How to get out of my rut?
January 12, 2010 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I've been unemployed far too long. Help me find a way out of this rut - off-the-wall ideas encouraged

I'm a 29 year old guy who's been unemployed for about a year now and am starting to have various doubts about my situation. My degree is in Electrical Engineering and my only job since college has been five years doing embedded software development, a position I got mostly by luck. Sounds impressive, but the company was incredibly chaotic - I spent 90% of my time putting out fires, fixing people's mistakes, and arguing with my boss. Since it was my first job out of college, I tried to network and pick up a few technical skills, but never had the time. As a result, I get a lot of "you've got decent 'soft skills' and experience, but your technical skills are too weak" from employers.

I know I should consider grad school, but I honestly don't have the money or feel the motivation to go back for a Master's. In this field, it seems you have to really be in love with technology to be employable, and I just don't feel it anymore. I used to feel that way when I was in college, but somewhere along the way I guess I found that I hate being in a lab all day. I'm looking into jobs in sales or apps engineering where technical skills aren't as important, but those jobs are proving rather difficult to find.

I feel like I'm doing job-hunting right - I try not to waste time perusing job ads. Instead, I'm trying to target specific companies, work with recruiters, and get the word out. Given the number of interviews I've had (12+ phone interviews, 6 in-person), it seems like I must be doing something right. Still, I keep getting "you're a decent fit, but not a perfect fit".

I've also tried/considered more off-the-wall ideas, like consulting (only found one client, he flaked), retail/service jobs (I have no experience, engineering's all I've ever done), even teaching English overseas for a year (still considering this - the living overseas thing sort of appeals to me). At least with these I could say I'm doing SOMETHING with my time.

I guess it's the "one year" stigma that's really bugging me right now. I'm surprisingly not stressed - I actually feel much better than I ever did working. Still, many people tend to give me "WTF" looks when I tell them I haven't held a steady job in over a year, like I'm a bum. FWIW, my situation isn't all bad - I'm single/unattached, no debt, still have modest savings, and have a much better social life than I did when I was working.

So help me brainstorm MeFi! What should I do next? No idea is too crazy or stupid.
posted by photo guy to Work & Money (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Peace Corp?

Especially if living overseas appeals to you. I think someone with an electrical engineering degree would be someone they would have a use for. Also, you'd probably get some technical experience to bolster your resume.
posted by elder18 at 9:29 AM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Volunteer somewhere. That way, you don't look like you've been sitting on your ass all year, you've been helping retired folk learn how to hang glide or something. Looks much better on a resume.

Don't dismiss the fire fighting and fixing (but do forget about the arguing with your boss, that's never a good thing). Spin it positively, what, if anything did you do to move the culture from a reactive one to a proactive one? What did you learn about working in teams?

If you don't want to improve your technical skills then work on the skills you need for the other roles you're looking at. Sales isn't easy, target somewhere you can find a mentor, or where you can work your way up gaining experience. You might have to take a couple of steps back to move forward in a different career path.
posted by IanMorr at 9:33 AM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: Well your name is "photo guy," so I'm going to guess you like taking pictures.

Get in your car, drive around the country, take pictures. Stay with couchsurfing hosts or in cheap hotels. If anyone gives you crap, tell them you are becoming a travel journalist. (Who knows, maybe you really could!)

You're actually in a great situation that a lot of people would envy- me included. I know it feels crappy, but you really do have the freedom to do whatever you want. I got myself locked into a lifestyle which no one would call luxurious, but which I need a job to maintain. I wish I had been more of a bum, living cheap and preserving the freedom to do what I wanted.

All that matters is that you do what you want with your life. I know it seems like "everyone" has a 9-5 job and that's the only choice, but it's really really not. Look at the street sometime on a weekday. There are thousands of people walking around, doing just fine in a million different ways. They are not bums- they are people living their lives in the way that is best for them.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:36 AM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

My first job out of high school was working at an environmental chemistry lab. It involved shucking and blending hundreds of clams for bioassay tests. It was not glamorous, but paid well, provided benefits, and led to a lot of opportunities. If you have an engineering degree I'd be willing to bet you have a high enough attention to detail to be valuable in such a position. I like these jobs because it was technical work that didn't overburden me with responsibilities away from the lab. You almost always meet interesting people too--mad scientist types.

Lab jobs can be found anywhere and will usually hire educated, yet inexperienced, individuals. I worked a couple such jobs throughout my collegiate career. With each job getting the subsequent one was easier due to the experience I was amassing. Not all of them were in the environmental end of the spectrum either--soluble recoverable phosphorus is the same test regardless of who wants it after all. The last one provided an avenue of upward mobility and now I write software for the lab instead of servicing equipment and running analysis.

