The quest for employment from the other side of 50:

No, this is not your father's economy!

Remember the days when one landed a job out of high school and stayed with the company for the rest of your working life?  Recall how your parents (just as you do today) preached the benefits of education?  Hear all the talk about how employers today can't fill open positions?  Have you ever been told you are "over qualified"?  You are aware of the wonders the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) has worked for job seekers, haven't you?  What follows is a first-person account of the job market in the 21st Century.

This is a journey that began in earnest four (4) years ago.  In actuality, the seeds for the journey were planted in the summer of '73.  It was then, after having served my country in the U.S.M.C., that I graduated from law school and embarked on the practice of law.  Not being on the law review, in the upper 25% of my class or the graduate of an ivy league school the pickings were slim, and not very remunerative.

After high school I went to work for U.S. Steel Corp. in my hometown of Gary, IN, as an electrician.  I subsequently opted to chuck my $16,000/yr. (1964 dollars) job and free room and board to attend college in far off Indianapolis.  Ultimately, with both my sheepskin and honorable discharge in hand I entered the workforce.  I managed to land a position as an insurance adjuster for a major liability carrier.  Actually, I managed to land two such jobs and had 2 company cars parked in my drive for a time, but that is another story!  With such status came the munificent salary of $10,000/yr. (1970 dollars) and a move to Ft. Wayne, Indiana!

I sagaciously reasoned going backwards in terms of income was not what I either expected or wanted.  There had to be a way out of the predicament in which I found myself?  The solution I hit upon was more education.  So, I gave up my insurance adjusting career in favor of the study of law.  I returned to my haunts in Indianapolis and once again hit the books.

While law school had its moments (for instance, one of my classmates was a guy named Dan Quayle), it could not compare to the good times of undergrad.  In fact, law school yielded no lasting bonds or friendships.  It is somewhat difficult to befriend those who are crawling over you and clawing for the paltry few jobs available to the non-elite in the legal world.  The level of camaraderie was such that I elected to forego entering an appearance at the formal graduation ceremony!  Instead, I showed up 30 mins. early and was unceremoniously gifted with my degree from a large cardboard box sitting under a table.

Now, with this Juris Doctor in hand, the world awaited me!  Excitement, money and fame were mine for the asking, right?  It did not take me long to secure a position with a law firm.  The use of the term "law firm" is a bit of misnomer in this instance, as I went to work for a solo-practitioner in Middletown, OH, a city with a population of approx. 45,000.  Only with my addition to the staff did he became a firm.  This time, my salary reached the level of $7,200/yr (1973 dollars)!  What?  A high school diploma yielded $16K/yr.  A bachelor degree garnered $10K/yr.?  A J.D. commanded all of $7.2K/yr.?  Wait one!  What about the benefit of all that education?

Never one to give up the "quest for the holy grail" I kept my eye out for better opportunities.  Within a year I found one.  By becoming a public defender in Cincinnati, I was able to instantly double my yearly salary.  Now, I was making more than when I was with the insurance company in 1970.  Never mind that it was still less than what I had earned in 1964, at my first job out of high school with U.S. Steel - Gary Works.

Even so, things progressed nicely.  I enjoyed doing battle in the courtroom, and the raises came along quite regularly.  By 1978 my income once again equaled that which I had enjoyed in 1964.  In later years it went far beyond it.

Then politics entered into the picture.  No, not for me as a candidate, but rather for me as a victim.  The public defender office was funded by the city. City politics were controlled by the Democrats.  The Republican state legislature made monies available for provision of public defender services.  Consequently, the Republican controlled county government wanted to take over our operation.  Despite a long battle, and at times a veritable state of siege, the county prevailed over the city.  Hamilton County took over.  The quality of services deteriorated, the job ceased to be fun, and the pay went down!

For the uninitiated, that is how "pork barreling" works.  Sure there is plenty of money to go 'round, but it is not for the "little folk" who labor daily in the mines.  No, it goes to the bureaucrats who have paid their dues to the party in power.

After about a year under the "new regime" I was called into the office of my boss.  He proceeded to tell me how valued an employee I was.  Interspersed with the praise was the pronouncement that I would be the recipient of a cut in pay!  I politely told him I had to decline the honor.  I quit!

Miles from my roots (and connections) with no job, what was I to do?  The answer was obvious.  I opened my own practice. There is an air of romanticism which surrounds the concept of "hanging out one's own shingle."  However, I can attest that the reality is far different from the hopes and dreams.  It may well be me, but it seemed no matter how good I was in the practice of law, I was viewed as an "outsider" by the Cincinnati legal community.   That my background was blue-collar clearly showed.  That I did not possess the culturization of a Cincinnatian worked against me in the environs of the "Queen City" [I once had a former employer state in a reference, "I was a little rough around the edges and could use some refinement!"  Want to hazard a guess whether I got that job?]

