I have never been ‘unemployed’ in my adult life, until now. It’s been a couple months, submitting application after application, waiting for a phone call and living with the frustration of wondering when someone will see me as ‘value added’.
It’s true, I haven’t come up with the latest IPod widget. I haven’t created some hip, new Web App. I’m not nineteen years old, fresh out of college, or the next up-and-coming Steve Jobs. I can’t sell myself as any of those things. So how can I convince a prospective employer that I am worth something to them when I don’t have those credentials.
The truth is, I was there from the beginning, when the web was new. I built my first site before you could take a community college course in HTML. How did I do it? I looked at the source code of someone else’s site and figured it out. I downloaded a demo copy of PhotoShop and taught myself how to make an animated gif long before the advent of Tumblr. Now it seems they are all the rage! They are NEW! They are AWESOME! For me, well they are old news I read long ago.
I don’t have certifications that prove that I know what I know. Why? Because I taught it all to myself. When lightning struck the phone system at the university where I worked in the computer center, it was my job to re-enter all the data into the new system. That wasn’t good enough for me though. I looked at the data and saw a the perfect opportunity to create a people directory. I wondered how I could get it to talk to our website. Wouldn’t it be nice for people to be able to get on our site and be able to find phone and office locations from anywhere? Why yes, it would! So….without anyone asking, without anyone even thinking of it first, I went out and taught myself MySQL and PHP so I could hook up that database to the site. I made the first working online personnel directory the university ever had and it is still in use today. In fact, according to Google analytics, it is the most visited page on the site.
I didn’t stop there. I continued to teach myself more and more, to make the site bigger, better, stronger. I taught myself how to edit audio so that when the marketing manager decided to post the president’s speeches, I could edit out all the “um’s” and “uh’s”. I taught myself Sony Vegas to create videos for a great admissions department landing page at no cost to the university. I used what I had taught myself about PhotoShop to make an interactive Flash campus map and saved them even more.
But…in today’s glutted applicant pool, I am treading water at best because I didn’t learn these things from some third party who could give me a diploma for it. What’s worse? I did what my mother and father taught me was right and actually had the audacity to stay at that job for ten years! How horrible! Everything I am reading now tells me that when companies see you in a job for more than four years they assume you have no ambition or are ‘dug in’.
It seems now that I am dug in. I have dug myself into a hole built by caring. I stayed at the university working as hard as I knew how to make things better there. But every job I look at now wants me to have specific experience–retail experience, sales experience, medical experience or some amorphous characteristic that keeps me swimming in the shallow end. There is a disconnect I haven’t figured out how to work around yet.
I guess I could tell them I have sales experience from the time I worked as a property manager, talking potential renters into choosing our apartments over the competitors, but that doesn’t seem very sexy when I did it almost twenty years ago. I could tell them I have medical experience if they want to count that I used to read my mother’s nursing textbooks for fun back when she was getting her degree. Retail? Well I worked at a tire store for six years back when I graduated high school. Somehow, in the face of ‘what have you done for me lately’ those things just don’t seem very relevant.
So…what do I do now? Web designers are a dime-a-dozen these days. Sure I know how to use WordPress and Joomla. So does that nineteen year old who doesn’t mind working eighteen hour days in a cubicle for pizza and mello yello. Why doesn’t real experience count against someone’s paid-for piece of paper?
Maybe I’m just too old. I came from the land of ‘work hard’, ‘do your own dirty work’, ‘solve problems’, ‘be loyal’, and ‘good work is it’s own reward’. Somewhere during that time things changed to ‘slow down, you’re making the rest of look bad’, ‘delegate’, ‘outsource’, ‘job-fishing’, and ‘follow the money’.
I’m a fish out of water. Maybe I’ll go back to school. Seems I need a diploma in been there, done that.