Climbing Up And Moving Out or Climbing Out And Moving On: Life As A Professional Casual

I read an article last month about a fancy label for people who work more than one job to make up forty hours a week or to cover their rent and bills, whichever comes first. It’s called a ‘portfolio career,’ and despite the fact that it’s not an ideal model for me at the moment, it’s what’s for dinner. I currently fill three relief positions working with three different client populations for one agency and I am waiting to train for at least one more of their locations, with a completely different client population. Add this to my four years as a relief youth counsellor during university, plus my college and university education, one might think I’m qualified for the responsibilities that come along with regularly scheduled hours. My job search and interview experiences, however, say something else.

In the two months since completing my final student paper I have written and submitted twenty nine individually tailored cover letters and resumes, the majority of which have gone directly to waste baskets positions in my field. Apart from one celebratory cottage week away, it has been forty four business days of almost totally fruitless effort (and by almost totally fruitless I mean I’ve gotten some consolation relief work out of one interview instead of the part time position I applied for, and by effort I mean rewriting documents to suit the specifications of each agency and each job description so that the employer can see that I’ve taken the time to not just submit an application, but to create one just for them).

I knew that finding steady work in the social service field would be difficult upon graduation (which is why I’ve also applied to jobs like pet sitter, barista, office clerk and tea guide), but what I didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t actually have the leg up that I thought I would after working relief shifts as a youth counsellor during my university years. I was confident that after finishing my field-related B.A. at the age of thirty, with a college diploma in social service work and four years of front line experience, I would be rewarded with at least part time work in my chosen field (or some other field, for that matter). After all, I’ve spent six years learning and preparing, gaining experiential knowledge, $62,000 in OSAP loans formal post-secondary education and collecting quality references. This isn’t to say I haven’t received some call-backs from prospective employers—I had interviews for two positions last week, after which both employers called me back to tell me how impressed they were with my talking points, questions and responses; both employers told me I’m in the “right business;” and both employers informed me that they selected someone for the job with just a little bit more experience than me. I had another interview set up a few days from now for a job outside of my field—a professional pet sitting and dog walking gig—but I received this very professional phone call text message this morning instead: “Hi i am sorry but i hired a girl yesterday but i will keep your name and number and if anything comes up i will let you know.” Let me just say, after spending time and effort creating a resume and cover letter for this employer and having two phone interviews, to be followed up by an in-person interview arranged at her convenience (otherwise known as putting in the work on my end), receiving this message was…annoying, to say the least. Granted, I could sense that she wasn’t thrilled with my commitment to my current relief work and the fact that I wouldn’t be available seven days a week, every week, but she could have afforded me the respect of at least a phone call (otherwise known as putting in the work on her end), because this is some discouraging shit. My beef with this employer, however, goes deeper than her crappy text message; my beef is with the entire operation. During my phone interviews this employer made it clear to me that, as the owner and operator of a small business, she works seven days a week and she expects the same from her employees. She also doesn’t work any kind of structured/time limited shifts, but does whatever her clients need her to do, whenever they need her to do it. This translates into her needing employees who are willing and able to commit to working seven days a week, without the option of booking days off, at all hours of the day, and receiving their daily schedule every evening at 7pm for the following day. On top of this, she requires candidates to engage in two phone interviews, an in-person interview and a field interview to last no more than four hours. Employees are compensated at $12 per hour, off the books (which, of course, means no EI should things go south). On top of this, employees have to put the wear and kilometers on their own vehicle, stopping and going all over the city, without any compensation for fuel. (As an added bonus, she took the opportunity to complain about her current employee’s behaviours that are unacceptable.) In my opinion, these are unrealistic, ridiculous expectations. It’s one thing to dedicate yourself to your small business fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s another to expect your hired help to have the same dedication—this isn’t an employee’s small business, this is an employees job. In short, this is what I consider to be a poorly organized, poorly thought out business model and, even though the job would have meant the ability to make some finance-dependent life changes, I am relieved to not have to go through the decision of turning it down because it’s completely bogus or taking it because I don’t have any other offers on the table.

The text message reminded me of a program on CBC radio last week dedicated to talking to employers and job seekers about job market struggles in Ontario. Listeners called in to share their experience on either side of the fence in an effort to contribute to a big-picture understanding of why job vacancies and unemployment rates are currently rising together in Canada. The program, however, for my purposes, was a total bust. There were four or five callers—two employers and three students seeking summer employment. The two employers that called in—the owner of a restaurant and the owner of a moving company—had obviously deep-seated and well cultivated negative opinions about students in general, claiming that they either have too many pictures of themselves smoking joints on their social media profiles (which clearly indicates poor work ethic?) or they simply don’t show up for interviews. Most of all, students, according to these employers, just don’t want to work. The job seekers that called in didn’t have many negative things to say about employers (except one who claimed that people his age are *useless) and didn’t really seem to know where to place blame for their lack of summer employment, but expressed frustration with their perceived inability to compete with bigger, better resumes in the summer job market. This program wasn’t directed at graduates and other adults seeking full time, permanent employment, however, since I am applying to all kinds of jobs, I am surely applying to some employers just like the ones who called in, and the text message woman may well have been one of them.

The point is, it is a really difficult time for finding long term, stable, permanent work, and my more-then-decent resume doesn’t seem to be helping. And for the record, I want to work. But here I stand, in my role as a professional casual, providing coverage on an as-needed basis for my fantastic coworkers and teammates when they are out sick, taking off for some much needed paid vacay, or taking off early to drink fishbowls at Boston Pizza (thank you darlings for loving fishbowls!). I take the shifts as they come, with no amount of guaranteed hours, I budget my ass off to make rent and keep eating three meals a day, I do my best on shift in hopes of standing out in a sea of casuals, comparably qualified and seeking the same goal of regularly scheduled shifts, and I apply to every job that I can conceivably twist and shape my resume to suit. In the past forty four days, however, my pessimistic side (which I argue is realistic, but I’m told that’s because I’m pessimistic) has already begun to get the better of me, leading me to wonder whether I should give up on finding work and return to school for something else that I love…maybe an MFA in Creative Writing, or return to school for something I don’t love but that could lead to steady work in another field, like business admin, for example. In forty four days I’ve already reached the starting edge of giving up, accepting that I need to either climb up the professional ladder and start making new life choices (like maybe moving to a place where it’s just me and Mr. Wonderful, sans roommates), or climb out of the social service field and move on to something with more opportunities.

Thankfully, the people who love me tell me that it’s too soon for these thoughts, that it’s only been two months, and that something permanent is just around the corner. But in all seriousness, how long do you wait? How long do you make your pursuit of the thing that you want in a society that merely pays lip service to following your dreams and promotes a reality of choosing a lifestyle of necessity? How long do you live shift to shift, counting dollars until rent is made and the bills are covered, without making money that allows for trips and savings? How long will Mr. Wonderful feel like my lack of income due to working for a non-profit creates balance for us, as he earns a steady income from a rich, heartless corporation?

I will let you know…

*euphemism 

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