Sunday, November 1, 2009

Job Hopping

My resume reads a bit like a biography, if that biography was on a carnie. That is to say, I've done a lot of shuffling around in a relatively short amount of time. Such is the lot of a military brat. I think that being accustomed to pulling up the stakes and moving every few years becomes a way of life for some of us, even after our parent(s) stopped wearing the fatigues and went back to being civilians. Although I've always acknowledged that as far as moving in the military goes, my family got off pretty easy--only two or three major uprootings in Mom and Dad's careers, I did develop a sort of restless wanderlust. I can pick up and move a lot more easily than many of my peers, some of whom have never been outside of their tri-state area or stepped foot on a plane. If I have to go, I go, and that's that. To stay is sometimes not an option.

I intend to expound upon this later; for now I'm thinking about my roadmap of a resume.

When I moved to California in the summer of 2006, I was chasing a few strong job leads and had an interview or two lined up, but had no formal offer of employment from anyone. I was all of 23 years old, barely a year out of college, and already with three company names standing between that June of 2006 and the commencement ceremony the previous May. After a few weeks of looking, I was recruited for a direct hire position at a local family owned operation that made guitars and sound equipment. I was the order entry department's main interface with customer service, researching issues with sales orders and charging thousands of dollars to dozens of credit cards all day. I had never done anything like it before, but I took to it pretty well. After dealing with "outsiders" at my last two jobs and answering phones all day, I found a certain comfort in handling numbers, writing e-mails, and letting the guys up on the second floor wear the headsets. Order Entry was a small department that was an offshoot of accounting, the manager of which was only a few months to a year older than I was, but had been working there for years. We were allowed to listen to our iPods, and usually someone from down the hall bought Einstein bagels for us on Fridays. The pay was decent, the hours were reasonable, and the commute was crappy but manageable. After a few weeks it dawned on me that for the first time in a long time, I had a job that I didn't drag my feet getting to. I liked it, and I was pretty good at it.

I wasn't there for two months when another job offer promising me quick promotions, stock options, and general superstardom lured me away. My roommate at the time had been there since February. It was August now, and that practically made him a veteran. The turnover rate was so high that only a handful of people outside of the founders made it to a full year of employment. That was just because not everybody could cut it: the crazy hours, the lofty goals and high expectations. Not everyone was a "true" superstar. That's because most people are sensible and have an intact sense of self-preservation. The economy hadn't taken a complete dump at that point, so when people inevitably had enough of the madness and left, they could reasonably expect to find another job before things got dire.

My star burned out at about six weeks. My tour of duty was considerably shorter than my roommate's: I started in the last week of August and gave my notice around the 9th of October. He followed suit a few weeks later, but with a higher market value and another job already lined up. (Software engineers, DBAs, and other variants of computer nerds don't seem to hurt for employment quite so easily as others do.) I, on the other hand, left the company on a wing and a prayer.

The next three weeks were pretty much awful. Out of work and with just barely enough money to cover my half of the rent and other expenses through the end of the month, I flirted with a mild depression. Not the can't-get-out-of-bed-or-bathe-yourself kind, but the kind that stopped me just short of the front door on most days and planted me on the couch watching daytime television and Star Trek re-runs until the roommate came home. He did not much like what he saw--a sad, despondent face who was frustrated with the lack of good, viable job options that would help support their habit for Sunday night cook-offs and copious bottles of wine. I had done my due diligence and shoved my resume onto a hook and dangled it out into the staff-agency infested waters, getting a nibble here and there. However, the responses I got were mostly for temporary gigs that involved taking a lot of phone calls and intimate involvement with a fax machine. The more attractive looking jobs often asked for skills just beyond the breadth of my experience.

And, of course, there was the big elephant that sat in on my phone calls and tagged along to the in-person pre-interviews. Pinky, as I shall heretofore call him, tried his best to sit quietly in a corner, not being a nuisance or a bother to anyone, holding his trunk demurely in his lap. But, Lord bless him, he was a 2,000 lb behemoth with a map of the United States tattooed on his ass. He got bigger with every move I dragged him along for. In a span of 17 months, Pinky and I had gone from finishing school in Indiana (which isn't even where we started it), interning for a semester in Florida, taking a temp job in Pennsylvania with two assignments, and finally hopping in my Honda Civic to come clear across the country and work for a guitar manufacturer and a Koolaid Factory for a combined total of 4 months.