I also served some time at a college bookstore. They hire seasonal workers at the semester breaks. Not something I'd recommend for the long term, but it is a good way to make some fast money without a big commitment. (Think two to four weeks of 14 hour days.)

I know these suggestions aren't great, but there is one thing they're great for: Payin' the bills while you're looking for a growned-up job. Some labs have crazy equipment that your degree might carry nice weight with. At one of my jobs a guy was kept on staff just to keep the ICAP running (think super-fancy spectrometer). I think he started there as the guy that washed the glassware in acid baths--a job I worked for a while too.

Good luck figuring things out.
posted by Gainesvillain at 9:45 AM on January 12, 2010

What should I do next? No idea is too crazy or stupid.

Well, this is probably not right for you, but a friend of mine in a similar situation fell in love with a woman who had a great career and became a stay at home dad. He loves not having to be an engineer anymore.
posted by cjemmott at 9:49 AM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

>>Given the number of interviews I've had (12+ phone interviews, 6 in-person), it seems like I must be doing something right. Still, I keep getting "you're a decent fit, but not a perfect fit".

You need to work on your interview schools. Your technical skills are fine, otherwise you would not be getting the interviews. Your past work experience is fine, otherwise you would not be getting the interviews.

It's a tough, tough, tough job market out there, and (provided you have the technical skills, which you do) soft skills are the deciding factor when hiring.

Interview skills encompass everything from body language to public speaking to "intentional interviewing" and active listening.

You're 90 percent of the way to landing a job. With a few tweaks you should be able to find something within two months.

Good luck!

BTW, a Masters degree is useless to employers without substantial work history. All it could mean to employers is that you couldn't find a job, so you retreated to academia.

Then again, have any of your potential employers told you they are looking for an advanced degree? Technologies will always change over the course of a career in tech. What happens is the technical staff are moved into leadership or cross functional roles. Strategy, R/D, sales are also important in an organization.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:50 AM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

interview schools = interview skills
posted by KokuRyu at 9:50 AM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: I don't know what your interests are, but if I had some unemployed free time and no critical need for income, I would begin a creative project with the aim of selling it when it's done. In other words, write a novel, program a computer game, or paint some awesome pictures. These sorts of things can be very personally fulfilling and bring in a few bucks (or more) when they're complete. Lots of people can't take up projects like these because they're financially unsteady and spend their days at the job.

Who knows, if you find something you like doing, you may be able to support yourself with it after you get a few projects under your belt and build up a decent portfolio. Royalties from one novel won't pay your bills, for example, but get a couple good books published and the snowball effect may take over. It's a gamble but it sounds like you're in a stable enough position to try it for fun and see where it takes you.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:11 AM on January 12, 2010

I went through a period just before the recession hit where I was laid off twice in one year. I went on interview after interview, and they all went the same way: they loved me, they called me back for a second interview, the second interview went extremely well, and then it just...fluttered away. Neither the recruiter I was working with nor I could figure out what was going on. We would both feel like I had the job, and then the company would give her some lame excuse and wouldn't hire me.

What I eventually discovered is that my main job reference (where I had worked for 3 years) was telling people I had never worked there. I couldn't believe it - I was still friends with a lot of people there, and on the weekend before I found out, I was at a barbecue with about 10 of them, including the CEO. There are two possible explanations here: either, as they claim, I accidentally never got entered into their new HR software, or the former head of HR deliberately left me off. So - check your own references! I would have assumed that the recruiter would have checked them, but I didn't find out until I had branched out to other recruiters and one of them told me. Of the 8 or so recruiters I eventually worked with that year, it seems only one checked my references.

And secondly - how I finally got a job was something I was hesitant to do. On the advice of a friend who was doing very well career-wise, I posted a generic version of my resume on HotJobs, Monster, etc. I got a call from a recruiter about a position I never would have applied for. It involved a software skill that I had a fair amount of experience at, but not enough that I would consider myself qualified to do it full time.

I got the job, and at a salary that was literally double what I had been making previously. Needless to say, the next time I am job hunting, posting my resume online will be the first thing I do.

Good luck to you!
posted by fairywench at 10:24 AM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Since it sounds like you have plenty of time but want direction towards finding a job, I’m going to throw a few suggestions that I think may get you closer to the next point (although I think you are asking us what that next thing is….heck if I know):

• Informational interviews (find people doing what you want to do [eg, apps engineering, whatever] Either use your googlefu and find pple who live in your same area, use your alumni association for names, just find people. Meet with them for a 30 minutes/talk on the phone (use their preference), and ask if there is anything they would suggest you do to get into the desired job field. People have done this for me and pointed out things that I should have had on my CV but didn’t know because it was a new to me field, or pointed out skill sets that I should get, unique job openings, etc.

