*This blog post, like the previous one, remains focused as a direct-reflect piece with real people sharing their professional voices and experiences, presently or previously unemployed or underemployed (or both), who responded to participate in this project during May/June 2015 through interviews and or questionnaire responses. I thank each one of them for sharing their knowledge, their professional experiences, and sometimes personal ones. I’m still listening, still caring, and I hope others will continue doing so, or begin to do so, for all professionals in every state of being, but especially for those who have or are experiencing this as part of their professional journey. This post and the previous one were written by compiling direct quotes or indirectly crafting from the words, thoughts, ideas, and expressions of emotion derived from those participants’ responses who reached out to share their experiences. I consider myself humbled to have had the opportunity to listen and read about their experiences and I hope these two posts may honor their intentions to remain as educators and bring awareness.
Long form – in three sections
Regaining control of your professional narrative
- “The minute you orphan that story, it owns you. It defines you the minute you do that, and then you consciously or unconsciously work your life around it. When you do differently, you become the author of it.” Brene Brown, Salon, Aug 25, 2015
1. Foundation, foundation, foundation
We’ve all heard the real estate refrain “location, location, location” as being paramount to finding success in property value. The professionals who provided the flesh and bone of these last two blog entries range in diversity from within six months of graduate school to seasoned professionals with fifteen or more years experience, and even included those possessing terminal degrees. What they share in common, aside from their experiences with varying degrees of unemployment and underemployment, is their desire to own and author their personal and professional narratives rather than have them be orphaned by the side of the professional road or have their narrative be shamed, silenced, or abducted by another person who has zero knowledge of that individual’s reality because nobody has yet sought to understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Perhaps, these professionals, and any true believers in the field, could reclaim voice in their own refrain of professional value – “foundation, foundation, foundation.”
- “I learned that the support and unconditional love from a significant other was critical. I learned who valued a relationship with me because of who I am rather than what position I hold.” Anonymous unemployed professional when asked about what you learned about yourself
Whether new or seasoned, one clear message received from my interviews is that these professionals have witnessed serious foundation concerns. They have all observed cracks or craters in the foundation of the profession they value, or are still fighting to maintain the integrity of that value. These cracks and craters are seen in the foundation of the employment systems and practices themselves (recruitment, hiring, promoting-when allowed). They can also be seen in the clear lack of dialogue pertaining to the reality of underemployment and unemployment – resulting in, or contributing to, a lack of understanding and recognition of either. These holes, large or small, are also seen in their very own personal foundations of learning to be a professional in varied instances. In others, cracks appear as failed foundations demonstrated in disconnected graduate programs to practice (regardless of the degree itself), cultures of fear, bad policy, unethical behaviors and habits, and even ineffective leadership on campus and across professional organizations, which Brene Brown herself may refer to as “…a lot of BS from people who have grabbed the attention…where I don’t see the discourse.” In this instance, the discourse would be about the importance of employment, unemployment, and underemployment, and the significance of advocating trusting and transparent conversations about each. Some in the field would openly or anonymously call Brown’s attention grabbers the leadership celebrities, or the talkers vs. the walkers, as opposed to those leaders who do actually eat last. (Simon Sinek)
Despite a foundation that may provide the illusion it’s really on quicksand itself, these professionals seek hope and strength from the foundation of the field. Regardless of bad seeds, poor growth, or prolonged full-capability employment droughts in the field, most will endure because they believe in the work. They find hope in the founding elements that inform a meaningful career. They aspire to make meaning in their own contributions to educational value. They see hope in leaders who act with integrity and authenticity. They hear sounds of hope in a growing call for accountability in the practice and professionalism of how the field recruits, hires, and employs by the shining examples and word of mouth spoken (or through social media) of those who do these things well professionally, and with justice and equal opportunity in mind for everyone, not just someone’s favored or known one.
