Sarah: Temp to Perm?

Office Pro magazine logoFor most of her 15-year career, administrative professional Sarah has counted on temporary jobs transforming into full-time permanent positions whenever she’s been out of work. This time, her strategy is no different, though the job-market landscape has changed dramatically.

Normally, Sarah can count on a series of temp jobs to keep her afloat between permanent jobs. Since losing her five-year job in August 2009, however, temp jobs have been fewer and farther between – eight months between, for her, in 2010. As a single woman living on her own, with nothing but unemployment benefits to sustain her, this long-term drought left Sarah on edge.

depressed woman image“Some days it was hard to get out of bed,” says Sarah, who turns 50 in August and has no children. “I was depressed. I lived in fear. My chest felt so tight I thought I would have a heart attack.”

She found her current full-time temp position in January 2011, and the job might become permanent by September – if her nonprofit employer’s funding sources don’t dry up, leading it to offer less than full time or possibly close its doors altogether.

Because the job landscape has changed so dramatically, Sarah takes nothing for granted – not the promise of a permanent position, not temp work, and not unemployment benefits, which of course are temporary anyway.

During her eight-month dry spell – wasting no time – she made a project list. First on that list was to “go paperless” in her home office. “Everything in the file cabinet was going into the computer,” she says. “I put all my music on the computer. I had 500 CDs.” She now pays her bills online.

computer imageBut Sarah didn’t stop there. Just before her job loss, she bought a state-of-the-art computer, with Microsoft Office 2007. “I had never seen this version of Word before, and it is very different from Word 2003.” Taking advantage of Manpower temp agency’s online training modules, she taught herself the entire Office 2007 Suite. “It was invaluable since the job I have now uses that version.” She’s also excited that her current employer is providing professional training on Adobe InDesign and Microsoft Access, which will give her resume another boost.

She’s used many strategies, not just temp jobs, to find a permanent position. For instance, Sarah posted her resume on the major job boards. “The most successful is CareerBuilder,” she says. “The job leads I’ve gotten there are the closest fit and the best paying – but I get spam emails too.”

CareerOneStop LocatorSarah stays in close touch weekly – “not to the point of harassment” – with her temp agency contacts, and she has taken many free classes at the local One-Stop Career Center, though these were the least helpful. “I thought it would be HR professionals doing the mock interviews, but it was the staff, and sometimes we would interview each other,” she says. “I wanted something more honest, getting down to things like attitude.”

101 Great Answers book coverSomething more like the book Sarah discovered 15 years ago, during another down period, a book she raves about: 101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions, by Ron Fry. “He was a recruiter for 30 years, and he not only gives great advice paired with exercises but does it with a lot of humor,” she says. “He got me to the point where I really can handle any interview.

“He explains why an interviewer is asking a certain question and what answer they are looking for. He makes you sit down and write out your answers. You have to know your work history better than anyone. Then you have to practice it until you learn it – but then practice more until it sounds natural and not like you’re reading from a script.

“It’s been instrumental in my job search.”

Like Serena, for the first time in her career Sarah has encountered resistance merely for the lack of a college degree. “You don’t need a degree to do administrative work,” she insists. “What you need is experience,” which she has in abundance. “Even if I did get, say, an AA degree in a different profession, then they would ask if I have experience. It feels like a no-win situation.”

image of moneyEmployers’ newfound emphasis on a college degree seems to be part of a larger trend. “I’m seeing a lot more admin jobs listed lately,” Sarah says, “but either they want something very specific, like experience with little-known software, or the pay is lower than my unemployment benefits. If I take a job that pays less than that, it will hurt me if I’m ever out of work again, because it will lower my future benefits.

”That happened once before, when my benefits dropped by $100 per check – $200 a month – and it just about killed me.”

As it is, Sarah has made cutbacks in her living expenses; in fact, she’s become an expert at stretching a dollar. She dropped her $35 a month gym membership and now works out to a Joel Harper DVD she heard about from a fellow volunteer at the local public-television station. She haggles with Comcast Cable and any other vendor who will listen, she is strict about her credit-card use, and she seeks out coupons directly from her favorite manufacturers’ Web sites.

dog park imageSarah also takes to heart the wellness advice she hears in the media and online. “They say not to give up on taking care of yourself,” she says, “to eat right – fatty foods cause depression – and try not to stay inside.” She lost her beloved mini dachshund – “he was my furry child” – three years ago. “I want doggie love back in my life without having a dog, so I go to the dog park once a week just to be around dogs and puppies.”

She seeks out affinity groups on Meetup.com and has joined a karaoke group, but what gets her out of the house the most is her volunteer work with the local public-television station. “I’ve been doing it for five years; I’ve won two awards for commitment and dedication,” Sarah says. “I put it on my resume – it shows I didn’t just sit around the pool all day – and it’s excellent for references. They’re managers, after all, and they get to know you.

volunteer clip art“It’s also very therapeutic. I feel appreciated; if you don’t feel appreciated, you don’t like yourself. I was promoted to studio captain and now train other volunteers on the phone banks. I wouldn’t mind having a training job, say, for certain software.”

And she gets tips on resources. Along with the exercise DVD, “I got a lead from a volunteer group on a free IT training program, leading to C++ certification. Free!”

Sarah wishes she could share her worries and fears with friends and family, most of whom live out of the area or out of state. “All of my friends are still working full-time, and have been for 5, 10, 25 years, in solid jobs with security.

paper hearts image“I feel like I have no one to talk to. I don’t have health insurance, so it’s not like I can just go to a therapist. But I don’t want to be a bummer to my friends. So I feel like I have to be a different person with my friends and family because I don’t want to worry them or be a downer, and the next thing you know I’m crying over a Hallmark commercial! Sometimes I just need to tell it like it is.”

Having experienced those eight months of job drought, and being as resourceful as she is, naturally Sarah has backup plans, in case it happens again or she still doesn’t have a permanent job when her unemployment benefits run out. She has already done preliminary research on both plans.

Her secondary backup plan is to become an insurance field investigator, catching fraudulent claimants “in the act” of, say, dancing all night long after filing a back-injury claim. “All I need is a two-year criminal justice degree and a private investigator license,” she says.

Her primary plan B, though, reflects Sarah’s true passion. “I absolutely love dogs,” she says, “so I’m thinking about starting a pet/house-sitting business, at first as a side business. The kind of people who would hire me love their pets as much as I do.

red cross logo“I already have Red Cross certification for CPR for pets. I have to research, research – how much to charge, how it works – so it’ll take a while. I also want to get formal dog training so I can include that in my business too. I met a woman who had a bucket of keys [for her pet-sitting clients], and it kept her in a San Francisco apartment – which is expensive – so I know this can work.

“My ultimate dream is a doggie day care center.”

Sarah has done a lot of reflection in the two years since her position was eliminated. “I’m not saying my job loss was 100 percent not my fault. I have learned to take nothing for granted. It doesn’t matter how rough the waters are [on the job], this is rougher, so make it work.

“I’ve also learned that it’s best to leave your job at 5,” she adds. “I had a very hard time doing that at my last job. Don’t think about what someone said, or how much work you have on your desk. You’ll never have a life.”

business card imageAs Sarah was leaving, she showed me a business card she had just found on the cafe’s community bulletin board, for a pet sitter. “See, it says ‘licensed’ and ‘bonded’ – I didn’t know you had to have either. And here’s the name of a professional pet-sitters association.

“So just on this one card, I found three things to research for my own business.”

With that kind of resourcefulness and persistence, Sarah will make it through these New Hard Times.

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