*This blog post would not be at all possible without the many contributions of approximately 40 volunteers, presently or previously unemployed or underemployed (or both), who participated 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 next have been written by compiling direct quotes or indirectly crafting language 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 the opportunity to listen and read about their experiences and now know them better as people. I hope these posts may honor their intentions to remain as educators by bringing awareness to others.
Long form – in three sections
A Shame-Free Professional Narrative
- “Because whether you are recently out of school or toward the end of a long career, you deserve the chance to earn a living. All Americans should be confident that if they put forth an effort, they can find a job, care for themselves and their families, and retire with dignity.” President Barack Obama
- “Implore them (employers/hiring managers) to recognize the human aspect of the job search; recognize extreme emotional and mental struggle and self doubt is real. Then, we get nothing. No communication. We must be transparent with applicants and candidates. I’m a person, not just a body.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked for advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
1. The Anonymous Educator
Summers on college and university campuses may range from tranquil to just as terribly busy as any other day during the academic year. Now, with the prior year celebrated and closed out, student affairs and higher education professionals are looking ahead to the frenzy of fall, in addition to keeping up with the daily summer pace for many universities who operate at high impact levels all year long. For full-time/full capability (see below) professionals currently employed and those considered underemployed, no two diverse professionals are in the same state of being. Just as these working professionals are presently in diverse states of being, so too are those unemployed professionals within this same field.
Whatever diverse states of being professionals are in before this academic year, this post asks of its reader to hear a compilation of several professional voices experienced in being unemployed and underemployed in the field who have both unique and significant perspectives and contributions to make to any dialogue about states of being, but especially as it pertains to employment and working, not working, or not working to full capability, sometimes referred to as underutilization of labor.
- Unemployed: (Department of Labor) “Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Workers expecting to be recalled from layoff are counted as unemployed, whether or not they have engaged in a specific job seeking activity. In all other cases, the individual must have been engaged in at least one active job search activity in the 4 weeks preceding the interview and be available for work (except for temporary illness).”
- Underemployment: (Investopedia) “Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers that are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers that are highly skilled but work in low skill jobs and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time. This is different from unemployment in that the individual is working but isn’t working at their full capability.”
Unemployment is usually the easier one to identify, measure, and report upon. Underemployment is more debatable and requires more challenges in identifying, measuring, and reporting. In part, this is because underemployment does not only mean a part-time job at Barnes & Noble or Home Depot. These underemployed professionals are also working both part-time and full time (but not full capacity), in low-paying and low skill jobs on college and university campuses. Although they are not often perceived as ‘underemployed’ because they are working in the field, they may be making as much as if they were working for one of the aforementioned employers or be “severely exceeding the capacity of the professional position,” as noted by one interviewee. However, the end result is the same if you speak to the professionals I spoke with who were among those underemployed on a university campus, whether part-time or even full-time by title or classification: they were highly skilled…but not working at their full capability.
- “I would honestly say that being underemployed has left me with an overall feeling that my life has stagnated. I cannot start to live my life or even feel like a grown up because I have no way to take care of myself.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked what has been the biggest obstacle during this period
Most of these experienced underemployed and unemployed professionals I interviewed spoke to their emotional exhaustion or it being “difficult mentally” from experiencing discouragement, embarrassment, abandonment, or shame with or directly from family, friends, or colleagues. To some it was a blaster shot to the belief of “invincibility” or being “indestructible,” while possessing excellent references and resumes, experience, and institutional pedigree. This is a field that overly communicates professionals are not competitive with one another (not everyone’s experience), are willing to help others, and that there are lots of postings, while at the same time there are also lots of quality applicants who are actually competing for those same jobs, are not willing to help, and the postings may seem many but perception of quality employment and reality are two entirely different things. Others talked of having a crisis of identity, especially today where it seems to be all about classifying one’s identity only by what you do, not who you are as a holistic person.
Many have had financial difficulty because of their own admittedly unwise financial behaviors or choices or simply their crushing change in employment circumstances (expected or unexpected). Sometimes it may be a combination of both, or the not simple reality of learning how costly it is to be lacking an income at all, or being paid one in an unemployment check or at an underemployed job that is so low paying that it’s almost a detriment to your ability to live and meet your financial responsibilities. Some have been fortunate to be privileged enough to have family, friends, or other safety nets to support them, which sounds a lot less like a privilege to the folks in the profession for 5, 10, 15, and 20+ years. Yet, others are struggling with already diagnosed mental or physical health issues that unemployment or underemployment is not helping improve in terms of their finances or their personal or professional well-being.
