Is This You?

You lost your job for the same reasons that other people lose their jobs, but your field has some unique characteristics that leave you facing significantly different barriers to those faced by other job seekers.

Your field is small and highly specialized—even difficult to explain—and might involve a key credential that you have lost.  Nobody you know can think of job opportunities in your field, but it’s not obvious how you could move into a field where there are jobs to be had.

You are facing not so much the loss of a job as loss of a career and a probably unwanted—and certainly unexpected—career change.

You’ve had a Career Catastrophe

You’re what I like to call a Career Catastrophe Professional. (CCP).  You face unique challenges in getting your life back on track.  However, you can take steps to make the experience easier on you and your loved ones.  Here are some ideas to help you cope.

Step 1: Recognize You Have a Problem

It can be difficult to recognize that you’re in a Career Catastrophe, and it can be difficult to face the scale of this problem.  After all, you are a well-established authority in your field—or at least well-known. It may seem self-evident to you that you should have a job and that the situation will resolve itself shortly.

However, the quicker you realize what’s happened, the quicker you can deal with it.

Signs you’ve had a Career Catastrophe:

  • You’ve lost your security clearance. In the DC area this rules out an enormous number of government and contracting jobs, regardless of your expertise;
  • You can name every single important organization and/or important person in your field. This is useful in fields such as nonprofits and academia.
  • Your friends and relatives can’t easily explain what you do for a living. This is also a sign that networking may be a challenge.
  • Nobody you know can think of a job for you.

There’s another element to this step that is even harder:  CCPs are often leading lights in their professions.  They are the smartest guy in the room, the go-to gal for information and expertise.  The loss of status associated with a job loss is a real affront, and CCPs are sometimes tempted to resurrect their career through the legal system.

This is a bad idea.  Lawsuits are ruinously expensive, and in the absence of flagrant, long-term and well documented discrimination, they never succeed.  Worse, they damage friendships irreparably.  Just don’t do it.

So now that we’ve got the depressing part out of the way and you realize what you’re up against, it’s time to focus on positive steps you can take.

Step 2: Recognize You’re in Control, Part I—Finances

It may seem like you’re in a tailspin, but there’s actually quite a lot you can do to make things easier by getting a grip on your finances.  These measures are common sense and apply to anyone who has lost a job.

This boils down to one point: You need to get a grip on your spending, so don’t make spending decisions based on social status.

  • Housing.  You have a huge house in a fashionable neighborhood.  But housing is your biggest expense and often surprisingly easy to cut.  Put your stuff in storage and move to a smaller, more affordable place ASAP. If you own, rent out your property for the cash flow.
  • Education. In many regions of the country, and in the DC area in particular, there’s no justification for paying for what you can get for free (the one exception to this is if you genuinely believe your kids need a faith-based education).  College students over 18 should take out loans (they’re adults now and should be willing to assume adult responsibilities).

Almost all other expenses have a significant component that is status-based: expensive restaurants, exotic vacations, new cars, clothes, phones, appliances and so forth.  But literally nobody will notice if you don’t have them. So don’t buy them.

(And speaking of cutting expenses, by way of entertainment, the Comcast Xfinity system has nearly 1,600 free movies; so do lots of other cable companies.  I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you.)

Even if you can’t cut major expenses because of leases, tuition that’s already paid, and so forth, it’s surprising how many day-to-day expenses can be cut.  If you want to demonstrate this to yourself, use try using your American Express card for all your purchases for a month.  The first bill will be a shocker.

Step 3: Recognize You’re in Control, Part 2—Time and Lifestyle Management

Even if you have a family (now might be a good time to reengage with the kids, by the way), you’re going to be surprised at how much time there is in the day (particularly because many CCPs are egregious workaholics and are used to trying to find free time, rather than use it).  Moreover, you won’t be able to find enough job search activities to fill all of it.

First, something you shouldn’t do:  No substance abuse—no booze, weed, tina, blow, or whatever other substance you use to impair your judgement.  It kills time, but it also kills you.  It costs a lot of money, it’s very bad for your health, it fogs your mind, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly people will clue in to how much you’re doing.  None of these will help with your job search.  Or with your family, your friends, or anything else that’s really worth having.

What you need to do is find something to structure your time.  It’s very easy to come unmoored from the rest of the world, even if you’re married, but particularly if you’re single.

Furthermore, the abundance of free time available to you will make procrastination particularly tempting; all those household improvements will be very easy to put off until another day, and you can only go to the gym so much, even if you’re supernaturally disciplined about it.