Maybe, there is even a little new found encouragement because the contributors to these posts, the many readers and generous respondents to the first entry, in addition to contributing to the last post’s success in getting it shared and read, more importantly will create the originally desired awareness for those facing or who will face unemployment and underemployment and speak up and show up for the social justice issue that is employment. Now, there may be professionals with hope that system failures within employment processes (previously written post specific to higher education/student affairs http://bit.ly/1oxAxxs) may find a place in the room for discourse and direction moving toward sustainable staffing systems because more professionals know they are no longer alone in their experiences even if everyone has yet to own all of their experiences.
- “Why did I get a master’s in this – I can’t pay back with what I’m being paid.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about that has been learned about the profession during underemployment
- “We need to talk about ageism and the residence life funnel/bottleneck for young professionals. I joke with a friend that ‘friends don’t let friends get stuck in res life’ but there is a grain of truth to that statement.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about that has been learned about the profession during underemployment
Stephanie Stradley (Houston Chronicle writer for the Texans, lawyer, and legal analyst on the NFL’s recent football deflation lawsuit) recently wrote something which was not only interesting, but seemed directly applicable to the consideration of professional foundations with regard to employment status in the field: “Once a course of action is started by powerful people in organizations (the NFL), it is hard to walk it back. Many organizations do not reward people for speaking up against the course of action of what has been chosen by their superiors.”
This applicable course of action in this instance is the field or even institutional employment practices as they currently exist, which seem hard to walk back, because at the very least there are people who don’t want to do so, because they are secure in their own power by not doing so. There are also many organizations/institutions in this field that are known to not reward people for speaking up against the chosen course of action even if it’s for the betterment of the profession and despite doing so respectfully and having ethics, standards, education, and social justice on their side to support their informed contributions. Speaking up would likely mean time spent revisiting of processes or traditions at institutions or throughout the profession in the macro sense. In the micro sense, it certainly would force institutions and the profession to consider what if anything is done to prevent or respond to unemployed or underemployed professionals. Both would require questioning effectiveness and ego, and that is difficult to digest for many in education as it is in the NFL. If a week or a month of unemployment or underemployment is a burden for just one professional, what does nine months to two years or longer look like for one or more of them? What does leaving the field entirely due to unemployment or underemployment do for individual careers and the legitimacy of the field as a whole? What can or should be done to walk back, or course correct, and are leaders of organizations open to considering such innovations?
There is actual human evidence of fractures by not talking about the unemployed and the underemployed because it clearly makes those persons accept a positive, happy, or comfortable personal narrative that simply may not exist, because to speak of anything more could be seen as disruptive. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the way anything other than the perception of positive became all “negative,” “whining,” or “corrosive.” Rather than discerning and addressing the behaviors of those individuals being maliciously negative without a desire to contribute to solutions, those speaking up for a lived reality, asking critical questions, and considering and contributing ideas for sustainable staffing have been suffocated in the same blanket, which goes back to feeling silenced or shamed as a professional. Institutional or organizational brand management is as important as ever, but PRing another professional’s truth, feelings, values, identity, or well-being to get them to be a non-diverse human being, seems by the observations of many to be a bridge too far and is in itself its own negative and intellectually corrupt act.
