Getting a job in spite of flaws
July 10, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Have to get a job within a few months. Crippled by depression and an awful work history. What's the best way to attack this?

I just quit my job this week (July 4th). Minimum wage, caring for animals at a vet clinic. Only 25 hours a week. Not that amazing, but it was steady work. Over the last few weeks a number of things happened (Which I'll get into more later) and it became clear that if I didn't quit I was going to be fired in a few weeks, maybe a few months. So I quit, figuring it would look marginally better on my job history.

Now I've got to get hired somewhere. This is a big can of worms, a number of separate questions wrapped together, but since they're all connected and all part of a bigger whole I thought it would make more sense to keep them together in one post.

As far as I can see, there are three main questions I'm trying to deal with:

1. What sort of job should I be trying to get?

2. How should I be looking for openings in that area?

3. Once I find an opening, what's the best way to go after it (especially considering my bleak work history/resume)?

I apologize in advance for how massive this is, but I thought it'd be better to lay everything out from the start as clearly as I can.


Before I go into each of the questions in more detail, there's something else I should explain:

My Handicaps-

I Have three major ball-and-chains to deal with as I try to get decent employment. The first is that I suffer from clinical depression, which is a problem for two reasons. First, because low-wage jobs are rough. Not just physically draining, but emotionally and mentally. You take a lot of abuse, from customers, managers, sometimes even co-workers. But depression means my reserves are already low, so what would just be annoying or frustrating to most people becomes a enormous struggle for me. I should stress this: I don't wince at the thought of fast food or cashiering because it doesn't sound like fun. I wince because such jobs inherently involve a certain level of abuse, and I can't handle it, can't operate in that environment.

Second, because my reserves are already low from struggling against the depression, struggling to look happy and repress despair, I can't function very well as a worker. I'm decent most of the time, but my focus is shot, I can't remember things very well, can't do things quickly enough. My supervisors/managers see this and assume I'm lazy, stupid or both. The truth is that I do pretty damn well considering, but they can't see the monster I'm struggling with. And if they could, they probably wouldn't have hired me in the first place; they want workers, not liabilities. How can I ever hold down a job when I take this time bomb with me everywhere I go? I've tried pills, I've tried therapy. Neither worked very well, and now I don't have money for either.

This, in case you haven't guessed, is one of the two reasons I had to quit my current job (the other was that they were horribly, irresponsibly disorganized and tended to blame the lesser employees when the consequences of said disorganization hit the fan).

The third handicap is that my work/education history is a giant, smoking crater. Here it is, simplified:

-Worked fast food for a year in high school
-Graduated high school
-Over the next six years went to 1. An art school (1.5 years) 2. a tech college ( six months while I waited for my lease to expire) and 3. local Lib arts college (4 years). Never graduated.
-Spent two summers while I was at the lib arts college working as a grocery cashier
-Spent a year working at the clinic, which I've just quit.

In short:

-Only held three real jobs in my life
-Huge gaps in employment
-Spent six years trying to do college and failed
-quit the longest-running job under difficult-to-explain circumstances.

How on earth do I do anything with that mess?

I guess question "Zero" is "How do I deal with my handicaps?" None of the rest of it is going to get very far unless I can.

Back to the questions then, in a little more detail...

1. What sort of job should I be trying to get?

At the moment, I have rent and food covered for the next three to four months (thank god). After that, I'm in deep trouble. I've actually been trying to find a second job (or a replacement to the one I just quit) for about six months now, with no success. My instinct, given how dire things are, is to run at anything that's available, but am I wrong there? I'm fairly smart, articulate, graduated high school and spent six years in college. Are there better opportunities I could be taking advantage of? Am I better off picking a level of job and focusing my energy, or simply going for anything I might have a slight chance at?

2.How should I be looking for openings?

Right now I scour Craigslist, the local paper, and a few online aggregators. But that's pretty slow going. Again and again I keep reading about how the only way most people get decent jobs is through "networking," through knowing the right people. But how do you cultivate that? How do you break into "knowing people" when you're pretty much cut off from everything?

3. How to best go after openings when I find them?

In the six months I've been looking, I've applied to about 30-40 jobs, given about five or six interviews and received a grand total of one job offer (which I discovered I couldn't accept once I knew the details). Part of the problem is obviously my work history (discussed above under "handicaps"). The other is that I'm probably not giving very good interviews, which I'll have to work on. Mostly, I'm looking for advice on dealing with my work history.


