I Was a Welfare Case(worker)

Here’s an interesting story that I don’t believe I’ve told before. It’s from the days before blogging. At this time twenty years ago, I was collecting welfare.

I’d spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending a teacher training program at Calvin College. I’d applied to all the Ontario teachers’ colleges but hadn’t been accepted, despite strong grades. At the time, teaching was one of the hottest careers going and everything about the profession was very competitive. I enjoyed a very good year in Michigan and learned a lot, personally and professionally, but when I returned to Ontario in the summer of 1993, I had absolutely no contacts here. I was living with my dad, on a bed behind the sofa, and having gone into debt to attend teachers’ college, had no money at all to support myself while searching for a teaching job. My dad had recently exhausted his severance after taking early retirement from IBM at the age of 49, so he was suffering financially as well. Wanting to devote myself fulltime to finding a teaching position, and thinking it would only be for a month or two, I applied for welfare. My monthly cheque was for the princely sum of $663, $400 of which went to my dad for room and board. In those pre-Internet days, I had to send out resumés by mail and search for information at the library. The library was really the only place I could get out of the apartment without spending any money.

Although I had a few interviews, they were only for private school positions or to be added to the public school supply lists. As I mentioned, things were very competitive, and I had no local teaching experience. I taught a day or two as a substitute at a local Christian school, and volunteered at the junior high school next to my dad’s place, but nothing better came along. After spending so much time and money preparing for this career, I didn’t want to give up too easily, but really, $663 a month meant I’d never get out of my dad’s apartment.

In the spring of 1994, during a meeting with my caseworker, she looked at my qualifications and mentioned that the municipality were actually hiring caseworkers and that I should apply. Coincidentally, one of the other Torontonians who I’d met at Calvin had been hired as a caseworker several months before. With her encouragement and guidance, I aced the preliminary exam and in May, 1994, I was hired. I’d gone from one side of the desk to the other.

It was a demanding job, but one which, for a while, made me feel like I was helping people. Then in 1995, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, a Conservative whose “Common Sense Revolution” promised to lower taxes and punish those on social assistance. Welfare rates were slashed (single people saw their assistance cut from $663/month to $520/month, and those rates remained in place for many many years) and “workfare” programs were drawn up. My job became much much harder. For instance, people on social assistance were required to report any and all income they received, and it was to be deducted from their monthly cheques. If you lived in the city of Toronto, $520 wouldn’t even cover rent, never mind food, so unless you were living with family or several roommates, it was very tempting not to report income. And how could I blame my clients?

I saw scores of new Canadians, families who’d immigrated after being promised that their professional qualifications would lead to good jobs in Canada. They were disillusioned and sometimes angry. I had ex-convicts who couldn’t get jobs or who talked about doing odd jobs for cash. My most trying period was when I had a caseload of more than 150 single mothers. Caught between finding child care and pursuing child support, it was difficult for these women to think about finding meaningful work, even if they had enough education to find good jobs. There were also a lot of bad boyfriends whom we often suspected of living with our clients, sometimes contributing financially and sometimes sponging off the already meagre income of the households.

Over time, the work became more and more stressful as I realized that as a front-line employee, I had no power to change the legislation I was enforcing. I grew frustrated not being able to really make much of a difference in the lives of people who wanted help. Even more frustrating was seeing how many people had given up completely, simply content to take whatever small amount they could get. I saw some of my co-workers who’d been there a long time treating people rudely and without compassion. Things must have been bad enough that when an opportunity to sell computers in a retail store came up in 1998, I saw that as my ticket out.

I could have had a long career with the Department of Social Services. The friend who helped me get the job just received her 20 year pin from the City of Toronto. She probably has a very nice pension plan by now. I’ve thought about re-applying for my old job. That would certainly be interesting. And should I find myself back on the other side of the desk, well the rates have gone up in the past 15 years. A single person can now collect up to $626/month. Yes, that’s right. It’s less than you’d have received 20 years ago. Good thing rents in Toronto haven’t increased, right?

Amen from this Gen X Lad

Business Week: Ten Reasons Gen Xers are Unhappy at Work

Thanks to David Crow for linking to this thought-provoking article. I can identify deeply with the first three reasons, especially the feeling that I got a “late start” to my career. In fact, sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve started at all. My father, a Boomer, was laid off from a comfortable corporate job at the age of 49, which is just six years away for me. Also very true that I fear the “narrowing” of options that many career paths dictate. I prefer to be a creative generalist, though that can make the search for meaningful work (not to mention job interviews) pretty difficult.

Things I Wish I Could Say in a Job Interview

Continuing with the theme of work and how we get it, here are some things that have certainly popped into my head before, during and after job interviews in the past. I wish I could verbalize some of these things with the people I’m considering working with:

  • I think I’m smarter than 90% of the people you have working here. I may not be as focused or even as motivated, but I’m capable of being focused and motivated.
  • I’m a little scared that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
  • Whatever you think I haven’t done enough of, I can easily learn.
  • But what if I can’t? And even if I can, what if I hate it?
  • I don’t think that you’re telling me the truth about what it’s really like to work here.
  • I’m not sure yet if want this job, but you’re not going to give me enough time or information to make a good decision.
  • I’m a little scared that I really want this job, and that I’ll come across as too eager.
  • I’m worried that I’ll become restless in six months and want a different job.
  • I really have no idea what I want to “do” with my life.

What are some things you’d like to say in a job interview?

Why Can’t Working Be More Like Dating?