- “While it saddens me that this happens period – I learned that others were having the very same and in some instances worse experiences than I was having.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked about what has been learned about others during unemployment
In the 2009 Academy Award nominated film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays the somewhat unlikeable character of Ryan Bingham. Bingham travels the country as a contracted termination specialist for employers who don’t have the courage to fire their own employees. The movie is a social and economic commentary about where we’ve been and where we are with the “American Dream,” a foundation value for many, especially as it relates to how we find our identities and dreams defined by our jobs rather than the diverse souls who perform in those jobs. Dispersed throughout the movie non actors share their experiences of what it was like being without work, including the song at the end of the movie. Those moments of reality stand out and are jarring, but consider these voices are out there in this profession and they’re too frequently not being heard or helped, which is in essence what these two posts have all been about.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92dkdlnDalQ Up In The Air, by Kevin Renick
- “Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now and because they sat there they were able to do it; that’s the truth.” Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air
With each professional I communicated with, I couldn’t help but hear Clooney’s Ryan Bingham saying the above packaged quote as part of his positive spin to the newly terminated. In the interviews I’d hear the frustration with the positive-only campaign by the use of messaging intended to be uplifting such as, “Trust the process,” (previously written post specific to higher education/student affairs http://bit.ly/1u4emP2), “Hang in there,” “It will all work out,” “You will get a job,” “It will all come together in good time,” “It all happens for a reason,” and “With every closed door is one more closer to an open one.” Even if these sentiments come from the right place originally, they come across as privileged or simply detached statements from someone else’s present reality. It obviously bothered people more when this wisdom was provided from another professional who actually had to live through unemployment or underemployment and now has seemingly developed both amnesia that they once went through it and lack of empathy that others were going through it now.
- “Half of the on-campus interviews I went on didn’t end up filling the position, which is incredibly frustrating…and the transparency/feedback was minimal and I really didn’t know what I was doing wrong and why I wasn’t getting hired…When you have someone spend 8+ hours with you for an interview, the decent thing would be to call and tell them they were not selected…” Anonymous underemployed professional
In the words of one interviewee, “These are things we would instruct our staff members not to say to those in difficult times; haven’t these people ever heard of silence or presence?” Empathy and communicating effectively with those who are unemployed or underemployed can be tough work, but not so tough that a profession such as this one shouldn’t be talking about it, including every professional and in every graduate program on campus. One series of connections was definitely not considered tough work to comprehend- it’s that professional employment concerns are an always priority and are not something solved by a once a year focus on a recruitment season, TPE (The Placement Exchange) is an event not a silver bullet, and far “too many people are placed on search committees for their own professional development without any training at all by their department, division, HR, or equal opportunity on how to do it ethically, effectively, or legally.” To many, employment priorities are perceived as a “I’ll get to it after the important stuff” rather than one or more leader’s persistent #1 priority to develop a sound organizational staffing structure of service to all constituents who are served by the organization. For such an important aspect of effective organizational operations there appears to be an undervaluing of the professional’s contribution to the business of education, but also the practice of prioritizing the foundation and future of employees.
2. Employment gaps to well-being ones
Whether it was a conscience or subconscience choice to wait until now to release the second part of this blog I really don’t know for sure, but the fact that Brene Brown’s new book came out on Tuesday, Rising Strong, leads me to believe that it is more probable than not that it was a premeditated choice. In an article published by Salon on Tuesday, August 25, Brene Brown shared the following relevant observations:
- “I do think that we have somehow, in our pursuit of comfort and happiness, shifted a lot of value to fun, fast and easy. But it’s counterfeit value. The amount of energy it takes to live a life where you never fall down is so much. We’re enamored of grit, tenacity, courage, and perseverance, I think because they’re so rare. They’re truth. We have a sign in our house that says, “We do hard things.” We’re going to be called upon to do hard things. We can weather disappointment. I think people are desperate for that. I think they want to believe they’re brave and they want to be brave, but what they don’t understand is how difficult it is. There’s this cultural obsession with happy and comfortable. But what we really respect are people who can have tough conversations and get things done. In order to do that, we have to be very awake to our emotional lives.”
Unemployment and underemployment are not fun, fast, or easy in reality or in conversations at all whether it’s dealing in employment gaps or well-being ones. They are tough conversations, when they’re even had at all. And if they’re not being talked about, then they certainly can’t be addressed with any sense of organizational health in mind and then all involved run the risk of damage to their wholehearted self, which may as well be emotional death rather than awakening to emotional life. Higher education and student affairs should be willing to have difficult conversations at any time concerning issues confronting employees. I’m sure one of those conversations or priorities for employees, and hopefully for organizations, would be well-being. However, I would contend the profession should be especially supportive of well-being as it pertains to those in unemployment or underemployment, or those transitioning into or out of those professional places.
