I make $25/hour and keep thinking I could do better. Can I do better?
March 12, 2014 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 35 yo woman who is, IMO, very smart and capable - but I have a very insubstantial work history. What kind of options would I have if I wanted to prioritize earning more?

Ok, so I have a degree in anthropology/history from a respectable school. My work history includes temping (where, insterestingly, I looked so unemployable that the temp agency felt compelled to falsify my resume), retail and food service, extremely spotty work as an unlicensed massage therapist and freelance illustrator and long total gaps due to being a SAHM. The one slightly reasonable source of income I've discovered is writing factual articles for a content mill, which when I'm lucky and fast can pay about $25 per hour. It's scary to have basically one source if freelance income, though, so even other options close to that range would be worth considering.

My skills include mostly being smart and having a really broad knowledge base. I nearly aced the SATs for example, which of course no once cares about in the real world, but I just mean that's the kind of smart I am, and probably why I am having this stupid smart-person problem. I know a lot about world cultures (I've travelled a lot, for one thing), religion, holistic health and the arts. On the other hand, I'm also reasonaly science-literate, good at social media, And I've even dabbled in programming and am generally good with numbers. I feel like I would make a great personal assistant for someone who needs help with many different kinds of things, for example. I'm easygoing, flexible, a good communicator, and willing to try almost anything. Oh! And I can draw and edit graphics, and cook, and, well, give massages - and I'm most of the way through a yoga teacher certification. You see the problem.

My weaknesses include sales (soooo not good at that, which is making my million potential freelance projects difficult) and definitely being an introvert, so I struggle with small talk and informal opportunities. Oh, and I'm severely commitment-phobic about careers, apparently. At this point I kind of just don't care anymore, except that I would really like to be doing something more constructive with my work life. However, due to financial and family circumstances, I have little to no money to invest in myself, and even my time investment is somewhat constrained.

Is it possible? Can I do better?
posted by lgyre to Work & Money (26 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
If you "nearly aced the SATs", then you can be a tutor. With a proven track record, many are able to make significantly more than $25 an hour when freelancing. Try talking to agencies like Kaplan to get an idea of where you can start.
posted by semaphore at 12:42 PM on March 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: IT skills. What you want is IT skills. Some elaboration: I'm gonna be blunt: I kinda cringed a little when I read your post, because it reminded me SO much of me (especially "my skills include mostly being smart and having a really broad knowledge base")... and the one thing that's been hammered into me in the course of adulthood, repeatedly and painfully, is that no one gives a shit about that stuff. It stings like a styptic pencil in the eyeball, I KNOW. But in most fields, smarts are more like the "icing" on the cake with which you entice an employer. Icing is WONDERFUL, but you gotta have that base layer of cake (skills) to be marketable.

Here's why IT skills: 1. It's a great field for introverts, 2. Your potential is limited ONLY by how much you can learn and practice (and it sounds like you'd be great as an independent learner), 3. You don't need a field-specific degree, 4. There are jobs in LOTS of places, and on LOTS of rungs of the ladder, 5. It's a field in which dabbling in many different areas is rewarded - you can be go-to gal for LOTS of things.

Good luck... you sound like you've got great potential... you've just gotta pick a field, attack the hell out of it, and stick with it.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:44 PM on March 12, 2014 [27 favorites]

Seconding the tutor idea.

You could also offer to build and curate social media presences for local businesses you frequent.

You might like the approach to building IT skills offered at Skillcrush.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:47 PM on March 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

It depends very much on where you live. $25/hour is $50k/year, approximately. That's pretty close to a couple years' experienced Administrative or Executive Assistant, here in the Boston area. I'd say what's keeping you down is your history of not working in the same company in a progressive series of positions. So get yourself into a company at entry-level and wow them until you move up!
posted by xingcat at 12:50 PM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Maybe learn bookkeeping and/or become an Enrolled Agent?
posted by melissasaurus at 12:53 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I thought immediately of SAT tutoring. I've heard that places like Kaplan and Princeton Review (some of the smaller companies require you to actually sit the test, I think?) will teach you to tutor GRE/LSAT if you get a good enough score on a practice test. Those places seem to pay between $20-$25 an hour.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:55 PM on March 12, 2014

Response by poster: Ok, these are great responses so far, thank you! Yes, I cringe thinking about this, myself. Yes, I am great at teaching myself new things. I'll definitely check out Skillcrush. And I should clarify that I don't make anything like $50,000 a year, because the amount of articles I can write is rather limited...it's just some sort of marker for me of what my time could possibly be worth to an employer.

I've definitely thought of getting into more technical fields. Does anyone have specific suggestions of tech skills that would be possible to learn on my own and relatively easy to turn into entry-level work?
posted by lgyre at 12:56 PM on March 12, 2014

Check out the meetups for Girl Develop It Pittsburgh and chat up the participants if you're interested in upping your tech skills.
posted by evoque at 1:01 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can do WAY better.

