An Unhappy Anniversary of One Year on the Streets

October 4, 2010

The regulars down at Sparky’s Diner were at a loss for words, and to be frank, so was I. This past week marked the one-year anniversary of being let go from my place of employment for the past ten years. The gang at Sparky’s never thought my unemployment would last this long.

I figured it might take a few months, given my history over the past quarter century. To use a good Texas phrase: this ain’t my first rodeo.

I dropped out of the job market in the mid ‘80s to finish my college education when it became painfully apparent that employers valued a degree of any kind over experience. The head of the former Texas Tourist Development Agency pulled an offer for communication director because I did not have a degree as required. That I used to teach at a college, or that I had several years of professional journalism experience, or that I served as a political media adviser for a Texas office holder did not matter. This was a state job and the posting required a degree.

Lesson learned, so we moved to Louisiana where I finished my undergraduate degree in two years and my MBA in finance in one year by going full-time. I got out of school just as the stock market crashed and created a surplus of newly minted MBAs. I took a gig at a newspaper after two years on the hunt, during which time my wife also returned to school to get her degree.

We moved to New Mexico for my wife’s job, and I needed eighteen months to land mine. Two years later, my wife took a job back in Texas, and I was once again looking for work.

A couple of back-to-back jobs ran nine months before deficit budgets and a reorganization had me unemployed again. This is when I found my last job, which I kept for nearly eleven years, during which I survived three bosses and a transfer. The end came a year ago when I became a victim of a reduction in force. For those who don’t know, a RIF occurs when an organization eliminates a position. They do not fire the employee, they just eliminate the position.

Many organizations, particularly state agencies or universities, try to place RIF employees in similar jobs. Not mine. No, it has riffed about 100 positions in the past year, saving about $10 million of its nearly $1 billion budget. One hundred lives and families forced to face their greatest economic fears during the worst downturn since the Great Depression just to save one percent in salary and benefits. It is a curious thing.

As the months roll past, keeping a positive attitude and not succumbing to fear, depression, despondence, or bitterness, becomes increasingly more difficult, particularly as you watch the savings disappear while learning who gets interviews and who gets hired.

A female public relations executive in Albuquerque back in the 90s explained to me right up front that my gender prevented PR firms from considering me. As she explained, the women who ran the PR firms in town had worked their way to the top over many years. Now that they were in a position to hire, they looked for young females to bring on board at lower salaries, a practice they deplored in their male counterparts.

It seems the same today. About a dozen jobs for which I was fully qualified but not interviewed went to females between the ages of 30 and 40. And these are just the ones I know. So, for me, it seems that I hit the unhappy trifecta of age, gender, and experience.

But there is no comfort in numbers. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that of the nearly 15 million Americans looking for work today, more than 2.2 million of us are over the age of 55 and have been without work for at least six months. The unemployment rate for my age group is 7.3 percent, more than twice what it was when the bottom dropped out. Last month, older workers took more than 39 weeks to find a job, the longest of any age group, according to the Labor Department.

The number of horror stories about human resources departments that reject applications within minutes, or programs that scan resumes for key words and not applicable experience, are legion. I belong to a LinkedIn forum about HR and recruiters that has more than 9,300 comments, with nearly all of them negative. Another LinkedIn forum has nearly 2,000 comments regarding the unemployment experience, all negative.

So, what do you do? You cannot hide your age or gender and at some point you have to tell a potential employer about your experience, which will be used against you.

As of today, I’ve been in radio, television, cable, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet in a journalism career covering more than 30 years. Although I have not worked in a newsroom since a short stint in Albuquerque, I have received sixteen awards in the past ten years for Internet opinion writing, including seven first-place awards.

And that’s just the journalism side. My pr, communication, and marketing experience started in the 80s and continued up until my RIF one year ago.

So, what do you do? Well, like I told the folks down at Sparky’s Diner, I just keep trying, keep applying, and keep praying (literally) that the right fit comes along before the savings, the house, and what we thought would be a comfortable future are just things of the past.

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Copyright ©2010 John David Powell

John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is