The New Normal
Guest post by Ryan Hundt
Is this the new normal? The president was on TV today telling the nation that GDP grew by 3.2% in the first quarter of 2010 – possible signs of an end to the recession. But on this, the 546th day of my unemployment (or I should say underemployment since I have been able to find random work here and there: a renovation of a friend’s house, a kitchen remodel, contract work for an Architect colleague…) something of a pattern is becoming clear. Architecture and interior design professionals who’ve been laid off recently are having a hard time staying employed.
I started yesterday just like many of the previous 545: drinking coffee and looking for a job. I’ve become a bit of a trivia buff for recession data (architects were the single worst hit profession by the current recession – nearly 18% unemployment nationwide in 2009; 4-out-of-5 unemployed workers are male, throwing an interesting wrench into the dynamics of families where now the sole income provider is female; unemployment has touched all workers regardless of education level – my master’s degree hasn’t provided much of a cushion from the hardships of the past two years…) Having been laid off twice from architecture firms in 2008, I’ve also become an expert at the job search – and an expert at the futility of it. Once you weed through the dozens of IT jobs out there looking for Software Designers and Database Architects – you find it, that one golden nugget: an actual job at an architecture firm. And after e-mailing your polished resume, a cover letter you agonized over so it would be tailor-made for that particular firm, and PDF samples of your work, what do you get? Nothing. Like a big black vortex, all your hard work has been sucked through the cables of the World Wide Web and you will never hear from it again…bye bye resume.
This is one small aspect of the new normal in my profession – there are so few jobs, and so many applicants that you are lucky to hear back from potential employers. I once got so excited over an actual rejection letter – not an e-mail mind you, a letter – I almost framed it. The experience leaves you feeling pretty hollow. So then you network, reaching out to fellow colleagues and professionals all over the country praying that the next connection or conversation over coffee will spark a statement like: “I have a friend who has a friend who’s an Architect. I’ll call and see if they’re looking for help…” And then a couple times a month you get a big reminder of why you absolutely need to find work soon – you have to pay your bills.
So, it was just like that yesterday when I got that phone call from my friend to tell me he just got laid off again. He had found a job in sales at a material supplier, so he was happy to still be doing something in the construction industry – even if it wasn’t design work. And he’d had a good run – more than a year at that job before he was let go. But like many of my colleagues who’ve been laid off recently, he couldn’t keep his job. The reaction goes deeper than reciting the glib catchphrase ‘Last hired, first fired.’ All the words of encouragement from a boss saying they ‘appreciate all the work you’ve done but they just can’t keep you on’ do little to help you face a future of uncertainty many of us haven’t had to face before.
Now, there are many positive things the recession has taught me. Like the value of gratitude, and the value of friends and family who support you…not least of all the value of hard work and what a dollar really means. But in the face of news that many people I used to work with are having such a difficult time keeping their hard-found jobs, my confidence can be shaken much more easily since providing for my family is so hard these days.
The recession has been a mixed blessing for me, strange as that may sound. I’ve learned many things about myself and about the profession I’ve spent my entire adult life a part of. And being unemployed these past 546 days has made me explore some very basic assumptions about myself. Your sanity depends on this: coming to terms with the fact that change happens, growth is optional. At this point, many people could look at me and wonder what I am doing. Am I spinning my wheels trying to cling to this profession when the world is trying to tell me something? Are the jobs that have been lost ever coming back? Am I failing to change in response to overwhelmingly bad news I see all around me? Shouldn’t I just go get a job as a delivery driver at Jimmy John’s? (That might make my Grandpa happy by the way…god bless him.) These aren’t easy questions for me. My hope is that more good things will come out of this experience of being unemployed – I’ve already had so many. And then those good things will become a part of my new normal.