• Volunteer somewhere that matches your skill set and your passion. Is there technical stuff you would like to learn? Or the engineering material? Maybe it would be “design a webpage for a nonprofit” or “teach kids about engineering” If you feel you don’t have technical skills, though this could be one way to acquire them and have something to show for it. Unless you actually use your technical skills, you aren’t really going to learn them.

• Apply with more effort to specific companies. Don’t just use recruiters; if you go that route, you are waiting for the company to realize they need someone x months later, post the job, have someone look for a person, they interview a billion people, etc….. Instead send CV plus cover letter by email to companies you want to work at. Also offer your services as a contactor or part time person or whatever. Send it to company after company (and list your specialties you have). Then, when a company gets into a mess, they may look at the handful of CVs in front of them and call one of those people. Much smaller number of pple that you are competing against. You may want to go the next step and call the companies, but that is up to you.

Also nthing Winsome Parker - very nice idea
posted by Wolfster at 10:59 AM on January 12, 2010

You could do a year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. You'd have to look through the database at the website, but I think there are some positions that call for an engineering degree. It's not technically employment, but it could be a good learning experience.
posted by val5a at 1:47 PM on January 12, 2010

What about doing something like a trade for awhile, painting, construction, landscaping, etc. These are really fabulous skills to have sometimes, and I've found jobs you can work in any economy. Someone always needs their deck repainted, or their flower bed mulched. Also, just apply to every odd job you can find on craigslist in you area- I mean you just don't know what you'll find and what you might end up doing for awhile that will just get your wheels turning.
posted by Rocket26 at 2:01 PM on January 12, 2010

If you're young and relatively free to travel, might want to consider being a consultant for the likes of IBM, HP, EDS, etc. Bonus if you have language skills.

There your "soft skills" translate to client skills. And since you're recently out of college, you're cheap (to them). It's a great way to get a large variety of experience.
posted by cross_impact at 2:47 PM on January 12, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, lots of great information! I think everyone here has given me plenty to do over the next few days. I've been looking into temp work, but no luck so far. Part of the problem seems to be the lack of opportunities in my field around here, although I'm aware the job market is bad everywhere.

A few specific comments:

@elder18 - I actually considered Peace Corps a while back, but ended up not applying for reasons I won't go into here. I might look into it again however.

@drjimmy11 - Ahh, travel photography - my dream job! :D I actually spent a month of my unemployment overseas doing something similar to what you described, and loved every minute. I'm hoping to pull off a longer trip in the near future, if I can find a way to save up more money first. Of course I'd be set if I could find a way to keep traveling without using up my savings.

@cjemmott - Now there's an idea I never considered. Too bad this only works if you have a rich wife or girlfriend...

@KokuRyu - Unfortunately, you have a point. Speaking is not my strongest point and while I've historically had the ability to screw up interviews, I have worked really hard to get over this the last couple of years. I'm still not the most skilled conversationalist on the planet, but I think I've at least become effective enough to get through most interviews.

As for advanced degrees: about 30-40% of the positions I apply for say a Master's is "desired", but I've certainly managed to get interviews without one. I think I've only had one interviewer say he wanted someone with an advanced degree, and only because it was a very tech-heavy research position.

@The Winsome Parker Lewis - I messed around with photography and artwork in my spare time over the summer, and it has done a good job of keeping the stress at bay. Making money off of it would be nice of course, but it's always been first and foremost a relaxation hobby for me.

@Wolfster - I'm continuing to keep my eyes open for volunteering opportunities. I'll agree that focusing mostly on specific companies, and largely bypassing CareerBuilder and Monster, is definitely the way to go.

@Rocket26 - I tried the Craigslist "etc" section for a while. I managed to get a few odd jobs (mostly tutoring, one or two manual labor). Haven't been on there in a while, but will give it a look.

@cross_impact - A job like that would actually be pretty cool if I could find it! This is about the only reason I've been motivated to do grad school - to get an MBA and maybe do some kind of international business consulting. I have okay language skills (so-so Japanese, lousy Spanish, maybe a few words of Mandarin), but am only fluent in English. I haven't seriously researched this option, but will look into it this week.
posted by photo guy at 3:12 PM on January 12, 2010

Speaking is not my strongest point and while I've historically had the ability to screw up interviews, I have worked really hard to get over this the last couple of years.

Toastmasters. Yeah, I know, public speaking vs. conversation. Do it anyway. Networking is a plus. And call the temp agencies.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:12 PM on January 12, 2010

Give the military a look-see. You could end up as a commissioned officer and have the service pay for your graduate work.
posted by KneeDeep at 5:17 PM on January 12, 2010

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