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Dealing with being laid off

Well, it’s been just over a year since I was laid off from the only job I was ever willing to relocate for. Layoffs are never fun. Dealing with being laid off is hard. Looking back, with the perspective of a year and two days now, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

But I’ll be honest: That doesn’t make it hurt much less. But I know the shoes I was in a year ago try on someone new every day, and every year around this time, one or more of my former coworkers finds themselves in those shoes. I don’t know if I can help, but I’m going to try.

It’s harder for guys. For men, work is a big part of their identity. In most parts of the world, when you’re introduced, the second question people ask after your name is what you do for a living. (In St. Louis, that’s the question they ask after where you went to high school). But seriously, losing your job involuntarily is a really big deal, so feeling bad about feeling bad about it is counterproductive. Of course you feel bad about it. Grieve. Don’t hold it in–you’ll just get depressed, and everyone around you will sense you’re depressed, and it’ll make it that much harder to get another job.

Be a miser. You just lost your job. You don’t need it to cause you to lose everything else. I haven’t talked to a lot of homeless people, but more than one of them was once a highly skilled, productive worker with a lot of education. Homelessness is a complex thing, but loss of job plus depression plus running out of money can equal that.

You can’t know when you’ll have another paycheck, but you can figure out how long the money you have will last. You have a pretty good idea what your mortgage or rent and utilities cost. Throw in a couple hundred for expenses like groceries and gasoline, then divide that total by what you have left, and you have a pretty good idea how quickly you need to find a job.

Cut all the non-essentials. Quit eating out, buy generic products instead of name-brand, and do what you have to do to stretch what you have left.

Occasionally, my lunch was a package of Ramen noodles, half a can of fruit and half a can of mixed vegetables. Extreme? You bet. Fun? No way. But it helped keep me out of debt while I looked for work.

Search. Go to the library and get your hands on a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? The current year’s edition is always checked out. Don’t worry about it. Things change year to year, but that doesn’t mean the 2003 edition is worthless. The world doesn’t change that quickly. This book helps you find a job, but the more important thing it does is help you figure out what you should be doing. If your job isn’t worth having, trust me, Bill Lumbergh will notice it, and you’ll be on his list of jobs to cut. Lumbergh may not know anything about running a business, but he knows enough to keep the people who are happy to be there.

Interview. I called up everyone I knew who might know about a job opening somewhere that I would be qualified to do. I got my first job interview less than a week after I lost my old job. I lost the job on a Thursday, and I think I had an interview on Tuesday. I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t get one from the second place I interviewed with either, but they got me in the mode.

I will say one thing: If you get a second interview somewhere, don’t turn down an interview somewhere else. I quit looking for a couple of days because I thought I had a job in the bag. That didn’t pan out, and I lost valuable time and momentum. Interview at multiple jobs–you know they’re all interviewing multiple candidates, after all.

There are books that coach you on interviewing. Reading about interviewing is helpful, but frankly, a magazine article’s worth of advice on interviewing is all you need. Dress like you’re interviewing for the position of CEO, make sure you give a firm, warm handshake (visit the bathroom and wash your hands with hot water and dry vigorously just before the interview if you’re like me and you’re known for having cold hands), and be confident and personable. You don’t really need a 200-page book to tell you how to do that. Practice is what you need the most.

Trust me. From ages 16 to 25, I interviewed for exactly five jobs, and I got all five of them. At 25, I interviewed for another one and didn’t get it, but the guy interviewing me had his mind made up that he wanted a C++ programmer, something I’ve never pretended to be, so I didn’t get that. I’m 2 for 6 since age 30–but given what was going on at those four companies that didn’t hire me, nobody would feel bad about being turned down by them.

Think twice about taking the first offer. I got my first job offer about five weeks after my layoff. The main interviewer told me during the interview that the company was in trouble. One of the guys with him didn’t like me from the start and I could tell. They offered me the job. I took it, for a variety of reasons. I was going stir crazy. I’d just gotten married and my wife wasn’t working either. It paid $6,000 a year more than I had been making, with less responsibility.

I had a bad feeling about it, but I was desperate. I took it. It might or might not have been the best decision. Five months later I was looking for a job again. It wasn’t anything personal, they were just out of work for me to do. Had I clicked better, they may or may not have tried harder to find work for me to do. I’ll never know.

My point is, if you have a bad feeling about it, talk it over before you say yes.

Find someone to talk to. When it’s been a couple of days since the phone last rang and you’re feeling down about the situation, find someone to talk to. Talk to a trusted friend in the same job field. Talk it over with your SO. Talk it over with family members.

If you can’t do that, or you need more, there are other places to turn. The State of Missouri happens to have a career center within walking distance of my house. Had I not gotten my current job when I did, I probably would have gone there the next week. I would imagine every state has that type of resource–employed workers are good for the state, and unemployed workers are bad for it, after all.

Barring that, find a church. Seriously–even if that’s the last place you’d ever go for any reason. Walk in and tell whoever’s there that you just lost your job and you don’t know what to do next. Tell ’em you’re not asking for money, you just need some idea what to do next. A large percentage of pastors today weren’t always pastors, so they’ve dealt with being in the workforce and the issues that go along with it. And pastors in some denominations can be dismissed from their church with little or no notice, so some pastors live with less job security than everyone else is used to having.

Take a chance. While I was trying to find work, I also prowled the library, looking for books about business, trying to come up with a business to start.

I didn’t find a lot of viable ideas. There are better books out today than there were a year ago, but even those aren’t perfect. I probably had a dozen ideas. I actually tried three. The third one–the one that seemed like the longest shot–was the one that worked.

What that business was doesn’t matter. What matters is finding something with low overhead that you can do better than anyone else–something that matches your skills and interests.

My wife was the key on this. For the most part her strengths are where I’m weak, and vice-versa, so we cover each other’s weaknesses. I’ve always suspected I’d be good at selling a product I believed in, and it seems I was right. And as it turns out, my wife is good at it too.

She kept the business going after I went back to work. I help out on Saturdays and on the occasional evening. Some months she makes more money doing this than I made at the job I lost in the first place.

Stay away from “network marketing” (a fancy word for pyramid schemes). You want to actually be in business for yourself. Look for some business books, and if you find places where the author is wrong, you’re on the right track. Think about things you like. If you like music, think about reselling vinyl records. If you like sports, think about reselling baseball cards. If you’re really good with computers and not an extreme introvert like me, go into business doing computer service.

If you happen to be outgoing, you really have it made. The secret of the most successful sellers of vintage Lionel and similar trains is that they talk to everyone about it–they literally hand out their business card to the other people standing in line at the grocery store and say, “If you’ve got old trains or if any of your neighbors do, I’ll buy them. If you refer anyone to me, I’ll give you a commission.” I would imagine the same trick would work a whole lot better for computer service. These days, everyone has a computer, and nobody’s happy with how well it works. And people don’t look at you funny if you talk to them out of the blue about computers.

If I had enough nerve to talk to five strangers a day, I’d probably be a millionaire.

So starting a business might be a good way to go. You’ll probably need to find a regular job for a while, since many businesses are actually a drain on your resources for the first 18 months or so, but if you can find a job to keep you on your feet in the meantime, being in business for yourself could be the ultimate solution to dealing with a layoff.

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