Summary of that mountain of text: I have no job, and no college degree. I've been job-hunting for six months with no luck. If I don't get employment in the next three months, I won't be able to make rent. Finding even a minimum-wage job is hard because we're in a recession/depression/god knows what and I'm crippled by a bad work history and severe depression. How do I get my foot in the door? How do I survive here?

Glad to give more detail if needed; this is already much too long.
posted by wanderingchord to Work & Money (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, since it will probably come up: I live in Eau Claire Wisconsin. Bit better unemployment rate then many places, but not a large city, so the temp options aren't great.
posted by wanderingchord at 11:40 AM on July 10, 2011

Are you taking medication for your clinical depression? Do you qualify for any social service assistance?
posted by Ideefixe at 12:02 PM on July 10, 2011

Can you apply for disability, based on your depression? I don't know what the laws or criteria are in Wisconsin, but it's worth a shot. Also, are there people at your last job who will vouch for you? I think if you worked hard and weren't egregiously late, stealing etc but just had trouble getting your work tasks done to your employer's expectations (no easy feat this, sometimes) there will still be people at your old job who can vouch for you.

Also, for networking: create a Linked In profile. I know this might seem like it's for "professional" jobs only, but it's still not a bad way to go. Put all your information up there and join some professional groups in your area on Linked In that interest you ( or start one). I live in NYC so obviously the job picture is dramatically different here, but Linked In is still a really good way to at least get your name out there and in front of people.

All this depends in part on the state of your mental health, of course. It's difficult to get out there and do what you have to do, and face rejection, in any case, but more so when you're depresssed. Still, you have to take the baby steps and just do it. Not being able to make rent is a strong motivator.
posted by sweetkid at 12:06 PM on July 10, 2011

Have you looked for a government job?
posted by empath at 12:06 PM on July 10, 2011

The reason I ask about government is that I was a 24 year old college drop-out with a shitty job history and a terrible work ethic, living with my parents (2 years working at a grocery store, which I got fired from, and then almost 9 months of not really working at all). I got a job working in the mail room of a federal agency making basically nothing (and working with a bunch of misfits), I managed to get transferred over to the internal help desk just to answer phones, and within a couple of years, I was just 'in IT', and have never really had a problem getting jobs since then.

The only qualification you need to get your foot in the door in the government is basic literacy, and once you're in, they will generally train you and generally take care of people with disabilities of any kind. You just need to get in.
posted by empath at 12:11 PM on July 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Go to the library and pick up their copy of "What Color is Your Parachute". I know, it's a cliche, but it's a good single thing to focus on and the book has some good pep talks in it. Don't think about all your "downsides", start thinking about your "upsides". What are you good at, what are your strengths?

It sounds like you are pretty young, early 20s, so it's not like you have 30 years of so-so employment, only a few years and that was during a bad economy. Stop thinking your employment history is a smoking crater. Try to practice avoiding negative self-talk, even if it's just dark humor. (that is, stop yourself from thinking the worst assessment is the accurate assessment. Even if things are not great, still, they are not terrible and you can cope. You have strengths and positives. Force yourself to think about what those are. When trying to get a job, you want to put your best foot forward, so do your homework to figure out what that is. You would be a hell of a lot better employee than many people, I guarantee it; figure out how why.)

You have an advantage over people who have no college coursework at all. You've done a range of college coursework, which is great. Think about how you can describe those experiences in a positive way. You have explored a bunch of paths and picked up/honed various skills - good writer? good at art? good at technical things? good at dealing with blue collar people and white collar people? good at math? computer savvy? etc?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:12 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Also, degrees just aren't that important any more, unless you want to get into management.)
posted by empath at 12:14 PM on July 10, 2011

Break up the two problems into smaller chunks. Second, assume that some action is better than none. Finally, properly credit yourself for what you have done, so that you will continue to pursue options that demonstrate successful outcomes. Third, focus on process, not results, as luck plays a role.

Depression: check for low-cost, sliding scale options in your area. Check universities first and call any local mental health advocacy orgaizations as well. I also suggest CBT as a fast acting therapy that can be self-administered. Dr. David Burns' "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" is easy to use and in my personal opinion works wonders. Committ yourself to working with it for at least 4 months. Be sure to do the exercises in the books continuously over that period.

Job Hunting: you are doing far better than you think--5 or 6 interviews is a bit above average for 30-40 applications--I believe that the average is 14 applications to 1 interview.

