Contract work versus permanent work

After four years of unemployment and under-employment, I finally found a job with benefits, but in a different state.  

This blog originated as a way to share the difficulties and challenges an experienced middle-aged professional has in landing a good position in this bleak job market. As I write this, the first-time unemployment numbers have dropped to a four-year low and the stock market is soaring, but finding a good job is still very difficult for millions of experienced professionals.

When I was laid off in 2009 in the middle of the Great Recession, I quickly discovered that finding a job would not be easy.  After months of interviews, I decided to start my own consulting business, and then my clients dried up after a year, so I started looking again in earnest in 2011.  What I found was the job landscape had changed dramatically in just a couple of years.  Instead of permanent jobs with benefits, most of the new jobs were with hiring agencies that employed contractors for large companies.  

The advantage of hiring contractors was obvious: the employer could use temporary labor without actually employing these workers. I took one of these jobs in 2011, and worked for more than a year without any insurance for myself.  Yes, the agency provided benefits, but they were minimal, amounting to a “discount program” for medical visits and medications.  I declined.  

If you need work and a paycheck, you should consider contract work.  You don’t get paid time off, sick leave or holiday pay, but some employers will allow contractors some flex time or an occasional work-from-home arrangement.  Contractors also get paid more than a permanent employee. 

I used my contract work to beef up my skills and portfolio to show I could work in a large corporate environment and produce results.  Near the end of the contract, I found a permanent job in another state and moved there.  

During my job search, I found that many employers take their time in filling job openings and conduct several interviews and testing surveys for candidates, even for mid-level positions.  Many job openings are never filled, as the New York Times reported recently in the article, With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection (March 6, 2013). I shared one of my own job interviewing horror stories with other job seekers: After an initial screening interview followed by a one-hour interview with the hiring manager at Conifer Health Solutions in Texas, I received a call from the recruiter to come to Texas to interview for the position. The only problem was I was living in a different state at the time, and they were not paying airfare for job candidates.  I took the initiative and paid for my own round-trip airfare and rental car to interview for the job with six different people. I left Texas confident that I performed well and was a good fit for the job. Three-and-a-half months later, I still have not heard a word or received any correspondence from Conifer Health. 

My advice to job seekers is don’t let these setbacks discourage you from seeking a job, even a lower-paying job, if it’s one you would enjoy.  My new job pays less than the one at Conifer, but has better benefits and a better working environment where the atmosphere is more respectful of their employees.  It may take time, but if you’re persistent and positive, you will land that permanent and rewarding job.

 

 

 

 

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Rude recruiters the norm as job candidates dissed

Job seekers are accustomed to applying for jobs and never hearing back from employers, even if the candidate is well qualified for the job.  Since the Great Recession, however, recruiters and hiring managers are now not even bothering to let interviewed job candidates know they hired someone else.

After laboring through more than 20 interviews in the past two years, I’m firmly convinced that the job selection process has little to do with finding the most qualified candidate, but more to do with finding the most accessible candidate who has ties to the organization.  Many recruiters are only filling their allotted number of interviewees to say they considered a certain number of candidates, when they never seriously considered the “outside” candidates.  Most recruiters and hiring managers already have an idea of who they want for the position before the interviews begin.

Still, this process does not excuse recruiters from their unscrupulous attitudes toward job candidates they “string along” with time-consuming interviews, “job fit assessments,” reference checks, and online profile tests.  They give the external job candidate the impression they are seriously in the running when they are not; provide barriers that internal candidates are not subjected to; and provide no feedback about how the candidate did in the interviews or the dubious online exams.  Nowadays, a job candidate can expect to spend more than 12 hours in online applications, interviews and testing with one company without ever hearing from them again (and that’s excluding the time spent researching the company).  Often, a candidate can spend several hours taking online assessment tests and personality profiles without even interacting with a real person.

I’ll give one recent example.  In April, the hiring manager of a large healthcare organization in Louisiana contacted me about my resume and told me to apply for a Director of Communications position online. After filling out the extensive application, her assistant called me to set up a 45-minute interview.  The interview went well, and the hiring manager told me it would take about three weeks for Human Resources to finish the rest of the selection process, indicating that I should be called for a personal interview in Louisiana after that time.

The next four weeks involved some time-intensive tests, phone interviews, and an impersonal “virtual interview” with a machine.  Here’s  detailed listing of the convoluted and frequently impersonal hiring process:

