The Recession and the Rise of the Survival Job
Andre Prim has plenty of motivation for his job search, with a 3-year-old son at home and child support payments for 17- and 10-year-old daughters who live with their mother.
“They’re looking at you as a role model,” says Prim, 35, who lost his job in October with Unionbay Sportswear. “You don’t want them to see you with your head down.”
Prim worked at Unionbay for eight years, loading and unloading trucks and doing other physical work, eventually shifting to mailroom coordinator. But he was cut to part time until “they couldn’t find enough work to keep us going.”
Prim, upbeat and wearing a dress shirt and tie for a job fair in Tukwila, says the physical work took its toll over the years, including a shoulder injury and a hernia. So he’s hoping to find more administrative work.
“If I have to go back to loading and offloading trucks, fine,” the philosophical South Park resident says. “It’s not necessarily about what I want, but what the kids need.”
With unemployment in King County stuck at about 8 percent or higher for much of the past two years, some parents face what can seem like a difficult choice: hold out for work they’d love to do, or take a job now to pay the bills.
Local career and employment experts are seeing people who have spent months, even years, looking for work but now are running out of unemployment benefits or savings – and the paycheck hunt grows more urgent. For these people, the post-recession recovery isn’t coming fast enough. Still, the experts counsel, even if you have to take a “survival” job, don’t lose sight of fulfilling work.
“There are two parts to anybody’s job plan: One is a survival job, and the other is the job that would make them happy,” says Tanner Phillips, an employment specialist with Neighborhood House, which provides resources for self-sufficiency to immigrant, refugee and low-income people in Seattle and King County. Phillips also teaches public workshops on how to network to find jobs. “For example, if you do have a family and need to pay the bills, if it’s necessary to take a survival job along the way to pay those bills, it’s a lot easier to get those jobs if you know where you’re going.”
Shifting out of Mom Mode
Clients often find career consultant Paul Anderson after they’ve exhausted their financial resources and still can’t get work.
As the holidays approached, Anderson suggested that clients take a tactical approach to more quickly land a job, such as through employment agencies, rather than waiting while they develop relationships at target companies where they would like to work.
“The longer you’re unemployed, the harder it is to find a job,” says Anderson, who founded his Redmond-based career management firm, ProLango, two years ago.
In recent months, he’s seeing more stay-at-home mothers who have decided to go back to work.
“Some of them say, ‘I took time off to raise my kids, I want to go back to work.’ Some (say), ‘My husband is underemployed, or my husband lost his job.’ Or, ‘I’m the female, I have a higher level of education, so I can make more. I’m going to be the breadwinner, so my husband and I are going to switch.’”
Nancy Cook-Wickham is one of those clients. She left her project management job at Starbucks in 1999 when her kids were in grade school. Now that they’re in college (with tuition bills) and the economy is cutting into retirement plans, she’s struggling to get a foot back into the workplace.
“Coincidentally, I started to try to go back to work when the economy took a severe downturn,” says Cook-Wickham, 55, of Bellevue.
She started looking in 2009, and has been attending Anderson’s seminars and taking classes at Bellevue College to update her computer skills.
“I was just wondering if I should, not exactly lower my sights, (but) just start at a lower level in a software development environment, and build back up to a project manager. At least that way, as an analyst, I could come back up to speed, get some current job experience, and then go on from there.”
Cook-Wickham, who has worked in the computer field since her stint in the Navy in the late 1970s, always thought she could go back to work any time.
“It’s always been really easy for me to find a job in the field that I’m in, so this has been a real eye-opener for me,” she says. “At what point … should I change my direction? Maybe change my career goal and look at some other kind of opportunity?”
Her family hasn’t worried about losing their home – they have enough savings. “But now it’s affecting what would be our retirement, and the kids are in college. So money’s very tight.”
In mid-December, Cook-Wickham took a full-time holiday job working in the women’s department at Macy’s. “I might stay on if nothing else is happening; at least I’m bringing some money into the house,” she said at the time. “The downside is, it’s easy to put your job search on hold.” But she is making progress, with an interview scheduled with her former employer, Starbucks, for a senior functional analyst position.
Staying Put for School
Education is a priority for Rena Cummings, too, whether it’s her daughter’s or hers.
She lost her engineering job at Boeing in June, when her contract ended, and has been looking for work ever since. In the meantime, she has launched her own website to provide clients with project management, engineering and IT services.
Cummings, 52, was in a tweed suit at a job fair at the Best Western River’s Edge in Tukwila the week before Thanksgiving, hoping to connect with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Her husband, Habib Thompson, 55, was also there, talking to potential employers after his carpet sales job was phased out.
With 16-year-old daughter Akilah Cummings in the Running Start college program at North Seattle Community College, Cummings says she’s reluctant to uproot her for a job search, especially after moving here two years ago from Florida for work.
“If I didn’t have a kid, I’d probably be moving around the United States,” she says. “I’d like to stay put for her to finish her last two years (of high school).”
With her unemployment benefits about to end, Cummings says she’s trying to find work to pay the bills, but with an engineering degree, she finds people tell her she’s overqualified.
Cummings did land two job interviews in mid-December for engineering positions, and was hopeful one would pan out.
Still, she’s continuing with her education, working on two master’s degrees – finishing one in project management and starting a second in computer systems, hoping to make herself more marketable. “It’s been challenging. I’ve pretty much exhausted my savings.”
Phillips, the employment specialist, advises job-seeking parents, regardless how desperate finances might feel, to check their emotions at the door.
“It does not help if you’re worrying about feeding your family and that’s what you’re thinking about,” he says. “It’s the people that are not being driven by those emotions of fear and insecurity, those are the people that are finding success.”
If that’s the case, Prim, the unemployed father of three, should be in good shape with his attitude, even with his unemployment check of $254 a week cut in half after child support. “It’s tough trying to figure out how to survive on $100 a week,” he acknowledges. But he’s not complaining. Now studying to be a minister, he says he feels blessed that he’s not holding a sign on a street corner.
He has faith that God has a purpose for him and will work things out. In the meantime, he has his priorities. “There’s nothing more important than those you’re taking care of.”
So, what about finding that dream job?
Phillips says fulfilling work isn’t a myth, even in this tough job market.
“I think all of us can find work that makes us happy,” he says. “Happiness doesn’t necessarily come from sitting in the same desk for 20 years, but it does come from knowing best what makes you happy. … It’s a focus on work instead of a job.”
Margaret Santjer was business editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when it closed in March 2009. Like many of her former colleagues, she’s freelancing while pursuing full-time work. She’s also the proud mom of a toddler.