A Guide to the Recovering Job Market
I’ve had the experience of looking for work during the worst economic periods of the last twenty years. As a recent college graduate, I passed out resumes during the post-Cold War sag of the early 1990s. I was an unemployed web editor following the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2002.
And I’m looking for work now. My timing has been impeccable; I’ve left jobs at precisely the worst times.
In Washington, we’re better off than the rest of the country but not immune to down times. Slowly, however, things are getting better. My experience has been that job market goes through four distinct stages.
1. No Jobs Nowhere
The market is flooded with layoffs. Talented people with years of experience find themselves packing their knicknacks in a box and being escorted out by security. Companies retrench, battered by epic losses and the prospect of even worse to come. This isn’t malaise; this is fear and panic. There are few job postings and many applicants. Companies that are hiring become commitment-phobic. You may interview for months at a single organization and then, one day, they send an email saying they’re not ready to hire.
This is a bleak period, a time of scam artists, when job-search consultants say that they have exclusive jobs available nowhere else, all for a fee charged to your credit card every month, forever. Don’t believe it. Who knows more about your situation and your industry than you do?
For many this is a period of reinvention, as they decide to apply to grad school, switch careers, drive aimlessly across the United States or write that mystery novel. This is a positive approach to a difficult situation beyond your control.
At this point, you just want to survive. Sell your crap on eBay, scale back your expenses, move in with your parents. It’s not personal. It’s not the universe screwing you over or an indictment of your skills and experience – it’s just that job market sucks. There’s nothing you can do about it.
2. The Jobs No One Wants
Even the worst times come to an end. The job market slowly starts to open up. With the faintest glimmers of hope, beaten-down employees begin to bail out of positions that they hate. Good news – jobs are available! Bad news – they’re awful. Who’s hiring?
- The nonprofit association who thinks that they can get someone to design their web site, write their fundraising letters, help with the annual meeting and be an Excel wiz while manning the front desk and answering phones – all at a salary less than a Burger King assistant manager.
- The entrepreneur who’s got an idea he thinks is just brilliant. You’ll have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to learn about it, of course, and he can’t pay you in, well, money, but, if hired, you will receive stock options which will certainly make you a millionaire. Some day.
- The boss with anger management issues. Going in, the HR representative will be very excited to meet you. They’ve had a hard time filling this position and the rep will be all smiles, trying not to scare you off. She may ask you about how you deal with challenges and explain that every workplace has its dramas. The office will be deadly quiet and people will rush past you in a panic. The boss will keep you waiting, brusquely question you and then demand that you start immediately.
- The company with the impossible job requirement. They may ask for ten years of experience in software that’s only been around for five.
- The band of lunatics who just needs one more to complete the set. Everything is flexible, they’ll explain – duties, job titles, supervisors. There’s no org chart. It’s hard to tell who’s in charge. Everyone swarms on projects like second-graders chasing a soccer ball. And, in the evenings, the office gets wildly drunk together. Like Gray’s Anatomy, everyone has slept with everyone else by this point. They’re a little bored and want you to join the tribe.
You may be tempted to take one of these jobs. If you do so, make sure the company offers mental health benefits. You’ll need them.
3. Jobs Yes, Pay Not So Much
The market has improved. Companies have lost their fear. They’re willing to take on new employees but the price has to be right. Positions you’re actually interested in are available but they pay less than what you made before. They’re good jobs with good organizations that realize their power in the market. They can bid down talent and have an incentive to do so, because the economy is still a little uncertain.
Taking one of these jobs is a very personal decision. You must measure your bank balance, your tolerance for risk, the prospect that this opportunity may lead to something better. If you have a mortgage to pay, take this job. Can you negotiate a higher salary later on? It’s not impossible, but much more difficult once you’re in the job. Can you take this job and then leave after a few months for something better? Yes, but you’ll have to explain that awkward spot in your resume in the future.
4. Jobs, Glorious Jobs!
The invisible hand has done its work and the job market is restored. Decent jobs at decent salaries are now available. Your calls are returned, your applications are responded to. Recruiters call, with orders on their books.
But it’s been a long process. My experience is that it takes around six months to get to this stage. But if you’ve held out this long, you have a good shot at finding an opportunity that will be both rewarding and remunerative. You’re going to spend a big part of your life working in an office. Make sure it’s the right one.