Unemployment Stories, Vol. 27: 'We Eat a Lot of Soup and Crackers'
The real unemployment rate in southwest Detroit is almost 50%. Seventeen rural South Carolina counties just closed their unemployment offices due to budget cuts, despite high unemployment. In New York, unemployed people say they're being discriminated against in job searches. The life of the unemployed American is not easy. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, from those who have lived it. This is what's happening out there.
The unfunded grad student
I graduated from a top ten engineering school in 2010 in three and a half years with a bachelor's in civil engineering, a minor in math, and a GPA that's better than 70% of my graduating class. I didn't have a job lined up when I graduated, and I was worried. My parents didn't help my case by guilting me into admitting that it was a mistake that I didn't major in accounting and am currently not in law school. Thankfully, the professor I did research with agreed to take me on as a part time research assistant back at the university. So I went back, feeling very guilty about my future and hating my life for not getting a job when everyone else seem to land a job without any trouble, even those who didn't work as hard as I did and got worse grades.
I worked with my professor for a year, making barely above minimum wage salary with no benefit. But I worked hard, and I finished writing a paper that eventually got accepted to two conferences, with one of them being a very big deal. My professor told me that I should apply for grad school and he would take me and give me funding. I thought I found a life line, since my life was going no where fast at that time and everyone said, "go to grad school". So I applied....and promptly got rejected a few weeks later. The professor, bless his heart, pulled strings and got me admitted. But he was also very blunt in telling me that funding is hard to come by, and I might not get it the first semester since he had 12 grad students under his wings. But he's trying, and I'm the first one in line before two other guys, and one of them was a long-time PhD student. I accepted that fact, and decided to stay anyway.
I have one thing to say about grad school: it sucks. Not because of the coursework or the load, for the most part, a lot of us like the classes we take and the research we are doing. There's a reason why MS also stands for "more of the same" or "more shit", because for the most part, graduate program is quite like undergrad: classes, homework, exam, adviser meeting, your usual bitching about certain classes and certain assignments, and then plus your own research. No, I don't hate grad school for the work, I hate it because of the way of life: I was poor as hell. I didn't get funding, so I had to pick up miscellaneous jobs to make ends meet. I felt really, really ashamed because everyone else was getting funded and focusing on their own research, and here I am, tutoring undergrads and getting very little pay for it. I felt so ashamed that I had no funding that I didn't want to take any minimum wage job because I was afraid someone might find out. So I pretended that I was funded just like everyone else. I was so worried about my financial situation that I could barely focus on my own research, barely pay any attention in my classes because I was worried what I was going to eat for dinner (forget lunch or breakfast, I had to skip them during some weeks because I couldn't afford it). It got to a point where my adviser was starting to notice my lack of progress on my research. I wasn't a bad research assistant, and he knew I was a hard worker, but I had no money whatsoever to even meet the basic life necessities, and that affected me more than I thought possible. I couldn't ask my parents for help because they'll just give me another lesson on why I should have majored in accounting and gone to law school, and I couldn't find consolation in my fellow grad students because I felt no one would understand, and worst yet, they might find out I wasn't funded. So I hid it, and it was terrible. Sometimes I woke up in the morning, hating myself and just want my life to be over.
I finally got a break five months ago and got a six-month internship at an amazing company thanks to my adviser's connection. So I moved across country and started my new job. Before I left, my adviser and I made an agreement: I would write monthly reports regarding the status of my internship, and in exchange, I would get credits toward my graduate studies. It was working out great. I loved my job and was getting praises from my supervisor and coworkers alike. I had to pay my university tuition for getting those credits every semester, but I was making enough to pay out of pocket. And then I got the best news of all: someone from the department of transportation was going to fund my graduate study for a year, and my supervisor wanted me to stay for a year at another location as a full-time employee before I go back to get my master's. With that in mind, I promptly paid off one of my four student loans with the money I saved up for next semester, and my bank account immediately went from looking great to oh so sad. But I wasn't worried, I had options, and they both looked great.
Alas, the good news didn't last. When I called in September, the department of transportation told me that something came up, probably some political bullshit or bureaucratic red tapes, but bottom line, I was probably not gonna be funded as they originally intended. My heart sank a little, but I wasn't worried yet. A few short weeks later, my supervisor called me in his office, and told me rather sympathetically that the plan fell apart, and that I was not going to be able to stay on as a full-time employee....Ok. So I called my adviser, told him the whole situation, and he in turn told me, also sympathetically, that he has no funding for me. Apparently a lot of projects are being cancelled by the government. Nice to see our government investing in the civil infrastructure of this country. I have to say this about my professor, he is a very good adviser who, like so many of his colleagues, gives a shit about their grad students, but there's only so much a tenured professor could do given the fact that it's the university administrators and outside groups who are in charge of everything, and to them, grad students are nothing more than money-draining pipe holes, and given what I know, I'm afraid what they might do to my graduate career if they ever find out about this.
