finding a job after a long employment gap
February 9, 2012 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me integrate back into the workforce after a very long absence and current difficulties with social anxiety + panic attacks.

The situation: I have spent the past (almost) ten years acting as a live-in caretaker for an elderly relative with severe dementia. She is close to the end, and has been moved to a care facility. I'm now faced with finding a job and moving out of the house within approximately three months. Staying in the house is not possible; another relative has power of attorney and has decided the house will be sold to pay for care. No other money will be coming my way, as it must be spent on my relative's end care. I knew this going in, and I didn't do it for money or the house--I just wanted to help her live in her own home for as long as possible. I have some guilt and depression about this.

A side note: I never anticipated spending ten years doing this. Another relative in another state was supposed to take over when he retired, but he decided to spend his retirement RVing instead. So instead of a couple of years, it turned into ten. I'm now 40 and kind of stunned that I've pretty much passed the 'get married, have kids' window.

I've done some searching around and figured out I did all this the 'wrong way'. I let old friends and contacts completely drift out of my life. I emailed some old professors about five years ago, and none of them remembered me. I was the sole 24/7 caretaker with little outside help for most of the ten years. I've become isolated and it feels like my social skills have atrophied.

I know I need therapy. I'm deeply depressed, highly stressed, I've had a few panic attacks, and I know I've engaged in self-sabotaging behavior related to growing up dirt poor and believing I'll never be anything but dirt poor. But I can't get therapy until I can pay for it, and I need a job to do that.

The questions: Is there anything I absolutely should be doing besides blindly sending resumes out? Are there resume/career help centers that will help me get my ducks in a row? Temp agencies--what do I look for, and what exactly should I expect when trying to use one? i.e., what's the best way to contact them, what will they ask when I go in, how should I dress (I'm female and honestly feel lost when I go shopping for clothes that look 'professional'), etc. How do I discuss what I've been doing for the past ten years? How do I deal with not having any current references? What about credit checks--I've heard employers do them all the time now, and I have crappy credit.

Another side note: I'm on the verge of a panic attack just writing this. I'm terrified I'll end up homeless and suicidal.

I do have some things in my favor, but I'm not sure how to best use them:

I'm educated--MLIS (Though I feel like I need basic step-by-step 'this is how you get a job' instruction and I feel guilty and stupid like I should just know this stuff.)
I have some cash--5k
I have a car, but it's nearing its end (I wouldn't trust it for driving/delivery jobs).
I can type 50wpm
I'm proficient with Photoshop
I've been told not to mention this as it's stigmatized in many circles, but I use Second Life and have a shop (not an x-rated one!) inworld that makes tier+ about 100 bucks a month. I started using it a while ago as something to do in the evenings. I do not believe it has much more growth in it. This is why I taught myself Photoshop.

I am not familiar with Excel, which I know hurts my chances at temp agencies. I feel confident I could learn quickly, but I've just never had a job that needed it and I know temp places want people who can just do it already.

Other info: moving in w/my parents or siblings is not possible. I am located in the Seattle area. I'm overweight and not fit enough for hard physical labor, though I am capable of doing standing jobs/lifing 50lbs jobs, etc. I have no desire to fight with my other relatives over money or the house. I am willing to relocate.

This is anon because some family members know my mefi name.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Temp agencies are a good place to look. Don't let the Excel thing bother you: you can get a book or use online tutorials to teach yourself the basics of Excel pretty easily, especially if you were able to teach yourself Photoshop. Then at least you can say you know the basics.

Would you be open to doing more caretaking work, perhaps as a personal attendant for someone else with dementia or disabilities? If you feel burned out on that, that's totally understandable, but you don't mention that as a possibility and that would be another income-producing option. I'm sure there are organizations that match clients with care providers; could you get in with one of them in your area?
posted by aka burlap at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2012

I think while it's good to plan and ponder life changes, I think you're worrying too much about some stuff. (I get panic attacks too, so I totally know what it's like.) I have written and edited resumes professionally back in the day, so I hope I have a little useful advice:

1. What do you WANT to do for a living? Like, figure out what your ideal job is. You probably won't be able to just walk into it, but having even a vague goal will help. What are some ways you can gain experience unpaid/volunteer experience in something related to that area? Think about what you can easily add to your resume to improve the direction of your NEXT job. (Bonus: this can also be done in tandem with getting out and about and flexing those social interaction muscles.)

2. You have current references -- providing in-home care for an ailing relative is a job! Do not minimize your efforts! Think about what you've done and try to break it down into more marketable qualities, like .. "liaised with physician to manage and administer daily medication routine" or something. Get a relative and/or any medical or home care folks you may have interacted with to be a reference. You are clearly dedicated, reliable, organized, determined, and patient, and these are all desirable qualities in an employee.

