This week on Ask Victoria we're tackling the emotional challenges of job hunting and feeling stuck.
I am currently unemployed and volunteering at a nonprofit in northern Virginia. I am writing material for the blog of a famous person but I am broke and cannot find a decent paying job.
I am a bit frustrated. Firstly, I am 59 years old and in not too long I will be 60 years old. I have struggled in DC for years trying to make it in nonprofits. I have done a lot of writing for websites and newsletters in addition to my work as an administrative assistant. I also have a Masters Degree. I worked in several small nonprofits including a small environmental group that closed for lack of funding. I even worked for a while in law firms and taught myself paralegal skills and was getting a slightly better income. But now this is restricted to formally trained people.
It is very depressing to see people in their 20s and 30s who are making it and may eventually spend a good deal of time doing something having to do with substantive issues of a nonprofit. Admin work was never my strength and I don't find it that interesting.
I am passionate about doing something related to the environment. I have even thought of going back and studying biology or natural resources management though this seem pretty unlikely. The most frustrating thing is that I followed my friends advice to stress my writing skills which everyone says I do very well. Today, despite years of doing writing as part of my job, I was told by a temp agency that I would be a better fit for the administrative department than for their creative and marketing jobs.
I am scared that I will end up as an impoverished old man who can only be a secretary after years of trying to do something more with my life. I don't want to sound like a snob, but that is just not what I wanted to do with my life and it is not something I will ever be great at. It's extra sad since my low income has interfered with my getting married and having a family. What can I do? It seems very strange that after doing so much to help out nonprofits with my writing for their websites and newsletters that I find I am considered very entry level for this.
I know that young people do get out of school, start out doing admin jobs or internships, and advance to working on policy, managing projects, writing for websites and newsletters or analyzing policy. How is this done?
I sat with your note for quite a while before I put paper to pen and responded. As you were so candid with not only your career story but also your personal life, I wanted to take particular care in addressing your question.
I was compelled to share it with Idealist Careers readers as I am sure many may relate to your experience- a lower income possibly interfering in meeting a mate, marrying, and starting a family while dealing with the other issues that come with getting older. And if not that exact situation, I’m sure many can affirm that they’ve missed opportunities or had other regrets due to an issue-financial or otherwise- plague their minds and hearts.
Before I continue with the more practical advice, I invite any of our readers who’ve had an “I’ve been there” moment to share any words of advice, consolation, or encouragement in the comments below. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of having the support of community, and encourage you all to see Idealist Careers as a safe place to share.
Next, let’s get to the bright areas that I see glistening amongst the more somber words in your note. While your salary may be low and your job title may not be the one you had hoped for, I’ve seen some positives that you can work with. You have writing experience, a master’s degree, and experience at nonprofits. Then there was that interesting nugget right in your very first line: “I am writing material for the blog of a famous person…”
WAIT! Hold up, because I have questions and comments about this:
Are you getting paid for this work?
If you’re not, you should be! It’s great to get experience under your belt by doing pro bono work, but it sounds like you’ve been writing for years and should be able to gain extra income using your gifts. I’m not sure what the financial situation of this famous person is, but I’m going to wager he can pay his writer. And if he is paying you, perhaps it’s time for an increase.
I’m going to anticipate that the money conversation might be an uncomfortable one for you to start. It is for many of us (yes, me included!). The best way to tackle your discomfort is to prepare yourself before you ask. If following this advice sounds like it might make even a small improvement to your finances, give it a try and report back to me- I’d love to hear how things work out.
How did you catch the attention of this famous person? What prompted him to hire you?
Think back to when you were hired for this project. Unless you were just in the right place at the right time, you were successful in getting this famous person to notice you. He must have seen value in the work you produce! If you’re not sure why he chose you, ask him. Sometimes it’s easier to see our strengths through another’s eyes. I don’t recommend getting into the habit of looking externally for validation, but if it gives you a little push to get you started in seeing it for yourself, so be it. Which brings me to my next comment:
Ask for a testimonial.
Get it in writing! When you ask him what he likes about your work, ask him to write it as a testimonial. Unless he is able to hire you for a full-time, permanent job, I’m sure he knows you need to find steady employment. Use the testimonial on your personal webpage (if you have one), or even in a cover letter.
Contacts, contacts! Does he know someone who knows someone?
What connections does this famous person have? Perhaps he would be willing to ask around his circles and give a verbal testimonial of your good work. Depending on how much influence he has, he may be able to direct you to several new leads!
Now let’s talk about your resume a little more.
I would agree with your friends’ advice of tailoring your resume to the type of job you’re looking to get- in your case, writing. Without knowing the temp agency you went to, I wouldn’t know why the recruiter steered you towards the administrative jobs rather than the creative ones. It could be that they know from experience their clients are that picky; they could have that “administrative assistant stigma” in mind; or, it could simply be that they have many more admin jobs than creative jobs to fill, so it makes good business sense for them to point you in that direction and make a quick hire.
Spending time over-speculating won’t get us too far though, so I’d like to share with you some actionable steps you can take towards improving your chances in your job search. I outlined a lot of advice to another administrative assistant who was looking to make a similar transition. In her letter, Belinda expressed the same frustration of being overlooked for jobs outside of administrative roles.
I’m pleased to report that Belinda has accepted a new position and is on her way to communications superstardom as we speak! So it can be done. As I suggested to her, a simple resume fix might be to avoid using bold text for your job titles. If you don’t want to be seen as an administrative assistant, don’t put it in bold.
Give your resume another read. Ask yourself how well it demonstrates the skills needed for the job you want rather than the job you have. Are you presenting yourself as an expert or does your resume read “entry level”? When you look at your resume, assess it for whether you come across as confident. Reframe how you see yourself, and don’t get discouraged if you’re not successful immediately. Building confidence is an ongoing work in progress. While you’re never quite “done” with it, now is a great time to start.
As you think about your abilities, be sure your resume includes any quantifiable results and focus on accomplishments rather than job duties. If whatever you wrote about your writing experience sounds like an afterthought rather than a compelling illustration of your contributions, rework it until it accurately showcases your strengths. If you need help making the changes, ask your friends to help you outline your best accomplishments. Also see if they have any recommendations for what to look for a job that matches your interests and abilities.
How else can you highlight your writing experience, beyond the resume? Do you have a portfolio, website, or blog? Think about what you can do to get potential employers (or paying clients) to find you. Make it easy for them to see your work. It might take going beyond the typical strategy of responding to online job ads in order to find your fit.
You also mentioned you have a Master’s degree. Tell me more about that; was your program of study related to writing or the type of work that you want to do? You mention that you’re passionate about the environment- if this is what you studied, use your academic experiences to your advantage. Also see if there are resources you can use at the institution- many offer free or low-cost career assistance to alumni. Make a call, see what services you are entitled to, and jump on them! Track down former classmates and set up informational interviews. The more proactive you can be in your job search, the better your chances.
Damon, as I’m sure you’d agree, the job search isn’t just about the practical, nitty-gritty tactics. It can affect matters of the heart, challenge your resolve when opportunities don’t align with your passions, and take stabs at your self-confidence. As you revamp your job search methods, know that your worth is not reflected in the numbers of your salary. Treat yourself with tenderness, and surround yourself with people who value your skills and cheer you on. I’m sure that with a few tweaks and a little polishing, your job search will improve. Please keep us posted!
To your success,