  1. The first step involved completing a “career battery assessment” that took one hour to finish.  Although several questions applied to patient care and not to marketing/communications, I thought I did well on the test.
  2. The second step entailed a detailed reference checking process to be completed within 24 hours.  “An important part of the hiring process is reference checking. You will be receiving an email with a link to enter in your references: 5 total of which 2 must be current or past managers/supervisors.”  I contacted my references and let them know what to expect so they would watch for the web link in their email boxes.  One of my references took time out of his busy schedule as CEO of a hospital to complete this reference survey.
  3.  I then received a call from Human Resources to schedule a time to speak with the lead recruiter.  The recruiter told me I needed to complete an online leadership survey. She told me I would receive another email from a company called “Skill Survey” that supposedly measured various leadership competencies. This test asked some hypothetical questions for managers and supervisors and took another hour to complete.  Again, I thought I did well on this test, although no written test can adequately reflect how a supervisor will perform or motivate his or her employees.
  4.  The Leadership Recruiter from HR then sent me several documents to review about the organization’s benefits, incentive plan, and salary bonus plan. She even told me when I would be paid! By the tone of the email, I thought I was not only in the running as one of the finalists, but was on track for that personal interview the hiring manager told me I would receive.
  5.  At this point, I thought I would get a call to interview in person at the facility’s main office in New Orleans.  Instead, I received an invitation to take part in a “virtual interview” via a webcam.  The HR coordinator said they recently purchased this software from a company called Interview Stream to save money in travel costs. Since I was asked to use a webcam, I asked if I could interview with live people via Skype or Windows Live Messenger, but she said the organization was not set up to use either of those popular programs (I found this explanation very strange because if they had a webcam, any individual HR employee could sign up for a Skype account). She even admitted that I was the first –and perhaps only job candidate up to this point — who was asked to perform this “virtual interview.” (You’re our guinea pig,” she said). Not a true interview at all, Interview Stream asked the interviewee a set of predefined questions and gave the subject just five seconds to answer each question. At several times during the automated question, I wanted to stop and clarify the questions, only to realize that I couldn’t do so because I wasn’t talking to a live person.  Despite my training in television news, I felt I could have performed better in this 50-minute video interview.
  6.  The recruiter followed up with another request for a real interview with a live person (via the telephone).  Initially she asked me to interview with this senior leader on a Saturday, but then changed her request to a Friday. The interview was not difficult, but I did find it strange that most of the questions dealt with how I would deal with a “hypothetical” employee who had been sexually harassed by a coworker.  After the third or fourth question about this topic, I wondered if sexual harassment was a big problem at this organization.
  7.  The recruiter then emailed me on May 18 to notify that “all interviews have been completed and the hiring manager along with her team are discussing feedback from your interview. Someone from Human Resources will be in touch with you by early next week regarding feedback and next steps.”  The next day, she changed her mind and asked me to interview with another senior leader tomorrow.  My phone interview with him lasted more than an hour, which went very well.

This was the last personal correspondence I had with anyone at the organization. After 15 days of not hearing anything, I emailed the recruiter a request for the status and received this response on June 2:

“I apologize for the delay in contacting you. The interview process was extended longer than expected. The leadership recruiter has informed that she will reach out to you shortly, via email, with additional feedback.”

It’s been more than six weeks since this email. Needless to say, this recruiter has never contacted me with any “additional feedback.”  I assume I didn’t get the job, and that they hired a local candidate, but will never know for sure.  Why was I never called in for a personal interview on site?  If I didn’t do well on the online tests, why did they email me leadership benefits and continue the phone interviews?  Why did they pretend they were seriously considering my candidacy, only to use me as a “guinea pig” for their new video software?  After sending me numerous emails, telephoning me, and coordinating my interviews, why didn’t they have the courtesy to at least pick up the phone and let me know the result?

Throughout the whole process, I felt the HR gatekeepers were placing additional barriers in my path that gave them justification for not calling me in for a personal interview where I could actually meet and talk personally with leaders at the organization. I didn’t mind spending several hours preparing for interviews and taking online tests if the process led to a face-to-face interview.  What was even more exasperating was that I had to waste the time of my former supervisors who had to fill out detailed reference surveys for naught.

In the end, I am glad I was not offered a job with this organization, whose leaders showed they do not share my values of respect, dignity, and courteousness. If I had one piece of advice for other individuals seeking a professional mangement position, I would suggest avoiding organizations that overly stress written assessments over personal interviews as their barometer of finding the “right candidate.”  If the people in that company are so impersonal, then it’s not the right fit for someone in communications.

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How to save money while unemployed

Top 10 ways to save money on reduced income

This week, 37,000 long-term unemployed in North Carolina will stop getting unemployment checks. Because the state’s unemployment dipped just below 10 percent, it doesn’t qualify for the extended benefits program to help the long-term (more than 79 weeks) of unemployed.  I am one of those individuals.

Many previously middle-class families will be facing tough choices about keeping their homes and even feeding their children because of the end of this program. I received the maximum weekly benefit – about $460 – for almost two years.  There’s no question that the loss of this benefit will hurt my family, but because of decisions we’ve made since I lost my job, it won’t devastate us.  I wanted to share suggestions and advice to those unemployed about how the loss of this income doesn’t mean you have to go into financial ruin.  Here are some tips on how to cut expenses that led us to save money during the last two years.

