Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

I lost my full time job a couple months ago.  It's a long story, but the nutshell version is that they closed my office, I didn't want to drive 40 miles round trip to the other office for what they were paying me, and they wouldn't entertain the notion of giving me even a small raise to offset the cost of the commute.  And in fact they'd never at any point entertained the idea of giving me a raise in all the three years I worked for them.  Even if I'd wanted to drive out to the other office, they couldn't guarantee there'd be work for me there and might have only been a part-time thing anyway.  So we discussed the option of keeping me on as an independent contractor, but of course it came as no surprise when they gave me the runaround on that. I'm quite happy to be rid of the whole nasty mess, to be honest.

The biggest, most major problem with all of this, however, is that my income has been DRASTICALLY reduced.  Like, to the tune of creating a large deficit every month between what I bring home from my part-time job at Starbucks and what goes out in expenses every month.  And let's not forget that I'm, you know, getting married in November.  Thus my full-time job as of now has become looking for a full-time job and freelancing where I can in between shifts at the coffee shop.  I've been there for 13 years and get my health insurance and other benefits through them, so I'm not giving that up.  Or at least for another 9-ish years until I retire (another nice benny of working there).

I'm trying not to panic.  The novelty of the initial relief that accompanied being rid of a job that was bringing me down and causing much stress has worn off, and now I'm heading into the stress of being underemployed, particularly now that I've begun dipping into the savings that I had earmarked for other stuff. And yes, I applied for Unemployment, but my part-time job complicated things, and then my former employer actually contested, saying I quit my job (despite the very traceable evidence that I didn't; i.e. the gaping hole of an empty storefront that used to be my workplace).  Then they caught wind of my four-day trip to the Dominican Republic (a gift from my sister that had been planned and booked months ago) and put me through seven layers of hell proving that I hadn't fled the country...and after eight weeks of utter bullshit dealing with the department, I gave up - and in the process have gained a newfound understanding of why people just say "fuck it" and live off the system.  Truly hellacious. 

Now, speaking of hellacious, if you've never looked for a full time job, particularly one in the design field, let me enlighten you.  It's about as easy, fun, rewarding, and fruitful as online dating, if you've ever had the misfortune to try your hand at that.  In other words, it's soul-crushing to the highest possible degree.  And in fact it's only one step above the New York State Department of Labor's application for Unemployment Benefits in its ability to make you feel like you have completely lost. your. fucking. mind.

First, you sign up for job alerts.  You get job opening notifications based on your preferences, your experience, your education, and a number of other parameters you've set in the job search application process, which takes, like, forever.  But you do this and then you sit back and wait for the notices to pop up.  Pretty soon they start trickling in and few look okay but then you get a notice for a job that looks PERFECT for you.  In fact it's SO perfect, you're convinced that they looked at your resume and wrote the job description based on that.  So you apply.  You upload your resume, your cover letter, and your portfolio.  You answer their questions.  You sign off on the self-identification questionnaire.  You electronically sign your application.  And wait.  And then you wait some more.  And most of the time you never hear anything back.   You check back and see that you were one of 283 applicants.  And while I know I have a tendency to hyberbolize pretty much everything that happens to me (see what I did there?) this is not an exaggeration.  There are literally HUNDREDS of graphic designers looking for jobs right now.  The field of graphic design is saturated with job-seekers, and in another two months when the dozen or so institutions of higher learning in this area unleash yet another couple hundred fresh, eager, and young faces into the wild design yonder, the chances of a grizzled old print designer finding a decent job diminish even more.  And now that people have recognized that Buffalo is actually a pretty decent place to live, we're seeing the "brain drain" of past graduating classes slowing its roll.  No longer are graduates so hot to get the heck out of Dodge; they're sticking around and contributing to the upswing of Buffalo's urban appeal.  This is a wonderful thing, but not without its drawbacks, as I've explained.  So I'm competing for a handful of jobs with an applicant pool that is hundreds strong and mostly half my age.  I may have more hands-on experience, but they have the youth.  Don't think it doesn't come into play - legal or not, few firms are keen on bringing in a middle-aged woman who isn't completely up to snuff on the digital stuff like web design and app coding.  Companies used to be willing to hire a print designer for their print collateral and a web designer for their interactive stuff, but they've figured out that they can pay one person half as much to do twice the work.  And have NO problem finding one, because EVERYONE wants to work.  But occasionally you do hear back from the places you've applied and it is always some variation on this: "We have reviewed your application and considered your qualifications. As you can imagine, we received a large number of applications. I am sorry to inform you that you have not been selected for an interview for this position."  It's the equivalent of finding that 100% match on OKCupid and having them email you back with, "Sorry, I think you're ugly, we have nothing in common, and I don't even find you worthy of a date."  It's quite a blow.

So I'm frequently asked, "why not just be your own boss and start your own business?"  Okay, that's a great idea.  But I'll tell you why not.  As I said earlier, I do freelance work.  As much as I can, in fact.  I am always looking for work.  On occasion I find it. Sometimes I get paid properly to do it, but often I don't.  If everyone who said they wanted me to design something for them actually stuck around once I quoted them what it would cost, then maybe I could make a decent living.  I'm not complaining, necessarily - I know all too well that budgets are budgets and you have to stay within them.  So I can't completely blame someone for thinking, "why should I pay this girl $100 to design my business cards/flyers/invitations/direct mailpiece when I can just go to [insert favorite online print place here] and have them design and print for $50? Or save even more and have my nephew who knows Photoshop do it?"  I'm not saying I *like* the idea, but I understand it.  