Let no one who speaks truthfully say otherwise, the practice of law is a business, just like any other.  Coming from a blue-collar family, my business acumen consisted of being a "5-Star Honor Carrier", for the Gary Post-Tribune ; in other words, non-existent! Being a foreigner in the eyes of the powers that be in the "Queen City" did not help either.  Not being a member of the "good ol' boy" club I was destined professionally to ever be an outsider.  In part I am sure, this was because I was not willing to compromise myself in order to gain admission to the circle where the deals are made.  For example, I consciously chose to live on the working class west side, instead of on the prestigious east side of town.  I simply did not find the dealmakers to be individuals worthy of respect or the type of folk with whom I wanted to associate.  For whatever reasons my income as a private practitioner fluctuated widely.  Some years were good, others ok and some downright miserable.

By the time I had decided continually beating-my-head-against-the-wall was not worth it, middle-age had set in!  There is a definite age factor in the eyes of consumers who hire litigators.  They display a definite preference for a lawyer who is young, and presents the image of a hard charger.  Experience and skill seem to carry less weight than the image of a young, robust fighter who is willing to do battle at the drop of a hat.  It matters not that they were in the process of finding their way in their career.  What counts is the appearance of being a fighter, not whether a fight is the wisest course of representation to pursure.  Consequently, as I had learned the wisdom of choosing one's battles carefully, over time my income witnessed a more than serious permanent decline.

I made the decision after more than a quarter century, it was time to leave the private practice of law.  The question became one of what can an ol' codger with a law degree do?  Finding the answer required an analysis of just what had one been doing for the last score, plus of years.  Close scrutiny revealed it was far more than merely trying cases in court.  I ran a business, I was a supervisor of personnel, I trained people, I was a problem solver, counselor and negotiator.  Additionally, my years of law practice involved working extensively in the labor relations arena.

The tote board calculations seemed to yield a pretty good match of my skills with the needs of teaching or personnel work.  The mid-90's saw me polishing my résumé (in education circles it is referred to as a curriculum vitae) and targeting potential employers.  I became more than adept at performing internet job searches with the passage of time.  I also become a more than familiar face to my local postmaster in the process!

What I did learn from this whole ordeal is that law schools have absolutely no interest in even talking to, let alone hiring, someone who has spent his entire professional career in a courtroom.  Strange, since law schools are supposed to be in the business of turning out lawyers?  Fact is, the vast majority of law school professors have never seen the inside of a courthouse, or have only visited one sporadically.

Colleges and technical schools have only a slightly higher level of desire in talking to a lawyer about teaching paralegal studies. What would a lawyer know?  They are only the individuals who hire, train and utilize paralegal assistants.  That is hardly a qualification to teach them, right?  In all honesty I am compelled to admit back in the late 70's I was hired as a part-time adjunct in a paralegal studies program, and in my quest for employment I did have a total of two (2) interviews at technical schools offering paralegal training.  The only thing to come of them was, at Chattanooga State Tech I was issued a parking ticket by the campus police for parking where I was told to by the Department head!

Perhaps the most ironic of all circumstances is the criteria for educators in criminal justice programs.  Some ads state unequivocally, "J.D.'s need not apply!"  Shades of the turn of the century; the other one, when we went from the 1899 to 1900!  Then, signs were prevalent in business establishments which read, "No Irish need apply."  A public defender certainly has no knowledge of the crimianl justice system, so please don't waste the valuable time of those in academia by requiring them to review your legal credentials.

One NE Wisconsin college did in fact offer me a position on the criminal justice faculty.  My research on this institution of higher learning revealed it was operating in the red, on the verge of bankruptcy and more interested in increasing student enrollment by recruiting in the deep south for football players.  If they were breathing and could speak they were awarded a scholarship. Discretion being the better part of valor, I elected to decline the offer of employment.

Human resources is a whole other baliwick.  In small-to-mid-sized operations one must be a jack-of-all-trades.  The most sought after skill is pension benefit administration.  My years in the law have taught me this skill is desired not to benefit the beneficiaries of the pension plan, but rather to manipulate the vast sums held in a manner advantageous to the pension fund holder.  In case you don't know who that is, it is the employer!  Sadly, employers view these amounts as their money, not that of the workers.  The mere existence of the PBGF (Pension Benefit Guaranty Fund) attests to this.