3. I never had much luck with temp agencies, but they will probably ask you to do a few tests on word processing and English and such. Clothes are business casual, like a blouse, knee-length skirt, and covered toe shoes. Don't worry too much about it.

4. Sending out resumes (with tailored cover letters, right?) blindly on the Internet can work out. Make sure you update and complete your profile on sites like Monster, Indeed, and LinkedIn. I've also had good luck with craigslist in the past.

5. If employers did credit checks, I'd never have a job. :) I'm sure some do, but I don't think you need to worry about it.

I hope some of that helps, and good luck. You can do it!
posted by jess at 4:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

You posted this question even though it made you anxious -- good for you.

I don't know if this helps, but when I was recovering from an injury and needed to ease my way back into the work force, I worked part time hours at a daycare, before and after school with the school aged children. Eventually, as I got my health back and increased my confidence, I worked with younger and younger kids and filled in for full time days as a sub when people went on vacation. As I healed, I was able to finally hold the babies. For some of that time I was living at home for free, and for some of that time I was renting a room in a house for cheap.

It may be time for your other family members (maybe other than RV guy) to spot you while you gain confidence and work experience.

I also have a friend who, as a woman, was able to take advantage of union trades training aimed at women and minorities, to get a paid apprenticeship to become a tool and die worker. She was in her forties when she started.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:07 PM on February 9, 2012

A couple of the practical things you're asking about:

1. Excel is pretty easy to get to know -- if you have it on your computer already, look up some online tutorials or just mess around with it. Your local library should also have free tutorials in this kind of stuff. I can't believe a temp agency would ding you for not having more than a working knowledge of it.

2. You definitely haven't passed the get-married-and-have-kids stage, although I can see that you might feel that way after you've been so busy caregiving that you haven't had time for anything else. You deserve a medal for all you've done for your relative -- at the very least, please accept a virtual hug from this Internet stranger!

3. I got all my interview clothes from thrift stores -- basic dark-colored pants and plain-colored blouses that were originally from the Gap, French Connection, etc. There have been some great posts on the green that deal with getting good office outfits on the cheap.

4. If you have a library degree, are you a member of the ALA or any other local groups? They have job boards and all sorts of support systems.

5. Can your Second Life friends/customers be part of your jobseeking network?
posted by vickyverky at 4:07 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and to answer your questions about the temp agencies: because you don't have the most common resume, I would actually just look up all the temp agencies in the area via google or the phone book, call them, give a brief summary of your situation, and ask them how best to proceed. You also might be able to find temp agencies by calling some of the bigger employers in your area and asking them if they use a particular staffing agency.

Temp and staffing agencies will often have you do some skills/typing tests and they'll have you come in for an interview. Once you are on board with them, it's really good to be persistent: call them every day to check in and see if there is any work.

Don't feel overwhelmed: you have some resources, and you definitely have skills and qualifications. As for the ten-year thing, just explain the truth: you've spent the last ten years as an in-home attendant/caretaker for a relative. That itself has value, and demonstrates some impressive things about you and your capability. Agreed with jess above: write out some of the tasks and responsibilities you had in your work as a caretaker, and think about what skills those represent.

You're going to be fine! It's understandable that you're feeling panicky; this is a scary situation to be in, and of course you feel a little rusty. But you totally have the skills and wherewithal you need to survive and do well. Do one thing at a time and just keep reminding yourself that you ARE going to be ok.
posted by aka burlap at 4:08 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are you in the Seattle area or are you in Seattle? You can also find help through King County and the Seattle Public Library - they can help with computer skills, resume drafting, and how to dress.

As far as temp agencies are concerned, the only one I have strongly positive experience with (in terms of getting more training) and which I know has a Seattle office, is Apple One. I know Kelly is there, too, but the locations in both CA and OH were not so great on the training thing. Robert Half is really excellent if you know you want to work in legal or accounting or something.

Take a deep breath, and tackle one problem at a time. Right now you're gathering resources and figuring out what questions you need to be asking: you can't fail at that, I promise.

Oh, and tell every single person you know - including the office staff at the care facility, the folks that run the doctor's offices you've been dealing with all these years, the folks at the grocery store - that you're looking for work. Give them a card with your name, your phone number, and your email; you can write things like "looking for office work" or "have caretaker experience" or whatever on the back, depending on the circumstances. You'll probably want to just get a 250 pack of these from an office supply store.

To fix your problem with not having resources: try to get a position volunteering in someone's office. I was the only one who approached Project OpenHand asking to do office work - that experience is what led temp agencies to believe I could do office work, and years of work for them plus my BA is how I (eventually) got the permanent analyst job I have now.
posted by SMPA at 5:13 PM on February 9, 2012

Lots of great answers in this thread. Caregiving is a legitimate, and difficult, job. Not only that, you did the right thing by caring for your relative and helping her to stay in her own home for longer.