I’ve been thinking about the wonderful world of work again, and the more I think about the way we “get” our jobs, the more bizarre it seems. We go to a meeting where someone asks us about our skills and about what other jobs we’ve had, and then, based on that, and more than likely also on how we look, dress, smell and shake hands, they hire us. Or they don’t. It’s akin to getting married after the first date.

I’m worried that making that sort of commitment after such a one-sided and inadequate evaluation is hurting both parties. Although the good interviewers encourage you to ask questions about the company during your interview, most of us aren’t as well-prepared as we might be. How do you ask questions about a place you’ve just seen for the first time? Also, most people aren’t that comfortable asking about things like what operating system do they have to use, or whether they can ever work from home, or take a “sick” day when they’re not sick. Many people are even too afraid to ask about salary and benefits, desperately hoping that the interviewer will volunteer that information. The good ones do, but that doesn’t mean they can anticipate the other questions you might have. Like the ones that won’t pop into your head until you’ve been working there for six months.

Why can’t working be more like dating? Why can’t there be a process of gradually getting to know each other to decide whether you like each other, and only then to commit?

I’ve been a big fan of something called “informational interviewing” for many years now. Basically, it’s just a fancy name for contacting someone at a company you’re interested in and taking them out for lunch, coffee or a beer. One of my big discoveries is that there are all kinds of jobs in all kinds of interesting companies out there, but you’d never read about them in the want ads. Some of these jobs have strange titles, or none at all. Some of the jobs don’t even exist yet.

Something great happens when two people meet on an equal footing in a non-threatening space. Even better if some intoxicants are involved (but not too many!). These are NOT job interviews; they’re more like job dates. You’re not even required to meet with the person actually capable of hiring. Just someone who can be honest about where they work, about what they and their company do, and about what it feels like to be there for eight (or more) hours a day.

Transparency, Not Spin

I’ve been doing some career soul-searching again lately. Even though I’ve been at my current job less than six months, I’m becoming restless and bored. It was definitely time for a change when I decided to take this position, and I’m certainly not complaining about the compensation or benefits. It’s just that I’m not sure I feel right for the job. Strangely, I feel both too stupid and too smart for what I’m doing. Too stupid because I know little about the world of accounting and “professional services,” and too smart because I feel my job function is too narrow and leaves me waiting for other people’s input far too much of the time.

As I look back over my resume’s alarming zigs and zags, I have to ask myself why I’ve kept moving around. It’s not like I’ve been on any kind of direct career “path,” with each move taking me closer to some working nirvana. Some jobs I took for money, some for love, but all felt constricting sooner or later. I often joke (half-seriously) that I’m a profoundly lazy man. But I think I’m just bored by my opportunities. Pardon the boasting, but I was once considered a “gifted” student. I skipped a grade and would have skipped another had my parents allowed it. I was a good student in university who gave up the idea of grad school for teachers’ college. When no job opportunities came my way there, I took the first well-paying job that came my way, in social work. But I panicked about being on a very limiting career path and jumped ship to work in, gasp, retail sales. The money was great, the prospects dismal. Then a brief sojourn as a web designer, until the first dot.com bubble burst. Back to sales. Then back to web design for a wine importing firm. Lots of freedom there, and I learned a lot about marketing. But again, a very limited career path. And working in a highly regulated market was tough, as was working for a small business. So now, a jump to a huge corporate firm, to be a “writer” and a “web producer.”

It sounded very promising six months ago. A great opportunity with a large company. Great salary and benefits. But I feel lost most days. My workmates are nice but almost pathologically unsocial. My work function is very constrained, and there’s very little of the web involved in it. The corporate culture is extremely risk-averse, and though I was ostensibly hired for my crackerjack writing skills, most of my personality has to be ironed out of my writing so that it will match the corporate (non) style and avoid lawsuits.

I read about some of the people I know from South by Southwest starting up companies and I’m jealous. I try to convince myself I’m not really lazy, just unchallenged. But my “gifted” past seems so long ago now, and I worry that I can’t learn any new tricks. I’m a collaborator and a strategic thinker, and I’m trapped in a cubicle by myself working on details.

Lately, I’ve been a bit of a voyeur among the public relations (PR) blog crowd. A few months ago, I attended the Talk is Cheap unconference, where I learned how PR firms are embracing the web and doing some truly innovative things. I think I’ve become infatuated. I’m somewhat encouraged when I read that people come to the field of public relations from all kinds of places, including some of the places I’ve been. I think what I truly want is to work for a nimble company, one that can react quickly and intelligently to what’s happening in the world. I realize that I’ve never really worked for a place that could be described that way. I also realize that I need to work somewhere where I can speak my mind, and where I don’t have to learn the org chart to get my job done.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing so openly on my blog about this, but only the people that really matter to me will read this anyway. I’ve learned a lot about myself and about what I’m good at over the course of my admittedly scattered work life. And I’ve learned from a lot of people, some of whom I’ve never met, about what work can be and how to get the best out of myself. I’m sorry that this entry seems a bit self-pitying. But I encourage you, if you’ve read this far, to engage with me on some of this stuff. What makes your job great, or rotten? Do we expect too much of our careers, in terms of fulfillment, or opportunity?

On Wednesday night this week, I’ll be attending an offline gathering for PR folks interested in social media. I hope to find out more about the field and see if I might not be able to find a place within it. One thing that blogging has taught me, and that the social media PR people are saying is that honesty and transparency are more valuable than spin. So if I get into any conversations, whether after one beer or three, it’s going to be all about the authenticity. It’s the one constant that my resume has no room to include.