- “To appreciate how much our careers shape our identity and well-being, consider what happens when someone loses a job and remains unemployed for a full year. A landmark study published in The Economic Journal revealed that unemployment might be the only major life event from which people do not fully recover within five years…our well-being actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.” Wellbeing – The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter
There is a legitimate case to be made for re-framing the well-being conversation not around happiness and comfort, but instead as living emotionally congruent lives as best as possible with or without employment or full capability employment. If any part of the professional foundation has failed its professionals, then everyone should have an interest in working to solve it for the sake of the advancement of the field, even if that means ultimately supporting professionals in the field to obtain or craft the needed skills and abilities to move on from this profession because there is no room to sustain their own personal or professional success and ultimately their well-being.
In their book Wellbeing, Tom Rath and Jim Harter write of well-being “the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about whether these five elements interact (career, social, financial, physical, community).” I mention this book and include the image below as a simple reference point for any status of employment really. I know everyone I spoke to about underemployment or unemployment clearly communicated their well-being was not thriving during these times, without even providing this framework specifically. Interviewees had a diverse range as to how well they communicated thriving, but clearly their employment status was impacting one or several areas. In thinking about this, I was left with one of the more simple questions: If professionals in the field who are underemployed or unemployed are likely not thriving in one or several areas of well-being, what is the role of higher education/student affairs to intervene in collaboration with or on behalf of these professionals? Higher education and student affairs professionals would not think twice about intervening on behalf of students struggling with well-being, no matter the reason. So what should professionals expect from the profession they aim to serve?
First generation students: Interventions for them. Underrepresented students: Interventions for them. Students who are high performing, athletes, students requiring pet therapy animals, transfers, veterans? They all require some form of intentional, well considered, policy, plan, or practices of care to ensure that their needs as student, or customer, are being met or at least recognized in order to find pathways to succeed. Whether professionals in the field of higher education/student affairs are employed, unemployed, or underemployed, shouldn’t their well-being be a priority also by someone or more than one someone other than just the often isolated professional? And if by someone other than them means hiring managers or search teams using perceived well-being issues against those unemployed or underemployed professionals in recruitment and hiring, then consider that vicious circle of irony for a moment for the caring profession that this is intended to be. Then take a look at The White House’s Best Practices for Recruiting and Hiring the Long Term Unemployed as just one example that may provide assistance to those in employment need that this profession could use as a framework for seeking to support professionals whether unemployed or underemployed. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/best_practices_recruiting_longterm_unemployed.pdf . Below are just some responses related to well-being from those interviewed:
- “I’ve learned that my spiritual faith was critical to my sanity during the time of strain/struggle. I also learned who my true friends were in the business as they regularly checked in with me to provide encouragement.”
- “My self esteem has definitely taken a nose dive since my first full-time position, but I’ve tried to improve my attitude. It’s definitely been hard as I remain unemployed, but I try to be optimistic.”
- “I was working for an abusive boss who engaged in disparaging and berating behavior…clearly a workplace bully. It became such an uncomfortable and hostile work environment that I opted to leave. It was affecting my health, family life, and academics.”
- “I may die $100,000 in debt, but I have been independent and taken care of myself.”
- “I was disappointed that I hadn’t secured a new job before the old one ended, so my confidence and self esteem took a big hit there. That also affected my attitude toward working hard for a new opportunity.”
- “I have a wonderful family and friends that know I am struggling and are trying their best to take some of the financial burden off of me until I can secure a real job. But because of my weird hours in retail, I often cannot go out to see them or socialize so I am isolated and feel alone, even though I know they are there for me.”
- “I started to see a counselor to help me navigate some of the attitude, confidence, and self-esteem challenges in addition to parent/child relations issues.”
- “This was one of the most challenging years of my life and the fact that I made it through and am still happy and standing is a miracle.”
