In 2002, I (David) graduated with my Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA). I had already worked in government, nonprofit, and corporate America for 10 years and now, armed with an MBA, I was ready to conquer the world, climb the corporate ladder, and make a difference.
Only problem was, in the fall of 2001, with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, I had been laid off. And with us expecting our first child, and Rose finishing up her Master’s of Divinity, and the economy in the tank post-9/11, finding a job was almost impossible. At least, finding a job I wanted to work. We also knew that, once we graduated from our schools in Philadelphia, we would be moving to Portland, Oregon. And no one wanted to hire someone for 9 months.
So I collected unemployment, took care of everything around the house, did some childcare provision for friends, and prepared for a baby and a cross-country move. Surely once we arrived in Portland, my MBA would unlock all those corporate doors.
Only problem was, in 2002 Portland had the highest unemployment rate of any major city in the country. Very few jobs available, and lots of applicants. (Whoa, it’s like déja vú.) So, since we live in a country that provides safety nets, Rose and I applied for state assistance. Until we found jobs a few months later, we lived on welfare, food stamps, WIC, and other government programs.
I paint that picture to let you see the backdrop of the focus of this blog. By the time I was hired, I had been out of work 13 months. I had applied for dozens of jobs, had very few interviews, and come in second no less than three times. As anyone who has looked for work for a prolonged period will tell you, that wears on your psyche.
It didn’t help that my last job in Philadelphia was a very poor fit for my job skills. Or that my highest value at work is autonomy and my boss was a micro-manager. By the time I hit Portland, I felt very beat up and shaken, as though I weren’t worthy of getting a job.
The motto of the welfare-to-work program I was required to be in to qualify was “Get a job. Get a better job. Get a career.” The requirement was to take the first job offered you, regardless of your skill set, your dreams, or the job fit. It’s a recipe for getting people off welfare even if it means they’ll be in a job they don’t want and that doesn’t make use of their skills and talents and experiences. And even if it means they are much more likely to quit or be fired and land right back in the same situation.
Except … there were two women working in that office who read my initial attempt at a résumé and saw something more in me. They worked intensively with me for over a week to make me look as good on paper as I’d been at my best jobs and kept affirming who I was and the skill set I could bring to any employer. And they combed through jobs that came past their desks and pulled ones that they knew I was qualified for — even if I didn’t have the confidence to think so.
So it was that they found a job I could apply for, where I ended up being hired as an assistant by a manager who knew that getting 1-2 years of a very good employee was better than hiring someone for 10 years who was not as good. These three women deeply impacted me not by giving me a job but by affirming and empowering me, by rebuilding my self-confidence.
My story may resonate with you; if so, let me know. I can state with confidence that this story resonates with many of the people we work with in livelihood groups around the world. So many people just want to do something, anything, to make a living, to provide for their families. We understand that urgency. But we also understand that we have not been made simply to “get a job.” We work with groups because we believe a local group can help affirm and empower and, yes, rebuild self-confidence, of people that they know well. So not only are we about the economic development, we’re also about empowerment. Because we know that only when someone is empowered will their work be sustainable.