Running one's own freelance outfit involves a lot of administrative hassles.  You look for work.  You bid on work.  Once you're awarded the work, you do the work.  You bill for the work.  You spend a lot of time chasing people down for money.  Sometimes you never see it.  So you change your policy: all jobs must be paid upfront.  Suddenly people aren't interested.  But what of the time you've spent corresponding and quoting and whatnot?  Sunk.  Gone.  Eaten.  Wasted.  

And then there is the whole "working from home" thing.  It's not all it's cracked up to be.  And in the interest of full disclosure, as I have mentioned in the past, I have ADD which can make being self-employed a bit of a challenge if I don't lay down some serious structure for myself. I mean, I've had this for most of my life and it's managed pretty well most of the time, but I spend a lot of time fighting disruptions nevertheless, like a couple of cats who think my desk is a playground and that the scanner is a great place to nap when they're tuckered out.  The kitchen full of yummy snacks is just a few doors down.  The backyard and all the fun critters who inhabit it are just outside my window, which is one of two reminding me that there is a warm, delicious season springing up on the other side of the walls, not to mention that I really ought to get out and whack that overgrowth down before it sprouts leaves.  The distractions are high, the discipline low.   I have a couple days a week designated as "office days."  On those days I do not work at Starbucks and try not to set any other appointments or obligations, though I might take off for a lunchtime yoga class to break up the day.  Regardless, I set an alarm and am up by 7:30 am.  I make myself a cup of coffee and a light breakfast, and I sit at my dining room table and enjoy it in the quiet solitude - unless HTG (my fiance) is there, in which case he joins me and we chat.  After that, I get dressed - to the shoes - and move into my office.  I make a list of all the stuff I need to do.

Let's see... I need to resize a couple ads for this magazine I've been doing work for... I need to pick up where I left off on that blogger's logo illustration... I have to apply for that job at Big Company ABC... I need to call Client Whatshisname about arranging payment for his cards... I have to update my portfolio... but wait!  I should clean the bathroom!  But no!  It's not a Bathroom Cleaning Day, it's Office Day!  Okay, so what else...oh, yeah, I need to squeeze a Lynda class in there so I feel more honest when I say I'm learning HTML and stuff. Now I'm hungry.  My coffee cup is empty.  I need to go make another cup.  I should buy an insulated carafe so I can make bigger batches to stay warm longer.  Did I remember to buy bacon?  Shit, I need to go grocery shopping.  I should make a list.  What should I make for dinner tonight?  I need to text HTG and find out if he wants me to cook tonight or if we're going out. I should create some kind of meal schedule so I know what to buy.  I waste too much food.  God, the kitchen is a mess.  I need to unload the dishwasher.  Shit, I have a gig this week and REALLY need to practice those trouble spots. Dry cleaning needs to be dropped off. Oh, wait, I did that already. Hey, sister, you forgot to take your meds this morning, didn't you?  Ugh.  I *knew* I was forgetting something!  

The problem is not that I don't love what I do.  I ADORE what I do.  I uprooted my whole life to go back to school and earn two degrees in pursuit of a career doing it. But there isn't ENOUGH of it to do as a freelancer to keep me fully engaged.  My most productive days are the ones when I have a big stack of stuff in my inbox and I can sit here and churn out logo after ad after business card after flyer after poster and feel motion and measure progress.  If I'm not actively working on something, I'm easily distracted by the dirty dishes, the piles of laundry, the cats, and my overgrown trumpet vines in the backyard.  As much as I attempt to detach it, my home office is still located in my home.  And while the commute is fantastic, the location has its drawbacks.  Being able to set my own schedule *seems* like a cool idea, especially when I find myself with inspiration and "a-ha" moments at odd hours, but it also lends itself to procrastination and wasting time.

When I have a job working for someone else, there is structure.  There is discipline.  There is the drive to perform.  There is accountability to someone other than myself.  Excuses don't fly. There are people to interact with. There is a separation of office and home.  There are no cats.  The landscaping is someone else's issue.  This is not to say I desire to be micro-managed or monitored and I'm not itching to punch a clock.  I do fine if I have to be accountable to someone other than myself, whether it's in a team setting or working independently and reporting to a colleague, but when it's just me, myself, and I and I'm not only in charge of doing the work but actually finding it in the first place, well...that's part of the problem.
 I just want to throw myself headlong into a project, bandy about my ideas, interact with other creative people, and make stuff.  The administrative headaches are someone else's responsibility.  The searching and bidding and pricing and the contracts and the accounting and all that stuff... I don't want to have to worry about it.  But that's not going to happen soon, it would seem.

So here I sit, another rejection letter in hand, trying to figure out my next move.  I spent most of the day applying for three new jobs that came over the wire, drawing a family caricature, and writing this.  It's 6:00.  HTG's on his way over with dinner and I haven't practiced music yet.  I think maybe I'll call it a day, time clock or not.

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