Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Professional Stability, and other White Whales

Let me tell you how I came to be writing this blog. I grew up in a small Michigan town, not far outside Detroit. I went to college, received my degree, and started looking for work even before I’d been handed my diploma. Every day I would wake up and scour websites that listed job postings in museums, colleges, preservation firms, etc. This information was then compiled into an intimidating list that detailed the job title, hiring institution, location, and documents to be attached to the application. And then I would go through, write the cover letters and resumes for whatever job I had chosen that day, and work my way down the list, one by one.

One day, two job postings caught my eye. One was for a historic plantation down in South Carolina, not far outside of Charleston. It was part-time work, in a strange city, but it was work. The second was for a historic interpreter in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This job was technically permanent, and offered basic health insurance, but wages were disconcertingly low for the nine months of employment and non-existent for the three months of the year that staff was laid off. No matter. It was work. And it was work in my field. I applied for both positions.

A week later, I was driving down to South Carolina, a neatly ironed suit and a weekend bag in the backseat of my car. On my second day in Charleston, I interviewed with some staff from the historic plantation (part-time work, strange city), and played tourist for a few hours. My third day, I started driving back to Michigan.

On the road, I received a call from a strange number with a 617 area code. It was a manager from the museum in Plymouth, asking if I could be in Massachusetts the next day for an interview. As I had not yet reached the North Carolina border, I started calculating my options. I could drive almost 1,000 miles to Plymouth and use my rapidly dwindling funds to find a hotel and meals for the two days that it would take to interview, after which I would complete the trip by driving another 800 miles back to Michigan. Alternatively, I could save time and (a bit of) money by first driving home and then taking a plane to Massachusetts.

Over the phone, I arranged the interview, hung up, and then raced back home. That night, I used the last of my savings to book a flight out of Detroit, for six o’ clock the next morning. I awoke very early the next day, shaved and showered, donned my suit once more, and by mid-morning was renting a car in Boston’s Logan Airport, ready to drive south towards Plymouth.

The museum campus was beautiful, and the interview went well. Four days later, I had the job. It wasn’t until I had already been working there for a year that my boss told me that the reason they hired me wasn’t because I had a degree, or because I had experience as a National Park Ranger. It was because I flew into New England just for the day, and just for the prospect of work in the field, despite the low wages and the seasonal layoffs.

That was back in the summer of 2010. I continued at that institution for two more seasons, each year striving to make myself a better candidate for a permanent position, the next rung up on the career ladder.  Or at least winter work. Each winter, discouraged, I found myself collecting unemployment. It wasn’t until early 2012 that I began to realize that I was no closer to achieving year-round stability than I was when I started. The museum lacked funding, as well as the internal machinery necessary to promote the majority of their front-line staff and increase employee retention. In the weeks leading up to the yearly training sessions in March, I once again began to set up internet searches for jobs, and to polish up my rusty networking skills. I filled out my lists, and I updated my resume.

This process began in January, and it hasn’t yet stopped, even though I’m now at a different museum which pays better. My position is still dictated by the tourist season, and I still have to face the prospect of a long winter where I cut costs and tighten my belt. If you were to ask me face to face, I would tell you that I’m better off now than I was last year. And it would be true. But I’m still looking for an opportunity that will allow me to pull myself up to the next rung on the ladder. And while right now I have a reprieve, it’s more like a half-rung.

But it’s work. And it’s in my field.

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