I'd steer well-clear of determining where a career would be. Apply for everything you are qualified for. Use, and other such sites, as well as the local paper. Also consider government is a great resource.

Essentially, I advise triage. You need a job or two now, and from that you can get on your feet. After that, you can start thinking career. Small steps solve all problems.

Finally, you do not have a 'bad' work history. You have a work history which is great for some jobs, but is thin for astronaut and CEO positions. That's fine--you don't need a job like that right now.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:20 PM on July 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

One. You're doing a lot better than many depressed people - money in the bank to survive 3 months? Way to go.
Two. Vocational Rehabilitation. Get some job counseling and mental health assistance, because you do, in fact really need it. In Maine, due to stimulus money, the wait is short for services.
Three. Go out and look in person. Pick 5 places a week, and go and apply in person. So many jobs are not advertised.
Four. You're probably eligible for some food stamps. You might even go back to your old employer, explain that you knew you were struggling, and that you are depressed, and ask if they will lay you off, so you can get unemployment.
I'm so sorry you're having such a tough time, and I wish you the best.
posted by theora55 at 12:38 PM on July 10, 2011

What sort of job should I be trying to get?
Consider looking for a job in the non-profit sector working with individuals with disabilities. Direct care work usually will not require a degree. Your ability to empathize will be an asset. For example.
posted by kbar1 at 1:16 PM on July 10, 2011

I agree with empath -- try to get a gov't job. The Federal gov't will typically work with you when it comes to disability of any type. For the record, I don't think you should get a gov't job just to milk the taxpayer dollar, rather, I think you should try to find something you would excel in. Start wherever you have to, work a year and then you can transfer around. You write well for someone who has never held a "real" job or finished college. Not that writing is the biggest sign of a capable person, but the way you explained your situation and expressed yourself, in written form, left me with a positive impression. Sorry I can't be further help -- I have no clue how to deal with depression or what career you should work. Good luck!
posted by Yunani at 1:19 PM on July 10, 2011

I'm sure you've thought of this, but have you tried getting a job through the university in your town?
posted by sweetkid at 1:29 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pharmacy technician? This might not work for you because it is a pretty stressful job, but I thought I'd throw it out there because there is always demand. And if you do have to be licensed to work, you can get the license in about 6 weeks either by taking prep classes or by studying on your own and then taking the exam. Not all states require a license, and some states let you work while getting licensed.

Can you deal with working nights? If you are willing to work overnight or swing shift maybe something like working as an aide in a nursing home or other facility. Some examples.

The real trick to getting a job is to figure out where the demand is. If you can find something that you are willing to do and not a lot of other people can or will do, and there is demand for it, you are in good shape.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:42 PM on July 10, 2011

Temp agency, and ask for openings in "light industrial."

Also, work night shifts. They pay more and are generally less stressful if you can adjust to the hours.
posted by bardic at 8:54 PM on July 10, 2011

The situation is NOT as bleak as you think. Focus on your education in your resume. Break out some projects as if they were jobs. Contact the friendliest person where you worked and ask if you can use them for a reference. Get a job at Starbucks or something while you interview.

It's critical when you go on interviews that you spin your past as positively as you can. Fake being upbeat and optimistic.

I suggest you join a 5 o clock club in your area. They really helped me when I was in a similar situation.
posted by xammerboy at 8:05 AM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the replies. Sorting through them here...

First, I should clarify: I have applied for food stamps, and shouldn't have any problem paying for food while I finish paperwork and wait for it to kick in. The main concern is rent: $400 a month. No, not on any meds. As I said in the initial post, I've tried them, a wide variety, but nothing really worked (though Wellbutrin is a hell of a drug). I've been to several counselors/therapists and actually have a copy of "Feeling Good" on my bookshelf right now. Interesting read, but it didn't help much.

A number of people have said my prospects aren't as bleak as I think, which I'm grateful for. Because it's true, and because I need to be reminded of it. But it's that same cycle everyone goes through: apply, interview, and never hear from the company again. It's not the rejection that digs at you, it's not knowing why, never knowing why. Was it the resume? The job history? What I was wearing, the answers I gave, the way I spoke? Were there just too many people applying and I wasn't the shining superman of the pile? Were the HR people rolling dice and picking employees based on the advice therein? And it's a losing game either way. Because if you try to imagine some reason, convince yourself that THAT was the problem and try to fix it, you're probably wrong (and even if you're right, chances are it won't matter at the next interview). But if you don't imagine a reason, if you admit that it's unknowable and uncontrollable, you feel helpless.

