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Unemployment Diary: I never used to have a problem

This week, The Post's Theresa Vargas presents a series of stories about what unemployed people do now that they've lost the structure that a job lends daily life. Theresa asked about a dozen people who had recently lost their jobs to keep diaries detailing how they fill the suddenly empty hours in their days.

We'd like to continue building this portrait of how unemployment changes life by asking those of you who have lost work to give us a sense of the changing flow and tempo of your days and evenings. What do you do now that you haven't done in the past? What can you no longer do? How have your contacts with friends, family, colleagues changed? What's better, what's worse?

You can give us the details on the comment boards below, or make an Unemployment Diary video of your own and post it to us via YouTube.

Meanwhile, we're posting here all week the full diaries of those people who helped us out with the reporting of Theresa's stories.


Diary of Nicole Harper, a military wife and Fulbright fellow who did her doctoral dissertation research in Slovenia. She has been looking for work since moving to this area a year ago.

Thursday, Dec. 10

Since I haven’t had much luck with my job search in over a year, every morning when I wake up I have to tell myself (and my husband) that maybe something promising will happen today. This morning, I got up around 8 a.m. and again, before even brushing my teeth, I went straight to the computer to go through my e-mail. I have a number of active job search agents that e-mail position announcements matching my keywords. It usually takes about an hour to read through them and to take a closer look at the approximately 1 to 3 announcements per day that actually suit my qualifications.

The question of “Exactly what are my qualifications?” runs through my head repeatedly. I have various qualifications, not just one. I am 40 years old and have worked for many years at all kinds of jobs. Career diversity has kept me challenged and engaged while my strong work ethic and array of skills have allowed me to experience professional success…until now. Although I have moved around a lot, working internationally as a result of my husband’s career, I never used to have a problem finding employment opportunities. Employers didn’t seem to have so much difficulty recognizing transferable skills as they do now.

When I started this particular job search in Summer of 2008, I sent out as many applications as I could fill out in a day. Now I am much more weary and frugal with my time. The application process seems more absurdly involved this time—as if they really need so much redundant information upfront when I’m told employment managers give each resume only 3 to 4 seconds of scan time. I’ve been to employment seminars where one HR director told me I have to cater my application to her short attention span….and this is the sort of person who has a job??

Many times my application seems to go into a cyber vacuum and I never hear back from the employers. Many federal jobs I have applied to have suddenly been “canceled” after I’ve spent hours preparing the application materials and composing essays for questions that can be answered by just looking at my uploaded CV. I spent hours on my CV and it sums things up better than a few paragraphs on an online form. Academic jobs, on the other hand, require me to bother my references to write letters on my behalf upfront, before the employer has even established a smattering of interest in my candidacy. The statement that this “is just the way it is” is unacceptable to me, since it is people who make up these processes and policies and they also have the capability to make them more efficient.

Being home all day, I have a bad habit of spending too much time at the computer and ritualistically checking e-mail over and over again. This afternoon, I received e-mail from one of my past professors forwarding a job announcement that I didn’t exactly qualify for and a volunteer opportunity to peer-review grant applications. I have considered returning to school again, but I am appalled that schooling has become more about credentializing than educating—turning us into education consumers rather than educated persons. I’ve actually heard ads on the radio suggesting how “impressed” employers would be with a second Master’s degree…how many degrees does a person need to get a job??

I just got an e-mail from someone trying to solicit me to pay $400 for a professionally written resume. She warns me that I am competing against people with professionally written resumes and won’t get noticed unless I have one too. And this company apparently has a deal with employers for their paying customers to get first bids on jobs….such exploitation.

I spent some time this afternoon painting. I figured I should be productive with this time and update my art portfolio. I also became a member of an exhibiting artists group. Sounds like a great way to spend the day rather than working, right? Well, it is, but these things cost money. Painting supplies are extremely expensive and the membership set me back $85. With no money coming in to balance my expenditures, there is always a nagging little voice of guilt and worry associated with every purchase.

Another new question that nags at me constantly is, How will this pay off? It feels like everything I do now has to lead to some financial gain to have validity. Investing in my education and talents was never all about the money—if it were, I would have gone into a different field. My career aspirations had a deeper meaning, to better serve society in some positive way. But having worked hard to get to this point and to now be left in the cold without the practicality of an income-producing job in my field…it alters one’s perspectives a bit.

This evening, I am back at the computer. I checked e-mail again and worked on our annual Christmas card letter. I’ve been putting off writing this letter to friends and family summarizing 2009 for fear of sounding like a whiner. Last year’s Christmas letter was full of positive accomplishments and exciting moves. It is tricky to write a friendly page about what you’ve been up to for an entire year, when all you’ve been up to is still trying to find a job. So I will probably avoid the topic of work altogether. Although working for a living is a major concern…my life has actually been quite rich without it. This is on the short term of course, since a life without income and professional growth is unsustainable.

