Wisdom//

You Are Not Your Job, And a Layoff Is Not a Personal Failure

How you can weather the current economic downturn and come out ahead

We’re on the precipice of dark economic times. Unemployment claims are at historic highs, with worse predicted to come

I say this not to frighten you, but to say that even as we enter dark times, there will be a light at the end. I was laid off twice, from the same real estate tech company actually, as a result of major economic catastrophes: first because of 9/11 and then because of the 2008 collapse. 

The second time it took me five years to get back into the tech industry. There’s no way to sugar coat it. It was rough. My marriage dissolved and I suffered from depression that I couldn’t afford to treat. However, through all the years of searching I decided not to lose my self worth as a human. Despite constant rejection, even derision, I knew what I was capable of and refused to give in to despair.

I made it through and today I’m where I want to be. Here’s what I learned during my rocky journey that will hopefully help you.

You are not your job

So much of our identity is tied to what we do for money. We introduce ourselves as “engineer” or “teacher,” and often start casual conversations with, “So, what do you do?” 

This is great when we can take pride in our work. But it’s dangerous when what you do – or don’t do – becomes a proxy for your worth as a human. 

It was brutal, soul crushing really, to be rejected for five years for jobs I was overqualified for. I constantly asked myself, “What am I doing wrong? Is it my resume? Was I too friendly or not friendly enough on the call?” My sense of identity, and my ability to see myself as something of value, was directly linked to my employment status.

If you find yourself in a prolonged period of unemployment, decouple who you are from what you do. Find an outlet where you can recharge and fill your soul. 

My outlet was teaching motorcycle racers how to ride faster and safer. One weekend, a little grandma came up to me with tears in her eyes. She just wanted to thank me for all I did for her grandson. They were so worried about his safety, but after seeing how he absorbed my lessons, they could take comfort knowing he’d be smarter while riding his bike.

Find a way recharge and fill your soul. Mine was as a motorcycle instructor.

Small moments like that, volunteering, helping neighbors or building bonds with family, will help keep you grounded and remind you that you have worth beyond your job title.

Build towards what you want

The software engineering world changes every six to 18 months, with the introduction of new technologies, devices, languages and frameworks. As I looked for work, I continued to train and improve my skills so I would be ready to jump right back in once I had the opportunity. 

It’s hard to remain self-motivated under these circumstances, or even feel like you have the time to build towards what you want. I was creating so many resumes and cover letters, on top of networking, searching job boards and working minimum wage jobs to get by, that I was probably putting in more hours of “work” than when I was fully employed. 

The harsh reality, which I’ll get to in a minute, is that HR departments don’t care about your circumstance. They care about following the job requirements to the letter and rejecting people who don’t meet every requirement. But you have to find time to continue to improve. 

Take this forced time off to build towards what you want. Learn a new skill you couldn’t before. Keep up with your industry and participate in forums, events or other opportunities to share your knowledge and learn from others. It doesn’t always translate into direct or immediate results, as I know all too well. But it will keep you sharp and ready for when your opportunity comes. 

We must change the system

The most frustrating part of my job search was the dissonance between reading every day about the “skills gap” and lack of technology talent, while being told by one HR rep after another that they were only interested in hiring engineers who were currently employed. 

I’m not an economist, but maybe if we hire people with the skills and aptitude to do a job, rather than just those who already have that job, we’d be able to close this skills gap and put more people back to work.

This change in hiring practices will grow even more crucial in the coming months. With millions of people looking for work, hiring parameters must evolve, or we risk prolonging the economic slow down. 

Changing the parameters doesn’t mean lowering quality. It means being smarter about what you’re looking for. A computer keyboard hasn’t changed in the past six months, so someone with data entry skills still has the ability to do it, even if they’ve been unemployed. Smart, successful companies will expand their HR practices and hire people who can do the job, not just those who currently do it.

So, employees, gird yourself for the worst as you prepare for the best. Look after your mental health and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You are not alone.

And employers, you are part of the solution. Look beyond the resume to see what skills and abilities a person has, what they can do and how those can be applied to your needs. Otherwise, you’ll be without the talent you need to recover and grow once this storm passes.

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