For the work clothing, here's a link to the Seattle branch of an organization called Dress for Success. They help low-income women obtain business-worthy clothes and job-hunting tips. I'm pretty sure they'd have some clothes for you.

My local area has similar small nonprofits that give low-income women donated and gently-used business clothing; the Seattle area might have some more.

Good luck, OP!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:40 PM on February 9, 2012

I'm in Seattle and I wouldn't mind chatting with you if you are interested. My circumstances have never been that similar to yours, but the depression and desperation in the job realm are definitely things I have experienced.

You need to get some sort of toehold in a life other than caring for your relative, and I don't think it even matters what right now. Volunteer for something, go to a meetup, join a women's networking group, take a temporary part-time job doing pretty much anything respectable, post your services on craigslist gigs section. You need to be proactive and not just apply to FT jobs and wait for an employer to place their stamp of approval on you. That puts too much of the power in someone else's hands and leaves you feeling helpless until you get approved.

Once you start meeting people, start doing things in the outside world (whether paid or unpaid), your confidence will increase, your network will expand, and you will be more and more likely to have paid opportunities coming your way. You never know where a good opportunity will come from--some have fallen in my lap that I didn't try to get, but would have never happened if I weren't out there presenting myself.

As for therapy, there are some lower-cost alternatives out there in Seattle. I know of someone who pays $20/hour for therapy and can forward you details if you are interested.
posted by parrot_person at 6:45 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh and, in case you didn't know: you qualify for food stamps. In Washington state, they don't care if you have some savings, all they care about is your current income. Since it's $0, you will be able to get $200/month in food stamps. (I wish I had known that a couple of years ago when I had no income but fairly significant savings).
posted by parrot_person at 6:48 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would concentrate on a job search that will take advantage of the skills you have developed as a caretaker, honestly. I think that you will have better luck being able to show that your skill set is relevant and useful than for some random office temp thing. You should be proud of the selfless, difficult work you did; and there are plenty of people out there who need help like this and will pay for it. I don't know Seattle, but where I live there are numerous agencies that send out caretakers, babysitters, elder care takers, etc; and I would venture to guess that while the work would be harder than office work, you'd be decently paid as a skilled caretaker for someone's beloved mom. You may even be able to find a "live-in" situation - plenty of old people would be happy to find someone trustworthy to live with them so they don't have to go to a home. Good luck.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:15 PM on February 9, 2012

How do I discuss what I've been doing for the past ten years?

You can just tell the truth -- the truth is fine. Your close relative has been very ill, and you chose to look after her, because you care about her and she needed help. You ran the household, managed the finances and coordinated her medical care.

You might feel like you need to justify yourself -- like, why you, why for so long. Don't worry about that, at all. What you've done is responsible and kind. As you enter the job market, frame yourself up as someone who has a great work ethic, maturity, good judgment and integrity (as well as brains and a great degree).

The truth is your next employer will be getting a bargain, because you've developed all kinds of awesome skills, but you'll be undervalued in the marketplace because you don't have a conventional CV. So look for employers who want what you have to offer -- I wonder if for example a small family business might be a good place for you? Small firms tend to care more about character and less about credentials. Or maybe you could find/create online work similar to your Second Life shop. The caretaker suggestions are good too.

I wonder if there is a place in Seattle that would offer you career advice or job-hunt support? If you are feeling panicky, it might help to have someone work with you to structure your job hunt, check in on your progress, and help you stay motivated. Finding a job is all no no no no no until one day it's yes --- it can help to have someone remind you that hearing no all the time is totally normal.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 12:16 AM on February 10, 2012

One quick additional thing. Sometimes I find it helpful, when I need to psyche myself up for something, to pretend I am playing the role of a particular kind of person.

If you are feeling crappy and scared and needy, that's not a good mode for applying for jobs. So maybe try imagining yourself as a different kind of person. Like, imagine you are from a very wealthy family, and you've spent the past ten years living with your eccentric old relative, eating fabulous meals and bossing around all the servants. Some story that makes you feel powerful and in control.

I don't mean you should literally act a role. But maybe try it as a thought experiment, and see if anything useful comes of it :-)
posted by Susan PG at 12:29 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Seattle, there is a support group called "Notes from the Job Search". I recommend it highly. Very supportive, friendly, and no pressure. The group is run by a very compassionate, smart man, a retired IT developer. Most of the participants are 35+. It's a casual "pay-as-you-wish" format.
posted by valannc at 4:58 AM on February 10, 2012

Hi! If you can teach yourself the basics of Photoshop, than why not teach yourself the basics of Excel? There are plenty good websites out there. This will dramatically increase the change of finding a job. All the best!
posted by Niels at 7:29 AM on February 21, 2012

« Older I don't want to be buried in my own backyard   |   Help! My kindergartener is a racist! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.