Friday, Dec. 11
Up at dawn this morning, but stayed in bed until around 7 a.m. before heading to the computer. I received more job agents, this time with no positions of interest and a couple of Facebook messages from family members. I am cautious about how I present myself on Facebook and consciously filter everything I post to avoid exposing the angst associated with my employment situation.

Today I have somewhere to go. In lieu of a job, I have been volunteering. It is a productive way to spend time and keeps me from becoming too much of a homebody. I started the year volunteering as a reading tutor for at-risk elementary school students in D.C schools. In the fall, I began training as a volunteer at the zoo. I have committed to a year of three three-hour shifts per month and have been really enjoying interacting with the public and the zoo employees. This is an opportunity I would not have been able to pursue were I working full-time.

I spent the afternoon volunteering at the zoo. Throughout my life, I have always found volunteering to be a rewarding experience. But right now, when my career aspirations seem to be crumbling, volunteer work is one of the only things that keep me going. I feel very fortunate to be in the situation where I can afford to volunteer since it costs more (transportation, training materials, uniform, etc.) than it brings in ($0). But I really enjoy the people I meet and the feeling of offering my services to the community.

This evening, I had a networking date and informational interview at a coffee shop with a lady who has worked extensively with educational exchange programs. This is a field that I have been interested in my entire career. I have participated in educational exchanges, coordinated student trips abroad and facilitated student exchanges at the K-12 level, but still have not been considered for jobs in this field. I met this woman at a focus group where I volunteered to offer opinions on the usability of institutional websites. Our coffee meeting was very insightful. One suggestion she made was that I not refer to myself as “unemployed,” since I have been keeping very active and involved, regardless of not being paid for my efforts. She also provided me with a few new leads of places I might look for positions of interest.

Monday, December 14

This morning, I have an abundance of e-mails to catch up on from the weekend. I have to follow up on my networking efforts and I see several jobs I will apply for out of state and internationally today. I will have to ration my time, though, since the process of applying for positions can easily consume most of the day (and then amount to nothing) and I have other things I must get accomplished today as well.

Every time the telephone rings, I am hopeful that it will be an opportunity. However, since we moved here, we have received mostly calls for someone else and I get very frustrated with the number of calls we get for the same person from collection agencies. Not only does it interrupt whatever I am doing and dash my hopes that an employer is calling to arrange an interview, but it also constantly reminds me that many people are in dire situations where they either can’t even afford to pay their bills or aren’t responsible enough to spend wisely…so they use false phone numbers to avoid creditors and I end up bombarded by constant wrong number calls. It is both sad and frustrating at the same time.

This afternoon presented another setback in my search for employment. Since my qualifications have not resulted in full-time work here in over a year, I have been seeking employment in another country that has shortages in people skilled and educated in my field. Obtaining work legally in another country is a highly involved (and expensive) process.

First, I had to undergo a procedure to be invited to apply. Then I had to get an extensive medical physical that included a great deal of blood work and chest X-rays. I had to collect official documentation from all employers for whom I have worked over the last ten years (this is made more difficult by the fact that I have worked internationally). I had to obtain certified copies of all kinds of official records and criminal background checks from every country in which I have lived in the past 10 years. I was very close to accomplishing everything on this list by the approaching deadline until today, when I called to follow up on the background report that I ordered from a U.S. federal agency months ago to complete my application materials. Apparently this agency has lost my request and payment, and rather than offer any kind of assistance, they state that there is no proof that they ever received my request! They require me to start the process over and wait an additional 8 to 10 weeks for them to get around to processing it and tell me “that’s just the way it is.”

The irony of my situation is astonishing and the frustration is currently overwhelming. After the work I put in to successfully coordinate and accomplish my search for employment, I am thwarted.

This evening, I made dinner, e-mailed my resume to another contact, and attempted to relax as I talked with my husband about the highlights and trials of my day. On the news, there was a segment about how the recession is now recovering, followed by a brief mention of more job losses, and then a story about pay raises for government workers. A neighbor came to the door to inform us about a neighborhood watch group that is forming as a result of the recent rash of criminal activity on our street—break-ins, auto thefts and purse snatching. There were many things to be concerned about today, so tonight I will go to bed early. I have much to do again tomorrow in my continuing search for a job, one that will allow me to be an agent for positive change.

By Theresa Vargas  | December 24, 2009; 12:33 PM ET
Categories:  Diaries, More on the story  
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