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The Monster outside my window

When our columnist is asked to give a speech at a workforce center, he realizes that he has much to learn, and ends up listening more than speaking.

About once a year, I sit down in front of a group of 50 or so unemployed IT professionals and their counselors to talk about career development issues. The talk is always at a local workforce center, which is run by our state’s Department of Economic Security. I’m always pretty informal, offering about 10 minutes of insights and allowing for 50 minutes of questions. This year, I probably learned more from my audience than they did from me, because I too am unemployed and searching for answers in a tough labor market.

The talk focused on my insights about how to use–the of job boards. I’ve tried them all, and Monster is the only job board that employers seem to care about anymore. But the volume of job seekers that use it turns the job-search process into a kind of lottery system. Once I figured out how to write a Monster resume–packed with keywords and little else–it became a numbers game. For every 100 applications, I hope to get on the short list at one company. At that point my odds are one in six that I will be hired. Unless I’m extraordinarily fortunate, it will take 600 or so applications to land a job. Considering that I’m qualified (and not overqualified) for about 50 jobs per month (across the United States, in all sectors), it could take me up to a year to get hired again. I could also win the lottery and get hired sooner, but I can’t bank on it.

After delivering that cheery news, audience members didn’t seem to change their generally upbeat attitudes. It turns out they already knew much of this stuff. Most of the IT professionals had been out of work for more than six months and some had been unemployed for more than two years. They were glad to hear from someone other than the Pollyannas from the government about how many jobs they’re creating every month. They were satisfied to just sit and talk with so many others in their position and validate that it’s not about them. It’s about the economy. They all had surrendered to the conditions and were content to keep their heads up and keep trying. The conditions: We’re losing as many jobs overseas as we’re creating at home; and the unemployment rate is dropping mostly because of people dropping out of the job-search lottery and giving up.

Many of them have developed advanced ways of coping with unemployment. Really, they are not unemployed in the traditional sense. Like me, they all do 1099 contract work to make ends meet. Of course, we talked about what we would do differently if we were let go again. But most of their questions related to how to survive as a 1099 contractor. Together, we developed a good set of advice for IT workers between regular gigs.

The first thing is not to wait until you’re unemployed to get a Monster resume up on the site, and to use all the site has to offer while you still have a steady job. This includes developing agents, which search for appropriate jobs for you and send you e-mail notices when they find them. It also includes making your resume searchable to employers and filling out interviews for employers to peruse. While you’re developing a good profile on Monster, keep networking and deepening relationships with contacts. Even if they don’t have work when you’re laid off, chances are they know someone who at least needs some contract work done.

As I indicated above, you will probably need to subsist on unemployment benefits and contract work for some time after you’re laid off. Don’t start your own business-doing so prevents you from getting unemployment assistance no matter how much or how little work your business generates. Just be a 1099 contractor and, when you’re between contract jobs, you can claim unemployment.

The bulk of the questions related to health insurance. I was surprised by this at the time. But after pondering it all for a couple of months, I’m not so surprised now. Why is there so much 1099 work and so little regular employment? Because companies can no longer afford to pay the skyrocketing insurance premiums. Rather than downgrading their plans for current employees, they just hire contractors to get work done. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me that we spent half the time talking about health insurance. The U.S. health system is perhaps the main reason why companies outsource as much as they can and fill in the gaps with contractors. Health-care reform is no longer just an entitlement issue, it’s an economic issue. Without reform, more jobs will be lost and fewer people will have discretionary funds to keep the economy healthy.

What do people do when they can no longer rely on company plans? The most important thing is not to allow more than 63 days between plans. Doing so makes all possible ailments, in the eyes of insurers, into pre-existing conditions. That means you will never have adequate coverage again. There are ways to bridge the gap. Most people have access to COBRA continuation coverage. But when it costs as much as your mortgage to retain the same level of coverage you had while employed, it’s not an option for 1099 contractors. Some companies, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, offer temporary catastrophic coverage for about $100 per month per person. It’s a very limited plan that can only be used for a limited time, but it is affordable. And I’ve mentioned the Techies Career Benefits Network in a previous column. This allows freelancers to use their numbers to gain access to traditional corporate-sponsored benefits–taxes, savings, health, disability, etc.–at affordable prices. This seems to be the best long-term solution.

Last but not least, we talked about training. Some of the folks who had retooled their careers were left with less valuable certificates than they expected when they signed up for training. One gentleman was surprised to hear my anecdotal evidence that Web jobs are on the rise. He had abandoned a webmaster career to become a programmer, and now all the programming jobs are in India. After hearing several similar stories, I reiterated what we have preached in these pages for years: Don’t abandon your career path; augment it. For example, I advised the gentleman to apply for webmaster jobs that entailed some programming. That way, he could use his existing experience to develop programming experience, and he wouldn’t need to move to India to develop a career in his new field. Also, if jobs are down in your field now, train for related skills (for example, webmasters can develop Flash skills) while waiting for the market to improve. Like all things, jobs go in cycles. What’s cooled down now will be hot in a year to 18 months.

I got great feedback from the talk. But I can’t take much credit for it. Most of the insights came from the participants. It was one of those experiences that I will remember for years to come. It may be the pivotal experience that gets me back into regular employment. At the very least, it will help me manage my 1099 work.

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