Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Stalking the Salvation Army

I’ve been looking for full-time work since the end of August and today is the first of January.

Back in spring of 2012, I found work while gimping around in an orthopedic boot that ran from my knee to the toes on my left foot. I started as a volunteer desktop publisher for an environmental non-profit at the suggestion of a state job counselor who said I had to "get something" on my resume that was more recent than 2008 -- the last time I worked full time. I volunteered part time while firing off resumes and icing and elevating my foot three times a day.

I got a direct-hire temp position in Kirkland working for a mobile phone app company. This was amazing as I knew zero about smart phones but the boss was a sweetie and he brought me on because of my tech writing and Photoshop skills. I learned so much about smart phones (Android, iPhone, Blackberries, etc.) that I don't think I’ll ever own one.

Literally, as the smart phone job was ending, I got a call from UW asking me if I was interested in another direct-hire temp position. I interviewed, snagged it and worked for a month at a living wage editing HeadStart manuals.

In early September I wasn’t too worried. I’d landed two contract jobs one after another and felt confident that a third was just waiting to be unearthed on Dice.com or old, reliable Craigslist.

I worked part-time for university parking enforcement in September and early October. It involved a ton of stress working in the worst possible traffic and at 65 bucks a day, didn't even cover my rent. I took it out of desperation and because I thought it would earn me kudos with a particular HR manager and hopefully a real job. It didn't.

While I was at the  job, a guy who was a former lab tech with UW Medical Center told me a Great Recession horror story. He’d been laid off when the department he worked in had budget cuts in January 2010. He had worked for UW for 10 years. He went on Unemployment. His condo was in good order, no scary mortgages hanging over his head. He drew Unemployment and worked for the UW temp agency several months out of the year. He started to get worried when he interviewed for another lab tech job in another department at the university. He did three interviews. Three. On the third one the interviewer told him it was down to him and one other lab tech and she not only had experience in the special computer software they would be using to log blood samples, she had helped write the program. “Guess who got the job?” he said as we stood in the break room on a sunny September afternoon. He, like me, was in his forties. The woman he was up against for the lab tech job was maybe 29 or 30 and, he said, she was pretty. He’d seen her in the hall near the interviewer’s office. “Most of the jobs on the UW Hires site?” he added, “They average 200 qualified applicants for every position posted.” He had a former boyfriend who worked for UW Human Resources. He's on Tier II Unemployment now and I don't know if he's found permanent work.

In October, I pawned my Marin bike. I’d bought it used in 2006 and then paid Recycled Cycles $150 to custom build me a Mavic rear wheel because the original was shot. I’d put on a used rear rack and attached my panniers. I had a way to get around Seattle that wasn’t bus dependent and faster than walking. I sold the bike to a creepy sports pawn place for $100. It was worth about three times that. I did this so I could pay my electric bill and buy 20 bucks worth of groceries.

The same day, I walked from the bottom of U District all the way through Fremont and Ballard along the Burke-Gilman trail. I looked for HELP WANTED signs and jotted down names of likely print shops or design firms that might hire me as a typesetter or similar. I noted about six, hunted down their websites and fired off query emails and attached resumes. I never heard a word.

The following weeks, I went back to one UPS Store in Fremont twice with a copy of the company’s online application filled out (all five pages of it) and my resume. I went back to the UPS Store in Ballard that had a HELP WANTED sign three times. I hit up the Trader Joe’s next to the UPS Store three times as well. Finally, in November, that Trader Joe’s sent me a little card thanking me for applying for work but 'no thanks'. It was kind of like a cease and desist order.

I had about 20 or 25 outstanding submissions for various administrative assistant, desktop publisher and receptionist positions on UW Hires websites. I stopped visiting the website in November because I got tired of reading the words: CONSIDERED, REJECTED next to the title of the position I’d tried for.

In October I went to the new Target downtown and sat through their moronic application at a computer kiosk in the store. I don’t know how many times you can ask an applicant ‘have you ever stolen a paper clip?’ but that’s what their application consisted of. They rejected my application via email about three days later, no doubt this had something to do with their credit check (I'm $90,000 in the hole according to various student loan collection agencies).

I have been dropped by a prominent staffing vendor and picked back up and submitted for technical writing positions with Microsoft, Honeywell and Nintendo twice in 2012. This HR firm has dibs on about 75-percent of all the new job listings flown by Microsoft. Anyone who attempts to apply to Microsoft directly is a fool. Their HR site receives something like 1,000-2,000 resumes for job listings per day. At least that's what the HR site project manager told me when I interviewed with her for a content editor position in late 2008 right before the Recession and my back injury kicked in. For companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing the only way in is through a "vendor" (aka temp/headhunter agency). In corporatized America, nobody is hired directly. Why should companies risk liability when they can foist workman's comp, potential insurance and any labor issues off on generic temp agencies happy to screen thousands of IT applicants via their minimum-wage "job counselors" most of whom don't know the first thing about the positions they interview candidates for

Around Halloween, I applied for a minimum-wage store clerk position with Office Depot downtown. I prefer working downtown because I can walk there
. At the end of the interview, the nice store manager said: “Thanks for coming in. Boy, I hope I can get through all of these by Thursday.” I looked at him and he said, “You’re the first of 25 applicants I have to interview by Thursday.” This was for a minimum-wage job. The store had no HELP WANTED sign in the window and there were no job postings for that store on their corporate website. The manager told me he’d gotten over 50 walk-in applicants in October alone.