Not to be forgotten, either unemployment or underemployment consistently brings up not only a person’s career and vocational questions, but ones of faith and spirituality, or maybe even now lack of having it, or dependent upon it to make it through the day like never before. These are all deeply significant states of professional and personal being that real people and colleagues have found themselves in due to these circumstances, as are the questions they are asking themselves and others. Who in student affairs or higher education are asking these professionals about their state of being or the larger systemic reasons for these professionally debilitating obstacles? Do you know who your colleagues even are that are struggling with these dilemmas, or are they hidden from you by their choice, or your own choice? If anyone is asking them how they are, what are the unemployed or underemployed willing to say? Or, what do they fear saying about living in either status in a professional field that in perception and practice may continue to marginalize or shame many of them? What they have to say about where they are at may not be received positively by someone else who may not ever understand their experience, even if they’ve lived it by the same name, as it has a unique nature to each individual person. There is obviously an absence of trust on these matters.
- “I found that unemployed people with the least were the ones willing to help the most…others could have helped and didn’t as if it was my fault that I was unemployed.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked what had been learned about others during this time
I have no delusions at all that I would not have received as many inquiries or as many volunteers had I not guaranteed 100% confidentiality to the participants in this project. Considering how almost all of them were unknown to me prior to this activity, it was abundantly clear they wanted to be heard and reestablish some level of trust, and they graciously trusted me to hear them. Almost every single one of them made the point “I know I am not the only one to experience such things.” In addition to not wanting to experience unemployment or underemployment again for themselves, they most certainly don’t want others to have to experience them either, or feel so “isolated” in doing so. There would appear to be a paradox problem: there are professionals who want to help other professionals and the profession be proactive and respond to those unemployed or underemployed, but they can’t seemingly do so because they are generally cautious, lacking trust, or shamed to a place of only doing so anonymously.
Since the latest great recession there are plenty of posts and places to read about the politics, the economics, and the mental health consequences of unemployment, underemployment, discouraged workers, etc. This post is not that post. This one is a direct-reflect from questions asked and answers received by voluntary participants, without judgment by me of their professional narratives. That’s not at all to say the national organizations and functional areas within student affairs and higher education on the whole don’t need more specific research on staffing the education business and economics of the profession and the systemic problems that lead to this field’s employment crises. I hope to see more of those dialogues, posts, articles, research, and books. This post captures moments in time from real people enduring or having endured through a professional period perceived by at least one person as “invisibility,” with no disrespect intended to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
- “Unemployment and underemployment is a research area that needs further development.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked for advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
- “Know when to leave a situation that is damaging professionally or psychologically.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked what has been learned about the profession
2. Believe It or Not
- “Candidates need to ask about culture more and more. We don’t talk enough about culture or ask about it, including personality, leadership, and management style of the larger organization.” Anonymous unemployed/underemployed professional, when asked how either experience has impacted the perspective on the view of recruiting, hiring, or employment practices in the profession
Some of the more frequent thematic elements expressed by those with experiences in being underemployed or unemployed in this field are feelings of disappointment and failure, questions of who is honestly and ethically in one’s corner, being driven vs. being desperate to find a job, personal and professional priorities and values, vocational identity, and of course the continued lurking gremlin of shame. There is even a strong showing of regret or at least serious reconsideration of pursuing or practicing in the field itself and the values it allegedly professes vs. the many of the ones it chooses to live by, although this was not expressed by everyone. There are even feelings of deception, especially for those newer to mid-level professionals as if “misled” that jobs will be there for them at the start of their careers, or even as they progressed in the field that they could be obtained in a fair and ethical manner based on achievement and work ethic rather than in a less significant manner, or even in some instances considered to be shallow or not considerate of an employee’s character, merit, or value of who and what they are to their current or potential employer, professionally speaking.
Several of these pros who felt deceived spoke to fake and unethical searches and promotion processes, the persistent lack of communication during a search or after, the inability of the profession to live up to the values it says it holds people to during searches and on the job, that they were sold a “bill of goods” about the university or their projected expectations of organizational “fit,” and several specifically addressed the excess of what they considered entry-level housing positions, which appeared incongruent with their graduate and professional preparation (which is an entirely different post that needs to be written). Even with those topics and so many others, more often than not, I still heard realistic notions of resiliency, self reflection, inspiration, the willingness to ask for help, prioritizing love and friendship, the rediscovery that personal and professional well-being matters, and the will that no matter where they found themselves, they would continue to find ways to create new beginnings in the washed away sand, even if “only one day at a time” and under less than positive circumstances.
- “I need to get back my poor person scrappiness. I got complacent and that’s why I got screwed.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked what have you learned about yourself during this time
As hurtful and frustrating or “emotionally demoralizing” as it can be to live professional journeys where many of these unemployed or underemployed professionals may be “living on a friend’s floor,” struggling on an unemployment check to pay the mortgage and feed a family with multiple “teenagers who eat everything in sight,” challenged by explaining employment gaps simply because of a requirement to move a lot for a spouse’s job, and facing ridiculously hostile work environments and workplace bullies, there was something else present too. There was a calming sense of humanity shining through these conversations, despite what they have experienced. These conversations were so very human and healthy that it’s incredibly unfortunate that they would seem so rarely discussed because of some reasons previously mentioned and perhaps too to recognize that even in higher education, home of the alleged best and brightest, employees don’t always get to possess a shame-free professional narrative.