My recommendation to you (and to a lot of people) is to learn a marketable skill. My skill of choice is Excel (and the rest of the Microsoft Office Suite) in combination with a CRM, Salesforce.com or Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Salesforce.com is super easy to learn, and you can do it in stages.

I'm completely self-taught in Excel and in Salesforce.com. Go on You Tube and look over the tutorials for Excel and Salesforce.com. Get familiar with it. Do the Microsoft Tutorials on-line. Get good and comfortable with it.

Then get any old job where you use Salesforce.com and Excel together. Look to start with Administrative work, even temp contract work, to build up your real life skills.

Don't worry about knowing exactly how everything works in Excel and/or Salesforce. Salesforce is customized to each business, so even if you know the basics, there's always going to be something specific to the business. Excel is one of those things. The first time you try to do something, it takes three days, the second time, three hours, the third time, three minutes.

You fix your resume by putting your freelancing work on there as your primary source of income for the past few years. Leave off anything that was just a way to make a buck.

Start at the top with skills and experience:

--Salesforce.com User

--Microsoft Office Suite of Products

--Technical writing and documentation

You get the idea. Then think of a name for your self-owned Freelance Business, say, Message Media. Then do some bullet points of cool stuff you've written. If you've been writing for Examiner.com or something like that, then change it to creating content for web sites, and focus more on Marketing.

I started in a $40K job just to learn Salesforce.com and to get the experience, I'm makeing twice that now, after 5 years. So...yeah, it worked for me.

Another option is to go entry level into admin/customer service jobs, with HUGE companies. PPG, BONY, Verizon, and learn stuff and move up. I started in customer service with BellSouth and wound up being a Data Engineer.

The world of work starts with a shitty job, and if you're smart (and you are) you leverage your smarts to move up quickly.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:03 PM on March 12, 2014 [30 favorites]

Put your SAT on your resume. That's a big deal, google it if you want, there was a recent article about in the WSJ about how SAT is actually still used and abused at your age.

Why is it a big deal?

There is a stereotype--true or not--about SAHM and 35yo women who lack career experience. People will assume you're probably not all that smart. You worked a little, then raised a kid. Oh you have a degree, sure sure, it's probably your husband who was the smart one. You chose to take the non-smart route, and would be best suited for some half-career with no real progress.

A perfect SAT smashes this -- seriously. Sure maybe not everyone, all bosses are unique. But if you see a perfect SAT score it immediately alerts them to "This women actually has some intellectual firepower." Because that is perhaps the one way they can compare themselves to you, as they took the SAT as well. Particularly others who did well on the SAT. Let's say some boss got a 98 percentile on the SAT, and likes to think of himself as smart. Oh shit, you got a near perfect score? Well to stay consistent with his internal narrative, you must be smart as well!

Seriously, I'm not saying this is a golden bullet. But I am strongly suggesting you include it on your CV. From there you will want to find friends or contacts that can introduce you to people. You don't know the title of the job you want right now. But talk to the right people and you might start to find these weird opportunities pop up, that you would never find on a job application website.

A final strategy is to do something along the lines of a coding bootcamp. There are some good ones that have low acceptance rates, high costs, and last 3-4 months. They prefer to only hire people who have a base intellect, to build their reputation as a boot camp (I'm sure plenty of them suck too, though). That would signal that you are serious, and open many IT doors for you.
posted by jjmoney at 1:12 PM on March 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

in most fields, smarts are more like the "icing" on the cake with which you entice an employer.

That should be "...in most jobs" -- you're not easily labeled, so you won't fit automatically into a known job slot. You need to show your smarts, and find a position with some people who can use you. I looked at the link in your profile - why are there no example articles up there?
posted by amtho at 1:28 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tagging on to Bentobox Humperdinck's suggestion, Skillcrush just unveiled their Career Blueprints guides to web design and web development.
posted by evoque at 1:31 PM on March 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Freelancing doing anything for $25/ hour is way too low. You aren't making money while not working and are responsible for your own supplies, insurance, sick days, etc. so a larger rate is necessary to make up that difference. Start thinking of how to turn occasional freelancing into self employment, ie a business.

I always recomend Design is a Job.
posted by ridogi at 2:02 PM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

And I should clarify that I don't make anything like $50,000 a year, because the amount of articles I can write is rather limited...

Are you looking for work that pays more per hour, or are you looking to work more hours? I'm sure you can do either, or both, but it might help to clarify what you're going for.
posted by jon1270 at 2:14 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Jon1270, I would prefer to make more per hour...but since this is the best gig i have been able to find and it is limited, more similar opportunities would still be welcome.
posted by lgyre at 2:17 PM on March 12, 2014

I think a personal assistant to an executive or other high powered busy person is a very good idea. You could write a resume that is specifically tailored to that type of position and then you could do some networking to try to get the resume in front of some executives. Once you establish a good reputation with one executive, word of mouth and referrals will help keep you employed by providing other future similar opportunities.