What well-being issues are heard here in these responses? What could be others? How can professional peers and leaders of the profession better seek to recognize, understand, and authentically support professional colleagues while they are unemployed or underemployed?
3.The Bully Pulpit
In the beginning of the previous post I wrote about shame-free professional narratives and anonymous educators. Shame and living in the shadow of anonymity are evidence of many things including organizational cultures navigating from a place of fear rather than courage, transparency, and transformational leadership. Indeed, there are challenges to leadership to display courage, transparency, and transformation, but when leaders of campuses or professional organizational have such roles of privilege and power, it’s not enough to have them, but it’s what is done with them. When we speak of the U.S. presidency, the coined term is having the “Bully Pulpit,” or the authority and opportunity to speak out on many and hopefully important issues. I believe this applies in this field as well and in fact should be the only time we hear of effective bullying at all as our leaders use their pulpit to advocate for adhering to and growing the foundational values of the profession and the institutions and organizations such as higher learning, ideals that will influence the students and global citizenship so we all do better than expected, not simply resign ourselves to lower expectations. This “Bully Pulpit” is not only for advancing the tough and truthful conversations about student issues. It should be used to advocate for inspiring and influencing staff too as well as taking on employee concerns such as unemployment or underemployment. Although it’s not often in the same conversational breath, employment is a social justice issue. The courage to talk about employment practices as moral practices as educators talk about budgets as moral documents does not mean everyone will ever wholeheartedly agree, but for the sake of a sustainable profession and a successful employment culture there must be enough voices invited to the dialogue from the bottom up, and leadership on these matters from the top down.
In the immortal words of TV’s famous The West Wing President Josiah Bartlet, “What’s next?” leaders of any profession are called upon to answer the “What’s next?” questions. They are expected to seek diversity of thought and conduct formal and informal research on the “What’s next?” questions. They must care to understand the varied issues involved within and beyond their own scope of interest and their own professional field. Without this, leaders will likely continue to be part of the problems and will never be part of creating solutions or inspiring others to create them. Especially important from a dual employment and education lens, if educational leaders help professionals and the profession accept their own wholeness through the integration of all our experiences, which may include journeys in unemployment and underemployment, then this same profession and its professionals will ultimately better support students, if or when they are faced with the same challenges. Professionals in this field would never in good faith communicate to a diverse student body to just be silent, not be authentic, or not speak up regarding their whole story, even if it involves unearthing deep personal scars that may be both truthful and not positive, so why on earth would we expect differently from diverse professionals.Professionals need leaders to let their professional truths be heard as well.
Interviewees shared ideas about the “What’s next?” questions. Not all of them were certain. Not all of them even knew if they could figure it out because they were so worried about staying afloat as an individual or as a family. In some conversations, the talk of creating an undergraduate degree in higher education/student affairs did come up on the list as one of the things not to do next. This idea recently seems to be a whack-a-mole that may be entertaining to play on a Twitter chat, but when the profession regularly has people who are underemployed or unemployed, entertaining that game seems tone deaf to larger past and present problems that don’t seem to be going away.The moral of the story, regarding what comes next, is that these professionals want to contribute something that would be helpful to the profession, whether the participants in this project even remain in it.
Each of the following pieces of advice for peers and leaders could easily lead to their own blog posts. In the end, what these professionals wanted all along is awareness, more people to have the courage to ask questions of the profession itself and how these professionals are doing as people, and even the empathy to consider underemployment and unemployment not as a professional character flaw, but instead something that exists within this profession and in the world at large. the same would be true for educational leaders, but also with the added burden of hearing and advocating for the “What’s next?” as it concerns issues of professionals serving or seeking to serve students and staff. There are professionals waiting for answers to questions already asked and to those that are probably not being asked due to organizations not valuing them speaking up. Either way, so long as unemployment and underemployment is an issue there will always need to be both questions and answers and the opportunities created by leadership to speak freely about both.