These professional narratives often exist in silence, or professionals are merely taught to “never burn bridges” even when the bridge was blown up on them from either side like blasts from a Death Star. These professionals must “package it, then present it as polite and positive,” which makes it all the easier for the burden of stigma and shame to become such corrosive elements to the very professionals who advocate integrity, holistic development, and counseling services to everyone but themselves. These individuals still want to belong professionally, want to know people who still hear and care, and they want to know that they can actively contribute to changing their circumstances and that of others who have experienced what they have. They still care greatly, but they also know they need leaders across the profession to hear, care, and empower all professionals to consider changes for the betterment of all, rather than the few.
This may sound unbelievable to some professionals reading this. Guess what? It probably once sounded just as unbelievable to those professionals reporting about their experiences with unemployment or underemployment. We know it’s the reality facing a large number of people in the United States and to think that crop duster of unemployment or underemployment skips over those working in this particular field or who are wishing to do so (and at full capability) is simply not realistic. These professionals are unable to follow their vocation, drive, interests, or they can’t even just do a job so as to care for themselves and their families as they have been prepared to do by graduate programs or the experience of a long career. Instead, they find themselves absent from the profession entirely by unemployment, or they feel as merely an afterthought, or simply disengaged from the workplace, because they are underemployed, taking on the fundamental and devastating question of “Why bother?” In the worst of scenarios, it’s not even that these persons ultimately leave the profession, it’s that they are bordering on becoming discouraged workers from the notion of work itself who will then give up on looking all together and thus will not even be counted among the unemployed.
- “None of my work really matters in the long term. I’m not getting hired on, I’m not able to get raises, I don’t have vacation days, I don’t get insurance or any other benefits. I’m not here long enough to set goals, and in my current job I don’t even know how to set goals. I do a good job, but I don’t go above and beyond because I’ve been shown very little loyalty…there is absolutely nothing in this for me once I leave, except for a recommendation…I miss being good at something. I want to be good at my job again. I haven’t felt that way in a long time!” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked if the experience of underemployment impacted your perspective on how you think about work or your own work ethic
- “I know many professionals in higher education…and they just seem to be surprised that I am struggling as much as I am to find employment. They are all emotionally supportive and encourage me to keep applying to jobs, but they can’t really offer any specific help because I’m either doing everything that I can, or they are not party to the hiring process of their department.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about what has been learned about others during this time
There is nobody in the education business that gets through a Twitter feed without reading daily of serious challenges facing higher education. Interviewees wonder how often, if ever, are departments, divisions, universities, and professional organizations talking openly about the unemployed or the underemployed professionals in the field or no longer in the field, beyond just talking about conferences and professional development opportunities? Where are the questions, concerns, or social justice challenges to advocate for colleagues who are unemployed or underemployed? Where are the calls to reexamine a recruitment, hiring, and staffing approach that may not be serving all the professionals of the profession itself?
What seemed to be a deafening silence on individual and systemic issues like these led me to the place where I decided to go ahead and ask those experienced with underemployment and unemployment – what’s been some of their experiences and what’s to be done about it through their eyes of that experience? There is most certainly a perception that professionals who fall into the category of unemployed or underemployed are somehow “damaged goods,” “red flags,” or “have issues,” rather than being simply professionals and humans who are unemployed or underemployed, despite the fact most of us know these things are so often out of our control, presenting yet another paradox. As identified by an interviewee above, why are educators worried about assigning blame to those who find themselves at this fork, bump, or pothole in their professional road? If these are just some of the perceptions, what education must occur to change the narrative on this subject and when does that education begin?
3. Life Happens
The reasons are varied why professionals find themselves as either unemployed or underemployed and this is not an inclusive list: laid off; victims of division or university reorganization (in one example from an interviewee “four reorganizations in five years”); non contract renewals; being let go for cause, for institutional “fit,” or simply for being an at-will employee with no officially provided reason; having to relocate for a partner; only low wage or low skills jobs available to be had; employers discounting transferable skills and experience; taking a low skill or low paying job just to fill an employment gap; or some folks may just want a part-time or low skill job, but that last one I don’t recall as being anyone I interviewed.
