Reader Soapbox: Job search in Vancouver economy not so sweet

Looking for work after seven years reveals changed employment landscape

New Year's resolutions were tougher for me this year than in the past. Early this month, I started to lose my cheery grip after several days of the out with the old, in with the new chatter.

I wanted to be positive in 2012. Or you know, "keep sweet" as the off-shoot Mormon fundamentalist polygamists apparently say.

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Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Jan. 1, new beginnings or Mormons. I watch Sister Wives, well, religiously. But it got to be a bit much very early on.

I went to a friend's small house party on New Year' Eve. She's great and she likes to do that go-around-the-circle thing where everyone shares their hopes and dreams for the next year. I made a beeline for the washroom and stayed there for what I thought was a long, long time.

But when I came back, the circle was waiting.

"What are your hopes and dreams for 2012, Karen," the hostess asked. "Bob [name changed] here was just saying he hopes his company sends him on an all expense-paid trip to Prague, Paris and Portugal to check on their offices there."

"Well," I began, eyeing a butter tart, "I've always wanted to be a gymnast."

Mild laughter ensued, more polite than anything really.

The circle hovered expectantly.

"Well, OK. I hope to not have to live on the street with all of my belongings in a shopping cart."

Oops.

Awkward silence.

"Ha," said the hostess of the party finally.

I wolfed down a butter tart and mouth full, announced that I was only joking. "Back to Cranium!" I said, noting too late that I'd managed to spit crumbs onto the game board.

Seriously though, as much as it tortures me to admit it, I am middle-aged. Or near middle-aged. I mean people are easily living to 92 these days.

In September, I was laid off from my ESL teaching position, a job I'd held for more than seven years. It had been a rather great place to be for six of those years. The pay was great, there were benefits, my co-workers were fun, all the usual things that make working for a living not horrible.

The last 15 months or so were filled with drama that I probably can't go into-suffice to say that the ownership of the school changed hands three times; salaries were cut twice and benefits taken away. Student numbers dropped dramatically resulting in more than a few teachers and administrative staff being laid off. Why I didn't look for other work during those 15 months is anyone's guess-magical thinking and denial is what I've come up with.

And fear-of the unknown, the difficult economy and really great 22-year-old graduate student writers.

The fear hounds me somewhat as I begin my fifth month of unemployment. I've been teaching ESL for 12 years and decided to take this layoff as a chance to switch back to a writing career, something I had done a long time ago. When I was in my 20s, I'd been a journalist in small town Alberta and later freelanced in Vancouver. I've never stopped writing; fiction, creative non-fiction and various blogs that developed a loyal fan base of about six, not including my parents.

I don't necessarily want to return to journalism or know that I even could, but I have been hoping to get into a communications job-marketing, technical writing, communications coordinator, that kind of thing.

But my, my, oh my my my and finally my, hasn't the world changed since the last time I was out of work. Seems that despite my vast (if I do say so myself) communications experience, my resumes and cover letters are entering what can only be called the black hole of cyberspace. From talking to several other unemployed folks, I'm not alone in this experience.

"Of course," say those in the know, "It is all and only ever ever ever about networking. Go network. Go link up."

So I joined LinkedIn.

"You have ONLY 19 connections?" noted an employment counsellor friend of mine. I hung my head in shame.

"You must network all the time," he continued. On a side note, the sad irony is that since British Columbia is dramatically changing how it delivers employment services programs effective March 31, he may also be out of work soon.

Network, you say. Network. You know, it's all about who you know.

But, I protest, I don't know anybody. Well, I mean I know people. I know ESL teachers, a physics professor, a single mother who works on the Downtown Eastside, a church minister, some retired people, my sister, my 15-year-old niece, my parents, the guy who works at the magazine store in Kitsilano. But I don't, you know, know people.

Join an association, someone suggests.

I take heed. One Tuesday evening I headed over to the Vancouver branch of the Society for Technical Communications. The first time was free. Otherwise, I have to pay rather a lot.

Ditto the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), although I don't think they have the one free meeting option. I did attend one of their Toastmasters meetings which was not too bad but between the speeches and evaluations, I wasn't clear when the networking was to begin. And Toastmasters like everything else except riding transit on New Year's Eve evening, is not free. And the thing is, I don't have an income.

My employment insurance recently ran out and I have re-applied based on what I worked in 2011. But since massive layoffs at Service Canada were recently announced and the time for a call back from a Service Canada agent increased from 48 hours to five days or more, I have no clear idea when or if I'll be hearing back, never mind getting an actual EI payment.

So I know about the vital lifeblood that is networking, which the latest edition of "What Color is Your Parachute" also emphasizes.

Uh huh. Yeah. As a commenter on my job search blog questioned (of course I have a job search blog at www.jobsearchinginvancouver.wordpress.com), should we just call up random businesses and ask people to lunch? And if so, I wonder, would they mind eating at McDonalds?

This is not so easy, this mid-life job search. But all in all, I am trying to keep sweet.

***

Karen Segal is a Vancouver freelance writer.

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