic — before hiring someone for a paid job in the field.
She says she cannot afford to spend a year volunteering, especially with her student loan coming due soon. She has one prospect for part-time administrative work in Los Angeles — where she once had her own administrative support and secretarial services business, SilverKeys — but she does not have the money to relocate.
“If I had $3,000 in my pocket right now, I would pack up my S.U.V., grab my dog and go straight back,” she says. “That’s my only answer.”
With so few local job prospects and most of her possessions of value already liquidated she has considered selling her blood to help pay for the move. But she says she cannot find a market for that, either; blood collection agencies, she said, told her they do not buy her blood type.
“Sometimes I think I’d be better off in jail,” she says, only half joking. “I’d have three meals a day and structure in my life. I’d be able to go to school. I’d have more opportunities if I were an inmate than I do here trying to be a contributing member of society.”
The author of this article is a condescending asshole who equates the many tasks an administrative assistant does with "filing." Where I work now, our administrative assistants plan meetings (many of them out of town, requiring elaborate international travel arrangements). They take care of food service for meetings, they make sure the supply cabinet is full and the printers have toner. When the e-mail menu item is missing from the copier/scanner and you think you're going crazy, she assures you that you're not. They coordinate office moves, something of which there's been a lot lately. When you need something, they always have the answer. I know what these women do because I've been one of them. But because they're always still thought of as "file clerks", they're regarded as expendable.
The woman profiled in the article may not want to admit that some of her skills are obsolete, but administrative work isn't just about typing and filing and answering phones. And she isn't just sitting and whining about her job category no longer existing. She's tried to get "retrained" only to find that having a certificate from a tech school doesn't get you in the door. It's the old "You can't get a job without experience and you can't get expeience without a job Catch-22. Add the fact that she's over fifty to the equation, and she is pretty much up a creek without a paddle.
What are people like this supposed to do? What happens when you do everything right and your job is outsourced or eliminated and you go into hock getting "retrained" and STILL can't find anything because you don't have practical experience, or you're not pretty anymore, or they think you're going to cost too much in health care? Are we as a society going to just throw all of this life and work experience in the garbage? And it isn't just older workers, it's young workers too who find that their conventional education is worthless.
When are we going to wake up and instead of blaming immigrants and black people and screaming about Obama and socialism, realize that for the last thirty years there has been a systematic effort, now largely successful, by corporate interests, to eliminate the middle class and push those who used to be in it down into poverty?
Labels: economic death watch, employment