So here I am, with a little more than a month left in my internship and very little money in my bank account, not wanting to go back to school, not wanting to go back to the constant worry about how to pay my rent and the constant depression for not knowing where my next meal is. I'm so sick and tired of ramen that I want to vomit every time I see one in the grocery store. My friends back at the university told me not to come back if I can help it. "Life here sucks" they said, but no one has to remind me that twice. I know that if nothing at all happens with funding from my department, I just might have to pick up a minimum wage job somewhere. It's demeaning, but at this point, I really don't give a shit about what others think anymore. If they think less of me because I'm trying to survive grad school the best I can, then they are probably not worth my time. Of all the advice I ever gotten, I wish someone had told me that.
You know what the worst part is? I'm smart and very good at doing what I do, and everyone who's ever worked with me on anything know that, but I'm still being rejected at a constant basis by various engineering firms. It's worst at career fairs, with some recruiters dismiss me instantly, thinking because I'm Asian, I probably would need sponsorship, which costs more money that they aren't willing to spend. I'm a US citizen, for fuck's sake!! But that doesn't matter, all they see is the color of my skin and my race. That doesn't happen all the time, most of the recruiters are really nice guys, but when it does, it is very disheartening.
I'm fairly sure everyone, myself included, would say that these sufferings will make me a stronger person in the long run. But there is a difference between the status quo and the long run: in the long run, we are all dead, and status quo of my life is that I don't know how I'm going to survive the remainder of my graduate career, and I don't even know if getting a MS would even help. I hope it does, but they said the same about getting a BS, so you be the judge.
Soup and crackers
I've read the entire Unemployment Stories series on Gawker, and used to feel such terror when reading the stories because I dreaded the idea of being among them. And now I am.
It's Christmastime and I've been unemployed for two months, which is a pretty short time compared to many people. I'm a single mom in my early 40s with a live-at-home college student and a toddler. A year ago, I left a good job to move to a smaller city in mountains because I was chasing a better quality of life, and landed what felt like a dream job as operations manager for a small organic food company. The boss was temperamental and very fickle, but I was determined to break any curses I'd inherited with the position and really do a great job. The pay and hours were lousy, but I enjoyed the work and was living a simple, comfortable life. One Monday morning in early October I came in to find my office packed up and my position dissolved. Because I was earning only enough to get by, I have no savings and because the boss had been paying full-time employees on a 1099, I had no chance for unemployment. In the city I'd left, I would have bounced back quickly, because that's the kind of person I am, but that mountain paradise I moved to is also among the most impoverished areas of the country.
I've had some interviews and send out resumes to every job that seems ideal. I've negotiated with my landlord to pay $100 of rent per week until my deadline of 12/31, when I must have a job and be in the process of getting caught up on rent, or my lease will be terminated and I'll have to move. We're surviving by selling our belongings, and managing those sales takes up a great deal of time. I lie to potential buyers, stating that I'm moving and need to get rid of excess property, but everything I sell means something to me and was bought because I needed it. This is all the stuff I crammed into the U-Haul to get here. The Christmas tree is up, but there are no presents underneath it. The upside is that I am home with my toddler each day, and spending lots of quality time. We eat a lot of soup and crackers.
I cry a lot right now. My family needs me to support them and I want desperately to. I want to have Christmas this year and still achieve that simple, happy life I left the big city for. I wish someone would give me a job today.
I had an interview this morning. They said they'd do their second round of interviews after the new year. I'll be in the process of eviction by then.
Thanks for letting me tell my story.
[This story was submitted late last year. We asked the writer for an update today, and she told us: "I finally got an offer, but it didn't arrive in time to save my house. I was evicted and we have been living with friends in Northern Virginia for the past few weeks. The economy is better here, and I've already been interviewing with potential employers. While deeply homesick and humbled, I'm very optimistic."]
Pregnant and unemployed
"It's illegal to discriminate against pregnant women!"
That was the response to my blurting out that I would be showing soon and wondering aloud how I could find another job since I was being laid off at 4 months pregnant. Somehow I managed to get out of the room without crying or hissing that speeding is also illegal and people get away it every day.
This happened unexpectedly just as we were starting to share the good news more widely. The layoff shut all that down and I have had difficulty bringing myself to tell anyone about either. My expanding belly, supposed to signal so much joy, has become a symbol of my growing unemployability.
I have become obsessed with not appearing pregnant and endlessly asking my husband for reassurance that I look merely fat. Visits to mirror prompt the hope that I haven't gotten any bigger followed by the immediate guilt that, if it were really true, it would be because something is wrong and the baby is not growing.
I will never be eligible under the Family Medical Leave Act since I won't have a year of service before needing maternity leave. Networking, usually the fastest path back into employment, is awkward. Few in this economy will risk burning their own employer or industry contacts. I can see it in their faces and, having followed this series, understand.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. This was a planned and wanted pregnancy. My former employer was women-owned and family-friendly and I was good employee.
This feels like a contest to determine who is more unemployable - the visibly pregnant or the long-term unemployed with an infant. One I fear I will lose.