By the time I was sitting in a conference room staring down the barrel of another interview one afternoon, Pinky had grown to mammoth proportions. We were there talking to two ladies from HR and the sales team of the company where Roommate had just started working--a company whose entire philosphy thrived on referral business. Naturally, when an admin position presented itself in the sales team, Roommate had done the decent and honorable thing and recommended me for the job. Of course, roommates tend to have a vested interest in your being gainfully employed--but he would've done that for me even if we weren't living together.

I was nervous but excited as I was escorted into the room, resume and application fanned out between me and the interview team. We made some pleasant small talk and Pinky took his post in the corner, smoothing back his ears with his trunk and sitting up straight. After a round of standard questioning, he began to fidget. So did I; one of my nervous habits involves a restless leg and tugging at blouse sleeves, so I clasped my hands on the desk in front of me and willed my foot still. Things seemed to be going fine until suddenly one of the ladies--the less pleasant looking of the two, as I recall--decided that it was in fact, time to address the Big Elephant in the Room. So big that he couldn't really fit in the corner as I had orignally placed him. He had made his way to the head of the table, in fact, and his trunk was snaking up the back of my neck and picking invisible nits out of my hair.  Maybe he was trying to distract me from what was about to happen next.

"I see you have done a lot of moving around in a short amount of time," Ms. Hatchett said, referencing my expertly typed resume. "Can you explain a little bit about that to us?"

I swatted Pinky's trunk away from my head, since, it's hard to get up and do a song and dance with an elephant trunk buzzing about your face. I answered in earnest, which is to say that I went to school in Indiana, but I happen to be from Pittsburgh, took an internship opportunity in Orlando upon graduation, decided that central FL wasn't for me, returned home to work for several months, and then found myself out here in San Diego upon a strong suggestion. The two jobs I had just previously held in that short amount of time, well, they hadn't quite worked out.

Step, ball change, padaboure, kick, kick, and pose. Take five, get some water.

"Yes, but here's the thing," she continued as I caught my breath. "I see that you have some wonderful skills, but when I take an application like this to my boss and they see all of the job hopping, they don't have very much confidence in you as a candidate. Tell us why we should hire you anyway."

I was winded, but I still had energy enough in me to chassé through the end of the interview, probably extolling the virtues of my communication skills and ability to assimilate new computer programs as I went. When it was over, Pinky stood up and lumbered out of the room, down the stairs, and out into the parking lot to wait in the car, his job having been done. I was still clinging to some desperate hope that he hadn't been disruptful enough to cost me the position, but by the time the rejection letter showed up a week later, I knew (and had confirmation from the Roommate) that my job history had become a liability. At least the employers who are looking to take someone on a permanent, full-time basis and invest in their 401(k). It was a crushing blow to my self-esteem, but thankfully, the dry spell ended shortly thereafter when I found work in the "technical operations" department of a hockey equipment retailer. They hired on a temp-to-perm basis, and I stayed put for two years-- about 20 months longer than I wanted to because the job was a dead-ender.

When you're a kid in school looking to put gas in your car and maybe sock some money away for your college education, the job history, complex skills, and wow-factor don't matter quite so much. At 23 with a bachelor's degree, I was grossly overqualified for those gigs anymore. Long hours, low pay, usually came home smelling like my decidedly non-ambient environment...I had learned a lot since then. Sometimes I like to think back on it, back before I had a corporate e-mail account and had to wear a nametag. (Though I had a job with both requirements later, which is another story for another time.) Back to the simpler times when a job was just something I did when I wasn't in class.

In fact, all of this was leading me back to that, some stories here and there about the jobs I've had and the people I've worked with. I was inspired by the book I had literally just finished reading this evening, Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. Sheehan was a dishwasher-turned-line-cook-turned-chef-turned-writer/critic who tells his story of coming up in the greasy hot kitchens all over Rochester, NY, Tampa, FL and a few other states on the other end of the country. I relate to the hopping for what should be obvious reasons by now, and also I was a dishwasher at a major food chain diner for a few summers to help put myself through school. It was an uninteresting job with some very interesting characters indeed.

But, that, too, that's another story (or two) for another time.