When these professionals were asked about advice to those underemployed or unemployed in the profession, these are some of the responses:
- “Stay professionally engaged and keep networking…”
- “I will say that I took a temporary position at a university thinking that it would be easier to find a job from a job and I don’t think that’s the case.”
- “Work to understand why it happened, if possible. If you have character flaws to correct, get to work on that.”
- “Obtain certificates or get another degree.”
- “Success comes outside of your comfort zones…you’ll never know who or what you’re looking for- if you don’t put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable.”
- “Don’t take things personally! The process is EXTREMELY subjective. All you have to do is try your hardest to succeed as that’s all you can control.”
- “Feel comfortable disclosing information (professionally of course) what could explain a short gig on your resume.”
- “When you’re unemployed you have to let ego go, getting caught up in titles and responsibilities; unemployment benefits only last so long…”
- “When you’re underemployed you have to have an honest conversation with your boss what to do to survive.”
- “Don’t sell your authenticity for a job. It’s ok not to feel ok. You trusted the process like you were supposed to and it failed you. You do not need to package up those feelings into a pretty little box labeled ‘learning experience.’ It sucked and it happened. That is a legitimate feeling.”
When these professionals were asked about advice to those in leadership roles in professional organizations regarding staffing the profession, especially pertaining to those unemployed or underemployed, these are just some of the responses:
- “In SA I feel like it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, what you know, and how you package it, and how you’re packaged. Getting a job seems just as much chance as it is skill.”
- “Just because a referral is from a friend doesn’t make it right as friends are not always right. You have to take chances on someone. You have to take a chance on yourself.”
- “Be more creative in staffing to reward people with good work ethic as creative as they (leaders) are when moving around problems, making up titles and positions or retirement planning for those not doing the work.”
- “The issues facing the recruitment and selection process of professional full-time staff has hit a level of embarrassment for the profession. The mere fact that people are leaving or consider leaving the profession because of it should be an alarm. It is very hard to preach social justice, diversity, professionalism, and ethical standards when our very own institutions across the country are not engaging in such behavior…maybe some of these leaders…should establish an anonymous blog site where individuals in search processes can express their challenges, concerns, and experiences.”
- “If networks already formed (as a leader) then be open to new professionals (unknowns) who want to be part of this field.”
- “Encourage institutions who are interviewing at (conferences/placements) to inform candidates when they are not selected following an interview. I found most of the places I was not selected were institutions where I submitted my resume and cover letter through (conference/placement), and was thus not in the official HR system.”
- “Every application you get are people, not spam in your inbox…people apply for all different reasons and take considerable time to apply so acknowledge the person; you never know when that person will come back around.”
- “Be considerate of others! Don’t list something you’ve already chosen someone for. Also, make sure you communicate with candidates (reasonably).”
- “You have to be willing to fight for the people who work for you. Go to the mat…use capital to help people and not be afraid to fight for it.”
- “…Great candidates might have “gaps” in their resumes and employment…I imagine I would advocate for changing any official/unofficial ‘policies’ that deemed currently-unemployed candidates as less viable…”
Again, employment and labor concerns are social justice issues that impact the lives of real people we may know, or that we may know and not ever even realize it. Sometimes these people are us. Unemployed and underemployed professionals want the opportunity to live lives of thriving well-being. They want to be dedicated to their jobs serving others, but not fighting survival to do so. They want to reclaim ownership of their professional narrative, and they simply want their very own opportunity to each day ask themselves “What’s next?” and to answer the call with heartfelt effort and enthusiasm.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7IMmsRGRpA Sufjan Stevens: Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)
Dear Nobody – 2012
After hearing about my project on Twitter, a fellow professional shared the following resource with me and I thought it was a perfect end note to this post. So, all credit and thanks to the creative talents of Kayla Cady for the artistic representation that I believe compliments this post well. http://kaylacady.com/installation.html