2/24/07

Finding a job with benefits at the tender age of 50

I'll admit it: I had it cushy for 26 years. Oh, don't think I didn't carry my weight or that I slacked off, but I lived the life of a fairy princess for a long time.

Sure Bob and I struggled in the early years. 75% of our combined income went to paying the mortgage and bills to our first house. Then, when we returned to school in our late twenties, we couldn't sell the dang thing. For a year we had to pay the mortgage to that place plus the rent to our walk up apartment in Boston. That was tough. But I still recall those years as being heady and fun and interesting.

And then we came across a fork in the road: Should "we" place 100% of our combined efforts into Bob's career with its promise of financial rewards and a way out of debt? Or should I continue to pursue my interest in art and art history? It was a no-brainer, and I redoubled my efforts to support my husband as he went to graduate school full time. I recall driving him to the library every day during the time that he wrote his dissertation, and editing and proofing one variation of the document after another.

In year 20 of our marriage the financial rewards began to outweigh our debts, and I must say I enjoyed spending money and traveling, which we did all through the 90's. We were not rich, but we wanted for nothing.

I pursued a career as an artist, making a modest income and learning an incredible amount about marketing myself and making contacts. I also volunteered in a local literacy organization. My small role in the organization kept expanding, from tutor to trainer to recruiter to community relations specialist to VISTA Volunteer. In order to keep up with the staff and their needs, I learned valuable computer skills. I also made a ton of contacts in my community.

At the time my marriage dissolved, I no longer worked with the organization. Bob wanted me on hand to travel (we traveled about 2 months per year), and my frequent absences were affecting the quality of my work. However, I still volunteered for the organization, creating their newsletters and publicity flyers.

The day Bob left I called a colleague at that organization, and landed an 8 hour per week position right away. I then called all the contacts I'd made over the years, letting them know I was looking for a full time job.

I found one position through a newspaper ad, and was offered the job. This was such a boost to my ego, that I almost accepted the position. But then I did the math. First, the salary was quite low, and second, the job came with no benefits. Regretfully I turned the job down, saying that by accepting it I would be unable to afford my house. Then I sat back, wondering if I would regret my decision.

A month later a friend told me about a consulting position at a nearby university, one that was funded through June 30th. She and I discussed it and it sounded like the ideal situation for me. But then nothing happened. Another month passed by, and my friend said she was "still on it." I believed her, but I also knew that she was an incredibly busy person and that helping me out was not her number one priority. I was working two jobs by then, one in a frame shop, which kept me as busy as I wanted to be up to 20 hours per week.

So, six weeks after learning about the job, I called the person in charge of the project and asked her if she was still looking for someone. Oh, yes, she said, adding that she'd been wondering why I hadn't called. As it turns out, a certain pot of money was set aside for this position, and I was told to ask for the most ridiculous amount per hour.
"$19 per hour? "I ventured.
"More," she said.
And so I went up until she was satisfied that I would use the full amount that had been allocated for this project by the end of the fiscal year. The one glitch was that the job did not come with benefits and would end in three months.

At the first staff meeting, I realized that I had teed off my friend and her boss in a major way by leapfrogging over them. Uh, oh, I thought, but then relaxed. My life was in chaos and theirs' wasn't. So I determined to do the best I could and prove to them that I was worth the hire.

I soon realized that three months was too much time for so little work, so I found ways to make myself useful, creating a database of past and present trainers, some publicity materials, realigning some statewide territories so they made more sense when we went out in the field, and teaching support staff crucial desktop publishing skills. In other words, I found gaps that needed to be filled and made myself indispensable in general.

When June arrived, my boss asked me if I would consider a permanent position with them, one with benefits. Would I? I tried not to leap into her arms to hug her, but she could tell from the joy on my face that she had lifted a huge worry. As for my friend and her boss, they forgave me for taking charge of my own situation and leapfrogging over them. My work had relieved their loads and they couldn't argue with the results.

So, here I am at 58, just embarking on a career, rubbing elbows with people half my age, and working on statewide projects that affect hundreds of organizations. It hasn't been easy for me. I needed to take a lot of work home at first just to learn the "business." And I've taken a lot of classes and workshops since.

These are some of lessons you might take away from my slipshod approach to life:

  1. Do not depend on the actions of others. Yes your friends and acquaintances might have your welfare in mind, but their sense of timing is not as urgent as yours.

  2. Don't accept a job just because it is offered. Ask yourself: Is this situation good enough for me and my needs? If I take this job, will I close the door on something better?

  3. Once you land a position you love, make yourself indispensable. Make them want you more than you need them. Easier said than done? Yeah, but worth the rewards.

  4. Not divorced and happily married? Keep yourself employable any way. You never know what life will hand you and when you'll need to go it alone. Too many women my age were left stranded because they did not align their hobbies or volunteer jobs with employable skills. You might say I was lucky in that regard. Then again, I am a firm believer that, barring a natural catastrophe, you create your own luck.

This is the one time that you really can't rely on the advice of others. You know what situation works best for you. Only you know what working conditions will make you happy. For some, having financial security is the strongest pull. For me, the benefits were extremely important, as I have asthma and need frequent medical care. In addition, I needed to be given a great amount of independence, which is exactly what I got. I am making much less than my young nephew, who is just four years out of college, but I thank my lucky stars that I found the job I did.

1 comment:

hisheulb said...

Vic,

Wow, you've been prolific! Among almost everyone I know, the quest for benefits -- well, medical ins. mostly -- is the new Holy Grail. You don't know how good you've got it until it's gone. Keep up the good work!

H