  1. Cut the cable cord.  When our one-year special deal with Time Warner ended, we cut cable and are saving about $60-80 a month. We bought a digital antenna and watch about 30 channels over the air, and stream Netflix videos, music, news & weather channels, and other movie channels through our previously-purchased Roku box (which cost less than $100).
  2. Cut the cell phone habit.  What irritates me is seeing people at the unemployment office checking their email on their 4Gs, Droids, and Blackberries.  This is one of the biggest expenses we cut after I lost my job. By ditching my smartphone, we saved another $70 a month by purchasing a cheap TracFone where you can buy prepaid minutes. When I want to check email I do it the old-fashioned way: I check my computer. Now that unemployment benefits ran out, I may just get rid of the cell phone entirely.
  3. Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers, magazines and mail-order services.  When I lost my job, I immediately canceled a 90-day supply of vitamins that cost more than $200.  While I kept the weekend newspaper subscription, I read most of the news online now. If you can, cancel all recurring monthly subscriptions for music services as well. You don’t need the iPod.
  4. Get rid of your trash hauler. Seriously.  We saved more than $200 a year by canceling our contract for our curbside removal.  Since we don’t generate a lot of household waste anyway (about a tall kitchen garbage bag’s worth), we dump the bag at our church dumpster or another nearby dumpster.
  5. Stop shopping at the higher-end grocery stores. We get most of our groceries at Wal-Mart, Aldie’s, Sam’s (when we purchase items in bulk), or Bottom Dollar Foods, which all have fresh foods.  Use coupons each time you shop for groceries along with your discount card. You can save about $200 a month by shopping at the discount grocery stores.
  6. Grow your own food.  Even better than the discount groceries: plant your own garden.  Some of the best veggies we’ve ever eaten have come from our own backyard: squash, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli are some of the veggies we’ve grown.  Not only does a home garden cut down on your food bill, it’s better for you.
  7. Don’t fly. The only time I purchased an airline ticket this year was a flight to Texas to see my parents, and since I had a job interview there, the amount was tax deductible.  (I never heard back from the company but I got to see my parents).
  8. Postpone large purchases until you’re out of debt and can afford them.  We would love to buy a lawnmower for our yard, but have found a neighbor that gives us a discount to cut our yard twice a week.
  9. Don’t buy expensive health insurance plans. This is a tough one. I’ve been without health insurance for myself since my COBRA benefits expired eight months ago, but haven’t needed to go the doctor in that time. Our son is covered by a supplemental school health insurance policy and my wife gets her health insurance for free through the VA.  Another option for those who qualify: state high-risk pools or free health insurance programs for children are available for those families whose income is equal to or less than 200% of the federal income limits (still available until the Republicans cut them).

10.  Save money.  I was fortunate that I was able to save more than half of my severance pay in a CD. When it matured we paid off all our credit card debts.  Getting out of debt is the most important thing you can do to get control of your finances and take charge of what you spend. Because our credit scores were excellent, we were able to refinance the mortgage for our house and save another $260 a month in mortgage payments, and at a lower interest rate.

I read that in 2010, nearly one in eight families now include an unemployed person, the highest proportion since the Labor Department began keeping track in 1994. All these families have to deal with rising food and gas prices, sporadic income from part-time jobs, and keeping their children happy.  It can be done through some discipline, persistence, and new-found frugality in the way you spend, and the way you live.

Media’s Egypt coverage shows disconnect on unemployment

Watching MSNBC News during the Egyptian protests, NBC anchor Brian Williams made a comment that Americans may not understand a society where intelligent, college-educated youth can’t find good jobs.  This sentiment was repeated by many other American media pundits. Slate’s Annie Lowery wrote that Egypt’s “youth suffers from crippling unemployment, with tens of thousands of college graduates unable to find good jobs.”  CNN even did a story about  a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate from Tunisia, who began a fruit and vegetable stand to earn a living.

News reports like these show the disconnect the media elite have with the plight of the unemployed in their own country.  In the United States, it’s not just tens of thousands of college-educated people who can’t find full-time work, it’s millions.  Out of 140 million in the labor force, 15 million of them are unemployed, and 4.4 million of them have been out of work for more than  one year.  Many of them, like myself, have college degrees and years of experience, but can’t find full-time work in this market.  (See http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2011-01-23-longterm-unemployed_N.htm ).

At least one-fourth of the unemployed in this country have college degrees.  I’ve been looking for nearly two years and can’t find any full-time work in my field, despite 20 years of experience.  I’ve applied for more than 700 jobs.  And I’m not unique. A Houston man interviewed by USA Today recently has two graduate degrees, one in sociology and another in human services counseling, plus 14 years on the job as a corporate trainer and experience working abroad, but has gotten only a few telephone interviews from the 2,000 applications he sent out since last September.  (Read more in the Jan. 25, 2011 article in USA Today entitled “Who Are America’s Jobless?)  http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2011-01-25-1Ajobless25_CV_N.htm?csp=34news

Instead of covering Egyptian youth’s troubles in finding employment, American reporters would serve us better if they covered the unemployment crisis in their own country.  They should know the troubles many college-educated Americans have in finding decent work: many of them, after all, are journalists.

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