One of the best ideas I can see so far in the replies is to try for low-level government work. I'll check out, but it seems pretty meager at the moment. Any other listings people know of? Actually, even this seems a little grim: states can barely keep their current employees paid these days, let alone take on new hires. But it's worth watching, at least. Another idea that's come up a few times is to be as positive as possible, to learn to see the good in my skills/experience/education and communicate that. Which is hard, because like most people with depression, I have a pretty dim view of myself. But I think I can pry that away long enough to be convincing.

Also, this is a little off topic, and I don't mean to be rude, but I think some people may not realize how bad the job situation has become in the past couple years, especially at the bottom of the ladder. Because I see things like this:

"Get a job at Starbucks or something while you interview. "

Xammerboy just said it in passing, probably didn't give it much thought. But it isn't that easy. Not even close. I would be thrilled if I could "get a job at Starbucks." They might even pay more than minimum wage. But I've largely stopped applying at fast food and similar places, not because they're beneath me or some such nonsense, but because applying is a waste of time. It takes much longer to go through their forms then to apply for the slightly better jobs elsewhere, and they never call back. Ever. Ordinary jobs often won't call back, that's part of the cycle. Fast food NEVER does, even if I do the whole "Come in in person, talk to the manager a little, check back etc." Won't give me the time of day. My theory is that my college experience is scaring them away, but that's just inventing reasons again. Who knows what it really is.

I also forgot to mention it in my initial post, but my references are almost non-existent now. I have one, a manager that appreciated my work when I was cashiering. No other professional ones I can think of. Only a handful of my teachers would have worked, and most are retired/probably don't remember me now.

I should also mention that I purposely avoid any job where I have a good chance of seriously hurting someone by screwing up (again, because of the distraction the depression brings on). It's one thing if someone doesn't get perfect change for their 20; it's another if I give someone a batch of the BIG orange pills instead of the small, or forget a dose, or run a light while driving a bus.

I wish I could leverage the writing somehow; everyone seems to think it's pretty good, and I'd agree it's certainly one of my strengths. Not really any money to be made there though. Not right now anyway.
posted by wanderingchord at 12:08 PM on July 11, 2011

Probably when they don't call you back, here's what happened: they had a bunch of applications, and there were a few applicants who had stronger experience than you had. (For example if you apply for Starbucks and there is someone applying who previously worked in another coffeeshop and already knows how to work the espresso machine.) That's ok, no reflection on you. The sucky thing about the job search is that you just have to keep your chin up and keep applying; it's a numbers game. I think it's very common to not call applicants back if you don't need to, even if their application was totally fine -- the best you can do is just not take it personally.

Do you have a car? Maybe you could do delivery work - eg delivering those local advertising papers that are thrown onto driveways; pizza delivery? That is typically pretty flexible, although it will take a toll on your car.

Maybe you could do inside work at a pizza place or similar, working the phones?

Maybe you could check out the local libraries (or the university libraries, though these may use student workers) and see if there are part-time openings for people to do re-shelving etc?

Maybe there is a local web-design company that could use a part-time or freelance writer?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:41 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you liked your experience caring for animals, would you think about aiming for other animal care work? Maybe working at an animal-related nonprofit as a fundraising person? (If you can get into "development" work, that's a highly prized skill set and you would have a lot of flexibility of possible jobs)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have your own transportation, then delivery jobs sound like exactly what you should consider, at least for stopgap measures.

Your scenario (early-mid 20s, spotty job history, working through mental health issues and/or college) is pretty much the textbook description of most bike messengers I know.

Twenty odd years ago I was you, basically, without even the college hours to my credit. If you happen to have a bike (any bike that runs will do, you don't need anything special) and can handle the physical demands (which really aren't as onerous as they're made out to be), this is what couriering is good for. It's a shitty job, I won't lie, and it pays poorly. But you can be the most misanthropic bastard on the planet whilst doing this gig and no one will ever bat an eye; I know because I was one. You need nothing beyond a functional bike, a rudimentary knowledge of your downtown layout, and a willingness to ride in whatever Ma Nature and the local drivers throw at you.

It's hard, it's shitty, it's menial, it can be dangerous if you let it, but it can also be very liberating. As a bonus, two solid years of working as a courier sorted my head around to where I could hold down increasingly complex office jobs (likely the benefit of all the physical activity balancing out my brain chemistry).

