Three Years

The end of June 2019 marked three years since I was let go from Voce Communications and embarked on a path with no clear direction other than to make it all somehow work.

That anniversary was one I intended to let pass without mention until I read this post, most of which I could have written myself. In it the author shares the journey she’s been on since her own period of unemployment began, including applying to over 200 jobs without success.

Her experience is familiar to me since between June 2016 and August 2017 I maintained a spreadsheet of all the jobs I applied for. That number topped 300 before I stopped keeping track.

There’s been lots of talk about how applicants need to behave when it comes to the applications and interviews they send and receive. They’re told to follow up, send thank you notes etc as if their actions have a significant impact on their chances of landing a job.

In some cases that’s all a good idea. In my application-tracking spreadsheet, though, I also kept tabs on what, if any, response came from my outreach. Here’s what that shows:

  • <1 percent landed me a job: 2 contract gigs and my ongoing position at Starbucks
  • 3 percent resulted in an interview
  • 10 percent sent me an outright “no” or other rejection, usually phrased as “while you have great skills, we’ve decided to go with a candidate more suited for the role”

In every other case – 87% of the time I submitted an application – there was simply no response beyond the auto-generated email saying they had received my resume or form.

So please tell me more about how it’s my adherence to the principles of basic societal polite behavior that’s the essential missing element in my finding a job. More likely it’s that application-reading algorithms are filtering my resume in ways that use “experience” as a way to keep people older than 25 from serious consideration or some other reality I have zero influence over.

As I embraced the reality that freelancing was going to be a big part of my future I joined a number of gig job boards and services. This, according to so many of the business and technology publications and news sites, was how companies were finding contingent help for project work and other positions.

While some work did result from my exposure on those platforms, none of it turned out to be sustainable beyond a couple months of infrequent assignments.

What I experienced in large part was the same sort of reception I was getting in other parts of my job search. That’s due at least in part because of the kind of situation detailed at Quartz by Alison Griswold, where legitimate freelancers who set rates commensurate with their skills and experience are underbid by questionable figures who claim to be able to do the same job for a fraction of what I would charge.

The low quality of work delivered, of course, is the very definition of “you get what you pay for” and, I would imagine, is more likely to turn a company off of using such platforms at all instead of encouraging them to seek out quality vendors. The legitimate market is harmed by those scamming the system and creating mistrust and other problems.

My decision to stop using those platforms was also informed by my changing perceptions of how the much-touted gig economy was leaving significant chunks of the workforce – including myself – behind. Much of my evolved thinking is similar to what’s documented by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri in their book “Ghost Work.”

In that book they talk at length about how contingent work platforms like Fiverr, Upwork and others have built in design elements that make it necessary for freelancers and others to be constantly on the site, accepting whatever work they’re offered and engaging in activity there in order for their accounts to remain in good standing. Upwork, for instance, has emailed me repeatedly if I let my account lie untended for as little as a week at a time, telling me my profile would be suspended if I didn’t log back in soon. You can’t move up the rankings on the site without accepting a certain number of jobs, regardless of whether or not the jobs being offered are well-paying or by any definition decent.

Suri and Gray also point out a major problem for those trying to get by with contingent work: They never get credit or job stability for their efforts. Here’s an example:

An ad agency’s account executive needs help writing the copy for a client presentation. The rest of his team is already over-extended on other work, so he pulls up a gig platform and posts the opportunity. He eventually accepts a bid on the project, and the remote – usually faceless – worker gets the job done on time. The account executive is praised for his work and enjoys continued employment, complete with steady pay and healthcare benefits.

On the other end of that transaction, the ghost worker now finds his emails saying “let me know if you need help with future projects” are falling on deaf ears. He’s now in the same position he was before, wondering where his next income is coming from and unsure of the future, enjoying none of the benefits of the full-timer whose work he just did.

Ironically, that lopsided dynamic is exactly the kind of position Fiverr has positioned as an advantage offered by its platform in a recent outdoor ad campaign. Companies and full time workers are shown Fiverr is a great place to outsource their work, promising a freelancer will hop to it when a new assignment is offered.

It’s a great deal for the employee, far less so for the freelancer. The latter category enjoys almost none of the other opportunities for advancement or mobility of the former. Once they finish a job they’re back on the same playing field competing against countless individuals promising fast turnaround times at low rates because they’ve found success in copying Wikipedia sections and passing it off as their own work. Meanwhile, legitimate freelancers are expected to continue advancing their skills and knowledge at their own expense and at the expense of time that would otherwise be spent doing actual work.

I’m beginning to believe the discrepancies in measuring the size of the contingent workforce – including freelancers, contractors and others – are part of the reason the economic “recovery” that’s been touted over the last decade has yet to result in substantial wage increases.

Even discounting the overt scammers, there are so many people out there willing to underbid their freelance competitors to get whatever work is offered that companies have little incentive to raise the pay of full time employees. Why pay Full Time Carol more when she knows the alternative to working here is scrounging for gigs offering $25 to write a 1,750 word blog post. (Note: That’s a real scenario I’ve encountered.)

There’s some evidence this is close to reality. Economists have been puzzled why wages haven’t been going up as unemployment continues going down or staying at remarkably low levels. Turns out, as some have long suspected, the number of people working gig, contract or part-time jobs who want full-time positions is still high, but because companies aren’t hiring or haven’t raised the base pay they haven’t been able to do so.

At the moment, the combination of freelancing and working at Starbucks is working for me. If I schedule my days effectively I can get most of what I need to done in a reasonable time and fulfill all my client project requirements.

Getting to that level has taken the better part of the last three years, though, and still presents a regular struggle as I and my family deal with the instability that’s a feature – not a bug – of the freelance life. Good periods are followed by slow ones, busy times followed by extended silences.

Finding personal projects to work on has been an important way of filling those fallow periods. While I no longer feel the intense pressure I once did to remain productive at all times, staying busy is still a good idea.

More than anything (aside from the support of my wife and family), my sanity has been maintained by the realization that the onus to evince good manners and polite interactions is at least as great as the responsibility of others to do likewise. So too, it’s important to come at situations from the position of valuing my own work and contributions because no one else is going to do so on my behalf.

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