Alternatively you could consider getting yourself trained to do accounting work since that's always in demand (although basic bookkeeping wouldn't pay better than what you are making now). But I think the personal assistant is a better idea.
posted by Dansaman at 2:28 PM on March 12, 2014

Re. SAT tutoring, as people have said above, you might want to consider it. Maybe it would be a bit helpful for me to tell you a bit about my experience doing it, so you can get a view from the inside (albeit a decade old!).

I worked for one of the two big companies about a decade ago (when I was really far too young to be doing it, as I was barely out of high school, but that just goes to show that their main concern for hiring is scores!). I did it because I didn't have a college degree (as I said, I was just out of high school), and I really needed to make money, and was hoping for more than minimum wage. I also was the sort of person who is not only pretty extroverted but who also rather perversely enjoyed standardized tests (whatever that tells you about me!), so I thought it might be a good fit and I applied. When I did it, you had to submit scores (they had a minimum threshold that they accepted, I think) and then give a practice lesson on anything you wanted, just so they could see your personality, etc. If you passed that round, you went to the training. We had a shortish training course (maybe two 3-hour sessions/week for a month at a totally rough guess?) - we basically worked through the SAT course that we'd be teaching, with asides from the teacher about how to teach it. For this, we received I believe minimum wage pay, and then we were qualified to teach SAT classes for the company. Regularly, the company's staffing person would send out emails with available classes to all of the qualified teachers, and the first person to volunteer to teach it got it (if there were no volunteers because it was a particularly unattractive class [too big, too far away, etc.], you could sometimes bargain them up a bit, or get gas money, or whatever). The standard pay (a decade ago!) that this company gave was $16/hour for teaching an SAT class, and I think a standard course was something like two 3-hour classes/week for five weeks. I don't think preparation time was paid (?) : the first couple of courses you teach, there is a TON of preparation, but since every course you teach is essentially the a repeat, it gets much easier fairly quickly. There may have been a raise of a few dollars an hour once you taught your first few courses - can't quite remember! I think after you taught two SAT courses and got good student reviews, you were eligible to do private tutoring, which was something like $21/hour. Depending on your skillset, you might be able to teach graduate exams (GRE, LSAT, MCAT), which I believe had a higher base pay (especially the MCAT). My strong sense was that you didn't actually need to have gone to graduate school to teach those exams: if you could do well on the mock test that they gave you, they'd let you teach it. I was contemplating training to teach the GRE and LSAT, but then went off to college and sort of faded out of the whole test prep scene.

As with freelancing, the major downside of this kind of work was that the work wasn't full-time (and you weren't certain to get anything in a given month), and you're really only getting paid for the hours you're in front of the classroom. That said, the money was definitely okay (and the rates that I quoted may be significantly higher now - I have no idea!), and I definitely had the sense that the job got much easier the more you taught it. If they like you after you do a substantial amount of teaching for them, I think they might hire you on full-time on a salaried basis. I would have been anxious if I had been relying on it as a sole source of income, but to supplement something like freelancing, I think it would be ideal. It was actually a fairly fun and interesting experience, all things considered, and I got experience teaching classes of different sizes and different socio-economic levels (the company I worked for ran some discounted/charity courses in urban areas). It felt good to help students raise their scores (I once helped someone raise his score 350 points on the old SAT!), especially kids who hadn't been born with silver spoons in their mouths. Some of the students were really anxious and high-strung about the SAT and the class (naturally, given the high stakes of the exam!), but in the main they were very nice. I even got updates from some of my past students about colleges they got into. If you think you might like teaching, you're okay with an audience (because they're definitely looking for performers to some extent), if you actually rather enjoyed standardized tests and were good at them, and if you're okay with the instability of the work, it might be a great fit.
posted by ClaireBear at 2:30 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sorry about the wall of text above - just thought that if test prep was something that interested you, having that kind of detailed recounting might be helpful! Feel free to contact me and I'd be happy to clarify anything, including giving more specifics. Looking online (e.g. here), it seems that pay may have significantly gone up in the past decade (the person on that thread [in 2010] estimates Kaplan paid him $26/hour for teaching and $8/hour for his prep time, and that it could go up to $40 or $50/hour for teaching if you're experienced with them). I personally would recommend starting out with a major company like Princeton Review or Kaplan rather than striking out on your own.
posted by ClaireBear at 2:50 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can write fast factual articles, you should be using those writing skills. You should work for a political campaign. Volunteer asking to do communications or research and eventually they will hire you. You'll get to write in those roles and need to organize information. And then you'll be experienced and can keep doing it because experienced campaign people are always better than non-campaign people. And you don't need to worry about being commitment-phobic because your job will end in November anyway. You can definitely build a career out of that. Feel free to MeMail if you have questions or want more specifics.

