Putting Your Pride to the Side When the Recession Gets Real

July is always a stressful time of the year when working in the non-profit sector.  It’s usually filled with freshening up the old resumé and scouting Idealist.org for what could very well possibly be my next career.  As co-workers pack their careers in a box I either want to celebrate or become sick with worry that I’m the next to go.  That’s because every July marks the end of the fiscal year and non-profits usually have a good idea of how much funding they have, who they can afford to pay and who is costing them more money than they’re worth.

If you end up being the burden thrown overboard, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world.  You’ll probably want to scream, cry and crawl into a hole giving “the man” your ass to kiss on the way down.  Unfortunately what happens a lot when people are laid off is that pride gets in the way.  Pride is great until it starts blocking opportunities for you to get back on your feet fast. When the recession gets real, it’s important to stop caring about what others think and get creative so that you can get yourself out that hole and back to financial stability.

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1.  Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Many people who were in the words of Lil’ Wayne, “feelin’ irreplaceable, listenin’ to Beyoncé” were recently blind-sided with layoffs at companies who were struggling to find ways to cut costs and consolidate job responsibilities.  The people who were able to keep their jobs at the end of the day were people who could honestly, “Get in where they fit in.”  If you’re lucky enough to be employed, remain humble and open to learning new things.  Even if your only job responsibility is to answer the phones, it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to use the fax machine, the copier and find out how to navigate Excel.  Realize that anyone can be replaced, but make it a point to be as indispensable as you possibly can, so if your position is eliminated you can easily slip into something else.

2.  Collecting unemployment or government assistance doesn’t automatically enroll you into the Shiftless, Trifling and Lazy Local Union.

For a person raised in generations of poverty or who looks at receiving government aid as a regular part of life, it may not a be a big deal to pull out an Access card to pay for food, or to have to reveal personal details about their lifestyle to a case worker all so that they can feed their child.  But for people who are accustomed to paying their own way having to wait on unemployment check or go to a free clinic can feel humiliating, violating and degrading.  There is nothing wrong with receiving government assistance, and everyone on welfare isn’t lazy and trifling.  The very purpose of government assistance is to aid in tough times; hell, it’s why we pay taxes.  Unfortunately, there are people who feel entitled to take advantage of the system that give “welfare” a bad name.

Understandably when it comes to not caring what strangers think, it’s easier said than done.  After graduating college at 25, I found myself under-employed and having to rely on a government funded women’s health program just to make sure I was able to get medical care without declaring bankruptcy.  As much as I hated writing that the insurance I was using was on tax payer’s dime, I preferred maintaining my health over being sickly with my pride.  People turn up their noses when they witness someone pull out a government issued debit card and it can be easy to adopt a mindset of, “I’m better than this.”  But no one is better than putting food on the table and providing for their family, and sometimes that means swallowing your pride and accepting help.

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3.  Don’t depend so much on that degree.

As I write this I can think of at least three friends I have who still don’t get it.  By “it” I mean that a college degree no longer makes the difference between employment and unemployment.  I’m not saying job seeking isn’t difficult, but I’m leery of people who have degrees but claim they can’t find employment.  You have to be willing to work outside your field.  Even if you have a biochemistry degree, if it means your bills getting paid or getting your car repossessed, you might just have to deliver some mail until you can find something in your field.  You don’t have to settle for just any old job, but in this economy recent grads can no longer afford to be picky about a paycheck, because honestly the pickings are slim.  I hope I don’t seem anti-school, but I went to school because I actually wanted an education, not just because I thought it would land me a gig.  And most importantly, I didn’t think the hard work was over once they handed me my diploma.  In fact I knew that it had just begun.

4.  Recognize that part-time positions can lead to full-time opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to piece together part-time jobs to pay your full-time bills until you are able to find full-time work.  For most companies, it’s cheaper to employ a part-time employee since they don’t have to spend money on benefits.  If there is an organization you are particularly interested in working with, don’t be afraid to accept less hours or a different position in order to work your way over to where you want to be.  Many jobs use part-time positions as a type of audition process and will invest into employees that prove they are worth investing in.  The important part is that you find a way in; it’s easier to work your way up the ropes from inside a company than the outside.

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5.  Re-evaluate your lifestyle.

One of the things I am noticing as I navigate my professional path is that the more money I make, the more lavish my lifestyle becomes. For most people the same is true: the more zeros in your salary, the more you spend because you can.  When making purchases keep things in perspective.  Ask yourself several questions while shopping such as, “Will this purchase make or break my life?” or try taking 24 hours to think about expensive purchases.  If you don’t remember what you were going to buy the next day, the truth is you probably don’t need it.  People are creatures of habit and it’s important to evaluate exactly where your money is going every once in a while.  For example, does it make sense to really spend $100 on satellite television, if you’re never home to watch it?  Many times we spend money on things we only THINK we need and want when in reality if we were to eliminate it from our lives, it probably wouldn’t make that big of a difference.

6.  Don’t be quick to dismiss working for free.

Like part-time jobs, volunteering is a way to work your way into a company that you’ve had no luck being employed by and the good news is companies like free work.  The great thing about volunteering is that although you may not be getting paid, you are building up valuable experience that may place you ahead of the competition.  In fact, before being hired as a sexual health educator, most of my knowledge about sex-ed was gained through volunteering opportunities.  When a position did pop up, my resumé stood out above those that were actually employed because I had experience with that actual organization and showed a commitment and passion since I was willing to work for free.  Volunteering is also a great way to build your professional network.  Sometimes the in-the-flesh interaction that comes with volunteering will gain you more results than an e-mailed resumé ever will.

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7.  Understand that we are living in different times, and make your peace with it.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the traditional American Dream is drifting farther and farther out of most people’s reach and studies suggest that we are living in times where most children will not meet the simple goals of adult life such as buying a house or being able to purchase a brand new car as easily as their parents once did. But sitting around pouting about that revelation will not improve your situation.  My hope is that the recession and job scarcity will force people to get more creative about how they approach their professional careers.  It’s no longer enough to go to school and get a four-year degree and wait for the job offers to come flying in. It’s really important to understand how big of a part schooling comes in your career path and question if the debt you’re building is worth it.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned while job seeking in this economy is that while a degree will open the door for you, your grind, work ethic and experience play a profound part in helping you find and keep opportunities.

8.  Never burn bridges.

When someone is laid off or an employer is forced to make cuts, sometimes there’s no one to blame.  If you ever unfortunately have to experience being let go from a job, it can be easy to jump on the defense and take your panic out on your supervisor who may not even be to blame.  I’ve worked in non-profits for two years and thankfully I’ve managed to bob and weave past the pink slip, but in this economy especially, federal budget cuts are the norm and grants are becoming harder and harder to come by.  You can’t squeeze water from a turnip and if there’s no money to pay you, there’s no money to pay you.  Think twice before you flip everyone in the office the bird and update your Facebook status to, “Now I don’t regret cleaning the boss’s mug with the bathroom sponge.”

The point is that you never know who you might need, and even if your employer has the etiquette of a drunken frat pledge, that doesn’t mean that you should come all up out of your character.  The end of that position doesn’t signal the end of your career and you never know when you may need a reference letter or might be partnered up with that employer on a future project.  Before you pull out the kerosene, keep your cool.   It’s a small world and word travels fast.  Don’t give anybody material to use against you that could compromise your reputation.

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