“Just because you’re unemployed, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of work” – Dr. Daniel Mullin

I was watching an episode of The Simpsons recently where Homer ends up becoming chief of police after Chief Wiggum is forced from office following a public scandal. During the episode Homer says “You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs… boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby-proofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carny, mayor, grifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe and missionary. But protecting Springfield, that gives me the best feeling of all”.

It made me think of the employment struggles that so many of people I know are currently going through, myself included. While I know that there are many factors in the employment troubles I and my friends have been experiencing, I can’t help but wish that life was like The Simpsons, where random, unlikely, and often bizarre circumstances culminate in the procurement of an exciting career opportunity.

But, alas, I don’t live in a strange, fictional cartoon world, despite what some of my friends might say. The world I inhabit is one of sharp economic downturn, financial uncertainty and wage cuts in the face of a rising cost of living.

My best friend Dan, he of “The Unemployed Philosopher” fame, recently successfully defended his doctoral thesis. Unfortunately even with his new found title of Doctor of Philosophy, he still finds himself as an unemployed philosopher. He and I have talked many times about our struggles to find stable, long-lasting employment. Please notice that I left “meaningful” out of that phrase. It often feels now that wanting it to be stable, long-lasting and meaningful is wanting too much.

Amongst my friends I’ve noticed a trend. Many are either taking whatever they can or they’re going back to school in the hopes it will give them more options. It’s disconcerting the number of friends I have who, despite being armed with university degrees, have ended up working in fast food places. I can’t shake this feeling that it wasn’t their intent to spend several years and tens of thousands of dollars so that they can say “would you like fries with that”.

There are many factors working against those who are job seeking. The most obvious is the downturn the economy has taken. Companies are trying to find a balance between minimizing costs, maximizing profits and still putting out a solid product. Another factor is people are working longer and delaying retirement more than ever. Whether it’s the feeling of being able to keep up the job demands at an older age or the desire to make more money in order to stave off retirement financial issues, people are staying in the workforce longer, meaning less vacant positions in the workforce.

In North America, more and more jobs are outsourced because the cost of labor is cheaper overseas. With the rise of the internet and instant communication from all corners of the globe, it’s no longer necessary for you to be where your job is. All one has to do is take a look at the rise of teleconferencing to see the truth of this. Teleconferencing has advanced to the point where even doctoral visitation and diagnosis can be done remotely.

At this point I want to talk about the role education plays in the job hunt. Education is important, but it also needs saying that not all degrees are created equal. An example that comes to mind is the story of someone I know who flunked out of one college’s early childhood education program with marks in the low 30’s and went on to an ECE program at another college and graduated with marks in the high 90’s. So why the sudden huge improvement? It all came down to the course requirements. The college the student flunked out of had requirements that demanded much more of the student in comparison to the second program they entered. When a mutual friend who was in the ECE program at the first college heard the requirements of the second college’s ECE program, their reaction was “Why am I working so hard at my program when I could switch colleges, do a minimum of work and still end up with the same degree?”

My friend raises a good point: why work so hard when you’ll end up with the same degree as someone who’s doing next to nothing by comparison? It’s true that different universities and colleges hold different weight in terms of how they’re viewed by employers. And it should be that way. A degree in business from Harvard should carry more weight than one from a local community college because Harvard has better resources and higher expectations of their students.

But this raises a secondary problem with education: let’s say you have two students in the same program at the same school. The first student is getting high marks on all course requirements and exams and pushing themselves to excel in everything they do. The second student is barely passing their courses and exams and doing the bare minimum required to graduate. Eventually both do graduate and start applying for jobs and positions in their field. The problem that arises now is that, on paper at least, both are graduates of the same program and would essentially be equal in the eyes of prospective employers.

Are they equal in what they can bring to the workplace? No. Not even remotely. But that doesn’t matter because until they get called in for an interview, they are on equal footing by having the same degree. Other resume factors, such as prior work experience, internships, and volunteering could work in favor of one applicant over the other, but it still depends on what the prospective employer is looking for on the resume.

There is often no distinction made between qualifications on a resume and what a person is actually capable of. It might sound like I’m talking about the problem of being considered under-qualified but I’m not. While one’s qualifications is an important consideration in filling a vacancy, I’ve found being considered overqualified to be just as much of an issue. The idea of being rejected because of being “overqualified” doesn’t make any sense to me but I’ve experienced it and I’ve heard many friends talk about being rejected for the same reason.