Wherever you go, there you are
I graduated in the spring of 2010 from a school in way upstate NY. I had an idea of what i wanted to do and where I wanted to go with my career, but was not totally sure. Despite how insulated college keeps you from the reality of the job market and how busy i was my senior year , I secured an internship. I got accepted into something called the Disney College Program, a week after I graduated i drove down the east coast because it was a job.
Long story short, I had a lot of fun and learned a lot, but after my 7 month program had ended, I decided to leave. From the outside Florida seems very appealing, it is a great place to retire because of cost and a great vacation spot. But living there is kind of weird, and truth be told there is just not that much opportunity besides the hospitality and health care sector. Most of my friends who had stayed, stayed in low wage jobs and at this point are pretty much all gone.
Since I am a business major, I suppose I had some entrepreneurial spirit so I decided to go overseas to teach English. Again for young people, its the only real opportunity out there, it pays well, there are a lot of jobs and its actually ENTRY LEVEL. I had hoped I could have done this for years and years so i could wait out the recession, but after my first contract, I was done.
I came home to Long Island earlier this year and like most young people in the metro area, want to work in NYC (it's not as if LI is flush with good jobs anyway). Again I was not a fool, I knew I was in this for the long haul and have tried to secure decent local part time work, and I did start volunteering. I have pretty much done everything I am "supposed" to do, use Linkedin, contact alumni, you're college career center, change you're resume often, volunteer, write award winning cover letters and so on. People need to realize a simple truth: its a bad job market and its just not getting much better. On top of that, between digital applications and employers suddenly deciding that training employees isn't worth it, makes it like getting a job is like winning the lottery.
I am glad Gawker publishes these stories, its very cathartic when i read them. Personally most of my friends are doing quite well, some of them went through this and some didn't, but like most people have already written, unemployment kills friendships. Its hard for me to even go on Facebook anymore, I hate to sound melodramatic, but when I would go on see what people were up to, i feel like a ghost. Living at home and being unemployed just sucks. Luckily I still have money saved up, but forget about having a social life or a girlfriend.
I am trying to stay positive, but the worst part of my unemployment (besides Hurricane Sandy and losing power for over a week) was when I found out a company where my "friend" works was hiring. We actually went to college together and she got this job fresh out of school because her dad knew someone. Here i was networking and hoping she could maybe pay it forward. She ignored me at first, but she pretty much just lied to me and had no idea or cared what i was going through. She actually sounded like Marie Antoinette in her response. I tried to reconcile best I could, but I had nothing to say to her afterwards. I have the same degree as this person, she wasn't in any clubs, she had one silly unpaid internship which she got through her dad also, but she has a great job and i don't. Meanwhile in college she was copying off of my notes and she got a free ride on some BS scholarship so no debt either. People like her is why my generation gets such a bad rap, entitled upper middle class kids who in reality are not that talented, but have every opportunity handed to them. The rest of us are just deemed lazy because we aren't working.
Perseverance, loyalty, and a little luck used to get you somewhere in this country, now i just wish I had a magic dad.
A sunny perspective
There is a perspective that I feel is lacking in this series, that of the person or people who come out of a stint of unemployment with renewed hope and optimism.
While on vacation I got a slew of texts from coworkers about an all hands that had been called. The all hands announcement was "if you are here you still have a job", those who had been given notice were sent home earlier in the day. Over a few glasses of wine it seemed pretty hilarious.
Vacation over and flying back home I missed a few calls from my boss, weird, verifying for my director that I would be in the office the next day, weirder. Pull up to the cube the next day and I see that I had missed at least two meetings with people who out rank my director, oh shit… , with another meeting scheduled for 9am. 9:15 am packet in hand I was told that it would be best if I took the rest of the day off. Instead I went to another floor, hid in the bathroom, and cried. "Why ME?!"
Oh it really burned me to figure out over the time I had left with the company that I was the only person from my group that had been given notice. Not the girls who came in an hour late, left an hour early, took breaks to watch soap operas, spent their time talking about this or that celebrity, openly and sometimes belligerently refused to do their jobs. Just me, who did the best I could, whose coworkers sought opinions from, who worked with the most vocal and demanding client. Of course no explanation was given as to why I was being laid off but I realize visibility is what did me in.
Unlike my previous stint of being unemployed (by choice) I didn't simply sit in front of my computer day in and day out bemoaning the lack of response to my applications while desperately trying to figure out how I could improve my resume or cover letter. I did not focus on how my life was going to shit, the end of a relationship, self-loathing, needing to find a place to live while having no income, not pursing unemployment, dwindling savings, annoying family members, etc. I went to weekly working groups, learned how to network, dropped the awkwardness that comes with being unemployed, became confident in telling people what I could do and what I wanted. "Hey world I am still here!"
Maybe I was lucky to get the call that I did, to receive a pretty stellar offer within days of interviewing, to have the flexibility to move half way across the country, to get a manager and coworkers who understand my value. If luck it was I know luck cannot last forever so I take the lessons I've learned over the months of being unemployed to heart:
Never stop improving
Never stop learning
Always be on the lookout for new opportunities, they don't have to be for you
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. You can send your own unemployment story here.]