A few weeks later a temp agency in Renton, that had screwed up a job submission
for me with Boeing (they sent another applicant's resume), contacted me and asked if I wanted to interview for a job with Xerox. The interview was held at Xerox’s sales office near Southcenter Mall. It was a 35-minute bus ride followed by a stroll along an express way with no sidewalk at 7 am. The interview went well. The lady liked me. I asked her how many vendors had flown resumes at her. She said, “about a hundred”. Out of that sea of applicants, she’s chosen “about two dozen” to interview. I was the first one of those two dozen she interviewed. This was for a $12/hour job working in a copy store in downtown Seattle for 18 months. The job contract would lock me in at 12 an hour, zero benefits, zero paid holidays, etc. I was told by the temp agency, if I made a peep about the wage or non-existent benefits they would simply replace me and send Xerox somebody else. 

Infographic courtesy The Atlantic, Feb. 2012

I didn't just try for downtown sales, low-end jobs. I've been trying for the more-appropriate-to-my-skills positions as well. I applied for an administrative position with Hugo House in late June while working for the mobile phone app company (I also did two in-person interviews for tech writer positions while still at the mobile app gig because I knew it was going to end). This would have been a non-profit, artsy job manning a front desk, answering phones and making copies. I got an email from Hugo House concerning this position in August. After ‘months of review’ the email said, the director had picked an applicant. They received over 250 resumes for the position. The person they chose was under 35 and an MFA candidate. What a surprise.

Here’s some of the places I’ve been online and in person:

  • Woodland Park Zoo (cashiers)
  • Fred Meyer (shot down due to bad credit, thanks Sallie Mae)
  • Safeway (anything)
  • Starbucks (barista)
  • Tenzing Momo herbal shop (sale clerk)
  • Microsoft via six different vendors (technical writer, content provider, SDK documentation)
  • Shakti Vinyasa Yoga in Ballard (P/T front desk)
  • City of Seattle (Police file clerk or fingerprint tech)
  • Nordstrom’s corporate (over 29 desktop publishing, tech positions and counting)
  • Macy’s (Xmas freight thrower, interviewed and told staff "full up")
  • Bed, Bath & Beyond (sales clerk)
  • Enterprise Solutions (vendor for Microsoft tech writer)
  • Amazon (technical writer, interviewed with them FOUR times, have been submitted about 20 times for multiple content, editor and writer positions)
  • Starbucks corporate (digital marketing)
  • Getty Images (via Eastside vendor for image editor/cataloger)
  • F5 (via my old vendor for tech writer)
  • Avue Digital/USJobs (Forest Service positions – I’m too old)
  • Catholic Charity Services (front desk, homeless shelter, all 12 openings)
  • Navy civilian positions (they can't hire anyone with defaulted student loans)
  • Bar in Ballard (no recent experience, though I've bartended in the past)
  • Cafe Laddro (no recent barista experience, though I did it in 2002) 
  • Seattle Goodwill (over 10 different positions) 

These are just the ones I can actually remember. The other 200  since September are a blur. Usually they were law offices looking for clerks or architectural/engineering firms looking for Adobe Creative Suite savvy people or chiropractor’s offices looking for secretaries.

One that sticks out from early December was the Salvation Army. I started by filling out an app with their Rehab clinic down in SoDo. Then I bussed all the way to their admin offices in Shoreline. Twice. To apply for a bell ringer position. Yes, they actually pay seasonal temps 9 an hour to stand outside and ring the bell. I phone stalked the bell ringer coordinator, called her every day for a week trying to get on. I then filled out a third application and applied with another Salvation Army admin office in lower Queen Anne. The HR person was nice, appeared sympathetic. She asked me if I’d talked to their Emergency Rental Assistance administrator. I told her what I really needed was a JOB so I wouldn’t have to apply for emergency services. When I mentioned I'd tried to get on as a courtesy clerk at Metropolitan Market, she told me her husband was a deli clerk there and that their 'hiring process is really slow'. This was supposed to make me feel better?

Interesting factoid: non-profits are just like regular businesses. They are just as overwhelmed with applicants for the few to positions they have open.

So here I am, rolling into January. It’s that awkward time of year between Xmas and NYE when nobody answers their phone, several local food banks are closed and half the temp agencies aka vendors are on vacation.

I still just want the same thing I wanted for Xmas. It’s the same thing I wanted for Halloween. I’m pushing 50, I have DJD in both knees from all the damage I did to them running up hills and jogging hundreds of miles on asphalt as a wildland firefighter. I’m tired of kneeling.

Happy Kwanzaa.