Some professionals actually choose to leave their job on their own for their own personal or professional reasons, whether it’s part-time or full-time/full capability, without one already to move on to next. This too colors someone as unconventional or possibly a red flag, but it too is a reality that happens as life is far from idyllic and sometimes just happens. Some reasons for this include the following: some leave from a place of privilege and others desperation; others state compromised values, physical and or mental health and well-being concerns, family reasons, lack of professional opportunity or salary growth available, incompatible ethics with supervisor, organization, or practices; some depart due to a hostile environment or working directly with or for a workplace bully; and of course others walked away to live their true lives and that was not in their current job or career, so they took a chance on a dream because life’s too short. From the professionals I spoke to almost all spoke to the hope of finding a job or career and putting in the effort to earn a living that pays well (read fair and equitable/appropriately valued, not rich) and one that matches their high level skills expected of the profession that includes “working at their full capability.”
No matter the demographics or characteristics of the professionals there is a persistent concern, anxiety, or outright fear concerning explaining gaps in employment or why people leave jobs, no matter the legitimate reasons, or even having the chance to explain the reasons at all. In this profession where integrity, fair and equitable, social justice, and being authentic, are professed so many professionals begin the relationship with employers feeling the need to lie or make up something that sounds believable to the employer, feign perfection, or hide even from failure (especially during the interview question about failure). Otherwise, professionals run the risk of being dismissed for one item, having integrity, when scores of other professionals in the eyes of many are manipulating the system to get the job regardless of the honesty or credibility of what is actually said, so long as they get the job (keeping in mind the previously mentioned “it’s not a competitive field”). This is not a problem unseen in other careers, but in this one, with the history, philosophy, and values or practices espoused, there are more people that find fault with such behaviors because of its direct hypocritical nature to what the profession allegedly stands for in the eyes of those employees who have expressed wishing to belong to it.
- “We’re as phony as any other profession. We’re not held to a higher level. So, I’ll not be as nice as I’ve been, I’ll be phonier and look out for myself.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked about perspectives on work, job, or own work ethic
For those professionals who find themselves underemployed, there is another particular ugliness of direct or indirect shaming by hearing things from other professionals like, “at least you have a job.” This may in fact be a healthy perspective in a global sense, but it’s absolutely diminishing and dismantling to the individual being spoken to in terms of meeting them where they are, because where they are at is the worst place for them. I believe something about “seek first to understand” would come into play there. When master’s level or terminal degree level pros are working in low paying and low skilled jobs in student affairs and higher education or elsewhere, and sometimes a second or third job (if not too overqualified to obtain them), just to supplement income to be able to make rent, pay medical bills for a new baby, or forced to consider if/when they will buy food today just to make this profession work, there is a problem that goes well beyond just personal responsibility, financial literacy, or the sense that a person may sound privileged.
There may be a strong disconnect of empathy if we feel the need to judge first without questions and make others feel bad for not feeling even worse than they already do because there may be those who are technically worse off than they are currently. That of course goes to one’s measure of what’s worse and we must ask in order to know. If we’re unable to listen, lift up, or empower the ones closest to us or that we have access to each day, then we likely have zero chance of hearing or helping those furthest away from us.
- Don’t automatically discount a candidate simply because they aren’t currently employed or employed in a stop-gap job that seems out of line with their previous experience. We’re all just trying to survive out here.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked to give advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
- “This actually happens (unemployment/underemployment) and it exists so let’s recognize it and start a dialogue as to how we talk about it.” Anonymous unemployed/underemployed professional, when asked to give advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
Over the last five to ten years we have seen a rise in caring and concern for the hungry and homeless students on campuses because we know the harsh economic impacts on them. Because whether professionals realize it or not it’s been naturally understood that what John Lennon once sang remains true, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Well, it may be worth considering the harsh economic impacts squeezing or crushing those same employees being asked to provide five star quality care for those students on campuses across the land if they feel they have full capacity employment opportunities of their own suiting their education, experience, competencies, and leadership skills.
There are without question colleagues out there hurting, in need of help and opportunities to thrive, and yet so many still remain helping others on campus, in the profession, or in the global community as best they can. The hope they all shared for this project and blog post was to raise the very awareness that professionals in student affairs and higher education recognize or remember that unemployment and underemployment happens in this field. I think they’d like to also see more professionals contributing to listening, leading, understanding, and ending the silence and shame in order that all professionals can get “busy making other plans.”
- “For a profession that should be aware of exactly how little has changed in terms of the economy and how hard it is to enter the professional field, you would think that there would be more awareness and support. I haven’t seen it.” Anonymous underemployed professional when asked what’s been learned about the profession during this time
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 Check out this website and some of the excellent artistic work found there.
*A note for those who consider such matters: the like or share numbers of this post have been dramatically reduced since correcting the date of this post, which changed the URL and set those back to zero.
To be concluded in Careers in the Air: Name the Shame of Unemployed and Underemployed in Student Affairs & Higher Education, Part 2 of 2 http://bit.ly/1hJ7EMO