One option is to take some classes.  These look very good on a resume and let employers know that you’re taking steps to upgrade your skill set.  They can also be a very good way to explore moving to a genuinely new field.

Another very good option is to get a part-time job that takes advantage of your skills and knowledge.  The so-called “gig” economy has plenty of opportunities, from consulting to driving to tutoring, that help you stay in touch with the working world while bringing in a little money. Bonus:  these also give you something more specific to put at the top of your resume besides “consultant,” which I’m pretty sure most people read as “loser.”

Finally (and here’s where I get into trouble with career counselors) don’t volunteer.  I don’t know why this seems so popular, but I think it’s a bad idea.  First of all, it costs money, even if it’s just gas.  Second, you’re unlikely to meet anyone who can help you find a job.  Third, unless it’s something you’re genuinely interested in, your lack of passion will probably just irritate the other volunteers who are interested (in fact, if you actually were interested in it, you would already be volunteering!).

Step 4: Seek Professional Guidance

In the midst of all this diagnosis, financial management, and self-care, we forgot to mention something.

You have to get a job.

And here’s where your trouble starts:  you face unique problems that other job-seekers don’t.

Here are a few:

  • You haven’t looked for a job for years, possibly for decades, so your job search skills are weaker than others’
  • You may find career search jargon confusing, alienating, or even insincere and disingenuous
  • If you have worked for a long time in an organization with a lot of other potential CCPs, you might not have been promoted for a long time.  Even though your responsibilities and salary have grown steadily, what looks to you like loyalty and expertise can give the impression of stagnation
  • Your personal network may not be up to the demands of a contemporary job search.  (If you work in the fine arts, for example, you probably know a lot of curators and sculptors, but not a lot of people in finance)
  • Your job may be specialized to the point of esotericism and are difficult to explain briefly.  An “elevator pitch”, therefore is out of the question.

Even professionals who move from job to job and organization to organization as a matter of course find it useful to consult with a career counselor, and it should be no surprise that that is my recommendation as well.  However, there are caveats.

The basic issue is that career counselors work a lot like doctors: when they hear hoof beats, they think “horse,” not “zebra.”  They apply a well-known paradigm that works very well for most job seekers, but less well for CCPs.  That paradigm is:

resume + achievements + networking = job

This works if you are in a well-defined profession like accounting.  Your resume shows a steady progression from accounting major to a junior partner, with various achievements highlighted to show how you added value to your company.  Networking with other accountants helps you identify potential opportunities – and bang! You’re sitting pretty in the corner office.

For you, the CCP, each of these is problematic.

I’m sure I don’t need to spell out how important your resume is in attracting the interest of potential employers.  Specifically, it must be clear and comprehensible at a glance.

Unfortunately, a CCP job often involves inscrutable titles with arcane responsibilities performed at organizations nobody has ever heard of. My personal advice is to include a brief “plain English” description of the organization before listing specific responsibilities.

Describing achievements can also be difficult.  For some positions, the job title encapsulates both achievements and responsibilities.  For example, one position I held was “Parliamentary Monitor,” which more or less described my job responsibilities as well.  Finding ways to describe specific achievements related to this job resulted in a resume that mystified where it should have clarified, with entries that seemed forced and contrived.

In the Washington, DC area in particular, the confidential nature of many jobs can make it difficult to list responsibilities and achievements in too much detail. To give one humorous example, a friend of mine was pressed to give “achievements” as a nuclear disarmament negotiator.  His reply?  “Well, nobody got vaporized.”

Finally, networking poses a very thorny challenge for the CCP.  CCPs typically have smaller, more specialized networks than other professionals.  It can therefore be hard to break out of these to find the kinds of connections you need to move on.  In truly extreme cases involving the loss of a security clearance, former colleagues may be explicitly forbidden from talking to you.

Because of these challenges, you need to make clear to your career counselor early on that you are facing an unusual problem.  You’re a zebra, not a horse.

You need a counselor who will help you work your resume into a format that highlights your strengths so that potential employers and networkers can see them at a glance.  And under no circumstances whatsoever should you take “work your network” as the final word on how you to locate potential employers.  What you need is advice on how to grow your network, or even how to create one from scratch.

Because of these difficulties, if at all possible you should find a career counselor with experience in career changers, which is more similar to what you are facing.  Given your relative inexperience on the job market, finding one with special expertise with career changers is key.

Step 5—Two Lies

1.)  Somebody will create a job for you.

2.)  None of the best jobs are advertised.

Stay tuned for “The Career Catastrophe Part 3” where I will elaborate on these.

Read The Career Catastrophe Part 1