Logically, being “overqualified” should be a good thing. It implies that less training is needed, the learning curve and adjustment period will be shorter, productivity will be higher and less supervision is needed, resulting in more office efficiency. However, in my experience, it seems to also mean you have higher wage expectations, the desire for more benefits and vacation time and general attitude of entitlement. The irony is that I, and most of my friends who’ve been told “you’re overqualified”, don’t have those entitlement issues. We just want to work. After all, some income is better than no income.

Sometimes it feels like the employers have a specific, idealized candidate in their mind, and will just wait it out, knowing that the odds are in their favor for finding that person because of how specialized education has become.

There is an argument to be made that with the ever-increasing course specialization available in colleges and universities, we’re hitting a point where we’re becoming too specialized. This is something Dan has been facing in trying to find employment in the academic field. Between more professors opting to put off retirement and the ever increasing number of graduates with Masters and Doctoral degrees, the number of applicants is far outpacing the number of open positions. For Dan, this is forcing his hand in that he’s been investigating alternate routes of employment that while still involving his Philosophy degree, don’t involve teaching.

I’ve been doing similar things that, while involving my skills as a filmmaker and my knowledge of media creation, doesn’t necessarily involve filmmaking itself. And while trying to find a steady paycheck through media endeavors, I’ve found myself taking on work as a renovator and carpenter in an effort to try to make ends meet. Is there anything wrong with renovation and carpentry? No. I grew up doing it but I still find myself wanting to do something that engages the more creative and academic parts of my brain.

My wife, Michelle, is facing a different obstacle as she looks for work. She’s working on completing a degree in Art Therapy after graduating with a dual degree in Art History and Psychology. The obstacle she faces now is that art therapy is a relatively new field, which is translating into there not being a lot of positions open for her as an art therapist. Her plan is to eventually open up a private practice, but for now she faces uncertainty and I face the prospect of many more meals consisting of eating Spaghetti-O’s because that’s all our budget can afford, with bills and school fees always jumping for every dollar we have.

I know that in time the job hunt frustrations I, and so many people that I know have, will get better. The economy will eventually correct itself, as it always does given enough time, and things will turn around. Dan will eventually find his niche in the realm of philosophy and ethics, and Michelle will eventually find her niche in art therapy. They’re both too smart not to.

As for me? Well, I’m betting I’m just off-kilter enough to find my niche. I’d prefer if it has to do with filmmaking or writing or media in general, but maybe I’m being too picky. Perhaps my destiny does lie in asking if you’d like fries with that. I can handle that, can’t I?

Aww, who am I kidding? I’d go crazy as a fry jockey. Give it a month and I’d probably attack someone with the fry chipper. I guess this means I’ll have to keep looking and holding out hope I’m someone’s perfect job candidate.

Oh, that episode of The Simpsons I mentioned at the beginning? It ends with Homer deciding being police chief is too dangerous and saying he’s going to give his badge to the first person he sees. That person ends up being Chief Wiggum, who takes the badge and says “That’s funny because this is how I got this job the first time”.

Hmm… living in a cartoon world gets more appealing every day…

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2 comments on ““Just because you’re unemployed, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of work” – Dr. Daniel Mullin

  1. danielmullin81 says:

    Reblogged this on The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog and commented:
    A good post on unemployment (which just happens to mention me) from my friend Shane. Follow his blog!

  2. Of course, Homer has the advantage of never aging. He can add to his resume and still have decades of opportunity ahead. As to working the fringes of your specialty, it is my experience that most people do not work in the field of their degree at all. Academic administrators seem all to be way out of their fields. What is a PhD in Biology doing as Provost or a lawyer running Institutional Effectiveness? In the business world, the degree often only allows a hire in entry level positions. From there a person builds on experiences and opportunities and follows the money and the muse. My syllabi all contain the statement in italics and bold: The most important skill a student can acquire in college is to learn how to learn. Students, of course, never read or ask about this. But for me, once we have learned to learn, nothing but our decision-making process stands in the way of our pursuit of interests we never knew we would find interesting. A business is either expanding or contracting. There is no stasis. A person is similar but with an expiration date on productive time. So, while we cannot have Homer’s apparently endless lifespan, we can follow his endless curiosity and apply our skill of self-learning to energize our careers and intellectual lives. This, for me, is the essence of Martin Luther King’s remark that “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted,” Seek quality in life as you define it and follow it down the crooked road with a hunger for the next thing coming. Of course, shit happens and we all get shat upon and feel badly, but that college degree is supposed to partly mean you understand the process and can work through the pain.

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