If you're ok with the bike gig, Jimmy John's has a local branch in your neighborhood. I'd try there first; they do most of their local deliveries by bike. A few years back when I was struggling to make ends meet in a rough patch between low-paying data entry jobs, I took a night gig at our local JJs delivering sandwiches by bike. If they'll take a 40something woman I'd imagine they'll be happy to hire you.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:27 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The bike messenger gig is actually a pretty brilliant idea. Also have you considered starting up a dog-walking and/or petsitting service? You have experience with animals, it gets you outside and moving, animals are good for depression, you won't have to feel like lives hang in the balance based on your job performance, and it will provide a decent blanket to cover over all your employment history "sins." Later on when you are having interviews, you can say "I quit the vet clinic job to start my own business. I gained these skills from running my own business (bookkeeping, marketing, etc)." And it would be really easy to start - a craigslist ad for your services is something you could write today, and voila, you are no longer unemployed... you are an independent businessperson.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:45 AM on July 12, 2011

Goddamn, you are depressing me just reading this:

A number of people have said my prospects aren't as bleak as I think, which I'm grateful for. Because it's true, and because I need to be reminded of it. But it's that same cycle everyone goes through: apply, interview, and never hear from the company again. It's not the rejection that digs at you, it's not knowing why, never knowing why. Was it the resume? The job history? What I was wearing, the answers I gave, the way I spoke? Were there just too many people applying and I wasn't the shining superman of the pile? Were the HR people rolling dice and picking employees based on the advice therein? And it's a losing game either way. Because if you try to imagine some reason, convince yourself that THAT was the problem and try to fix it, you're probably wrong (and even if you're right, chances are it won't matter at the next interview). But if you don't imagine a reason, if you admit that it's unknowable and uncontrollable, you feel helpless.

Stop doing this to yourself. For where you are in the food chain, it's just blind stupid luck, and getting an entry level job is a pure numbers game. Stop trying to figure out why you aren't getting called back and just keep getting out there.

What are you doing, btw, while you're waiting to find a job? Think about volunteering. It's a good way to A) keep busy so you're not obsessing about why your life is awful (it's not, I promise you) and B) get job experience and C) meet people who can help you find a job.

Really the most important thing in looking for a job is having friends who can get you hired. Maybe that's not fire, but that's the way life is. Do you have a social network where you are that you can lean on? If not, you need to work on creating one.

I wish I could leverage the writing somehow; everyone seems to think it's pretty good, and I'd agree it's certainly one of my strengths. Not really any money to be made there though. Not right now anyway.

Make sure you include on resume that you have excellent oral and written communication skills. Believe it or not, someone who can clearly communicate via writing is not an easy thing to find. I'm not talking about writing articles for the newspaper, I'm just talking about typing up support tickets and sending emails to customers, that kind of thing.
posted by empath at 7:05 AM on July 12, 2011

Response by poster: "If you have your own transportation, then delivery jobs sound like exactly what you should consider, at least for stopgap measures."

I would bet good money (if I had any) that there are no bike messengers in Eau Claire. At all. Just not that big of a city. There are definitely delivery jobs though, and a Jimmy John's. I'd guess my chances there are pretty low (many of the fast food jobs I've applied for in the past were delivery, the ones I never heard back from), but I'll give it a shot.

"Goddamn, you are depressing me just reading this"

*Laughs* Sorry. Actually, that's a bit more up-beat than I often am: melancholy pondering instead of full-on despair. Helps to put it into words sometimes, organize it a little. But you're probably right: chances are most of it boils down to luck for now.

And no, no social network. I don't even have a second reference for my resume/apps any more. Everyone I can think of that would qualify either isn't thrilled by me or would barely remember me. That's one of the things I'm wrestling with today, trying to figure out which long-lost teacher I want to harass so I can have a decent reference.

I've actually looked into the dog walking/sitting possibility. Turns out there are whole sites devoted to it, full of people with much, much better qualifications than me. That said, throwing an ad on Craigslist might still get me a little business, at least to cover rent until I can do better.
posted by wanderingchord at 5:37 PM on July 12, 2011

Response by poster: One last post to finish this out, and because it's rather poetic: I actually got hired at the Jimmy Johns, and while not amazing, it's a big step up from where I was. Huge number of minimum wage places hiring right now: turned out I just had to wait till the students went back to school for the fall.
posted by wanderingchord at 4:05 PM on August 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

« Older Can you recommend an American therapist in Israel?   |   PC trojan Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.