Tutoring is a skill set all of its own. Just because you can take a test well doesn't mean you can coach and train other people to do the same. If you're not good with people, it might be difficult. But it's worth a shot. Plenty of introverts are good in structured social situations, like tutoring would be.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:56 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

One thing I'm not clear about: Are you willing to take a 9-to-5 job?
If so, I think you could make $80k or more, plus benefits. That's been my experience.
If not, I wouldn't hazard a guess. Freelance is HARD HARD if you need to make that kind of money. Yes, a few freelancers make that. A very few make twice that. But most freelancers don't make a fraction of it.
I sent you a memail. I'd be glad to discuss more.
posted by LonnieK at 7:15 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bingo! Girl Develop It Pittsburgh is the real deal! And there is a meeting tomorrow at 21st Street coffee. I will be there along with dozens of seasoned women in the Pittsburgh IT field. We host skill workshops, mentor people, and offer career advice to anyone who walks through the door. At the very least, for the price of a cup of coffee you'll get some opinions on where to start and what skills are in demand, and maybe make some good connections. Plenty of us started from non-technical art or writing backgrounds.

We meet once a month and I would be happy to introduce you to the group.
posted by Alison at 7:43 PM on March 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

FWIW I'm super introverted and actually liked teaching SMALL classes (6 and under?) and tutoring. It was exhausting doing it full time, but if it were part-time I'd find it very do-able. YMMV.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:44 PM on March 12, 2014

I, too, taught SAT classes for one of the big two companies. I did it for a bit over a year, around the time I graduated from college. Some additions to ClaireBear's comments:

1) When I taught, the base pay was $20/hour, and the training - which took place over the course of two weekends - paid I think $10/hour. After awhile, I got small raise, though I don't recall exactly how much (it wasn't more than a dollar or two per hour).

2) I eventually got into some freelance writing and landed a full-time editorial job. SAT tutoring was a great thing to do while I figured all this out.

3) The hours were very variable. They tended to peak - not surprisingly - around the fall and spring SATs, fall especially. In December and January I think I worked 3-6 hours per week, and there were weeks in October when I was almost working full-time. There were always marking events around the tests, too, which I usually volunteered for to make extra cash. Also, sometimes you'd sign up to teach a class and they wouldn't get enough registrations and they'd drop it, so be aware of this.

4) Honestly, I don't think I was very good at it. But I was kind of the grunt: reliable and good enough to not embarrass anybody. They saw value in that. At one point, I was told that I taught more hours than anyone else in our office.

5) I don't think I got paid for prep time, but I honestly don't remember. It did get a lot easier the more I did it. My first class, I felt like an idiot; by the end, I felt like I could teach the class in my sleep.

6) If you teach enough hours, you can qualify for health insurance. It wasn't very good health insurance - at least it wasn't back then - but it was better than nothing.

7) You are kind of expected to put on a show for the kids. I'm not terribly extroverted, but like a lot of introverts, I can psych myself into the idea that I'm playing a role and get into it. If you can do this, your introversion won't be a problem.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:47 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you considered becoming a paralegal? Being smart and well rounded and knowing a little about a lot of things are super helpful traits for a paralegal. High SAT scores would be valued in hiring, and it's unlikely anyone would care about a peripatetic job history.

I was just like you, tried grad school in the sciences and found it waaaaay to constricting (how to choose one topic when 10,000 are interesting??), then went to law school and loved it. Love it still. But the math is hard to work out. Law school is expensive, and requires three years of almost zero earnings on top of that, and then it's really hard to get a job that's a good fit for whatever lifestyle and personal interests you want to pursue. But being a paralegal is an awesome job, as it's interesting, less pressure filled, steady, and well compensated.

Other options: technical writer, editor, administrator (loads of small and medium companies need good administrators), office worker in a university (like, admissions, financial aid, registrar) or hospital (billing, social work, radiology), or for the government (city council, permits, planning dept.). The trick to getting these jobs is to apply for all of them, and personalize each application to explain how your broad interests benefit the organization.
posted by Capri at 9:55 AM on March 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I'm really impressed with the amount of quality advice in this thread. I signed up for a skillcrush class and am going to try that first, but I'm also going to look into these other options. There are several that I hadn't considered!
posted by lgyre at 10:01 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Because you're smart, you can learn quickly. Consider becoming a CPA - they make a lot of money, and you can branch into consulting. Or learn to program. Spend some time looking at research on jobs that pay well, and learn the skills. Making good money is really pleasant and makes up for certain jobs lacking sexiness.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

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