I distinctly recall my experience with one local technical college.  It was seeking a HR Director.  A primary responsibility of the position was to negotiate and administer faculty contracts.  My application received a second look.  When I was notified of this I prepared in earnest.  Preparation included researching the background of the administrators, reading/digesting its guiding tome, Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and engaging in numerous discussions with the college president.  The college then hired a "mind reader" to test me and report on my psychological bent.  The cost to the college of this test was in excess of $400.  Bottom line was the position was never filled by the college.  The president reported (lied) to the board and said the search yielded no one willing to relocate to the middle of no where.  I was incensed at this turn of events.  I wrote each and every board of trustee member and advised them of the untruth, my availabilty and my expressed interest.  Not one replied!

Then, there was the major utility company seeking a contract administrator/negotiator.  I had two (2) interviews.  At the conclusion I was told I was #1 on the list.  Great!  Again, the position was not filled?

Just what was it about me that had this effect?  Perhaps I should hire myself out as a consultant to corporations conducting personnel searches?  I would/could show them a new hire is not necessary!

For an organization to have a labor relations person on staff, it has to be rather large.  Labor relations people handle contract negotiations, contract administration, grievance processing and the conduct of labor arbitrations.  The power of unions peaked decades ago.  Union shops are on the decline.  In the 21st Century labor relations are most hotly contested in the education arena.

My current home state of Wisconsin may rightly boast of a very active labor movement in the education field.  It is controlled, for the most part, by an affiliate of the NEA known as the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).  When one sees both the home office in Madison, and the satellite UniServ offices (locals) throughout the state, it is obvious there is money in union representation of educators.  So much money that WEAC had no problems in flying in a candidate from Alaska, as well as me from Cincinnati, for UniServ Director interviews.  Neither of us got a job offer!

WEAC looked to me as a prime target for employment.  After all, in my time I had been a dues paying member of the United Steelworkers of America, the United Autoworkers, the Teamsters, International Association of Machinists and, as an attorney, conducted all the labor relations on behalf of a 35,000 steel worker bargaining unit.  In my desperation to maintain income while job searching I was even reduced to doing substitute teaching at the local high school.  It seemed to me I had the right credentials. So, I put a round in the chamber and placed the cross hairs on the target.  If I applied for one WEAC opening, I applied for a dozen.  I even managed to get interviews.  In fact, my continuing contacts were such that I developed an ongoing relationship with the home office staff which processed each and every one of my applications.

What I did not ever get was a job offer.  My relationship with the state director was such that I did not hesitate, after time, to ask what was wrong, where was I deficient?  I have it in writing that, "My personality was deemed as too agressive.  WEAC was seeking a kinder, gentler type of person to represent its constituency."  I guess the error was mine, as I assumed WEAC wanted someone to protect, defend and expand teacher rights.  How dumb of me!  Nor was the fact my union representation experience was in manufacturing, not the service industry, viewed as an asset.  The thinking must be an individual who had spent a career aggressively representing diverse individuals in the criminal courts and working people in their dealings with their employer would not be able to cross over the bridge and relate to the problems of genteel educators?

Well, if the educators union would not have me, then how about the school boards?  If you can't join 'em, fight 'em, right? Contrary to the union view, I saw no difficulty in crossing over to the other side!  To do so dictates one concentrate on large school systems.  In Wisconsin this means looking to the major municipalities, which are not that many.  Madison had openings so I went for it.

I was granted an interview.  The interview consists of a 2-step process.  The first interview is by a committee.  The second is with the Superintendent.  At Interview #1 an attorney asked an ethical question.  Well, my momma did not raise no dummies.  I knew how to handle this hot potato, and did so.  Evidently this lawyer did not have the same schooling in professional responsibilty and ethics as I.  Did he think I was too moral/genteel?  Whatever, there was no second interview.

A year later, the same school system had another opening.  This time it was not for a staff position, but rather for the Director of Labor Relations.  What the hell, I had nothing to lose and applied.  Interview #1 went so well that I was asked to come meet with the Superintendent the next day.  What is this?  I am not qualified to fill a staff job, but am to be the director?  Was I underestimating my skills and qualifications?  Evidently not, as no offer came forth. What did result was that I managed to get into a bad car wreck on the way to the interview, received a traffict ticket and had to shell out for a veryHEFTY fine!

Then there was the Wausau opening.  My research uncovered the fact the Superintendent and I were both born and raised in Lake County, Indiana.  A natural in, I thought/hoped.  In preparation I went up a day early and spent time in the schools talking with administrators, teachers and parents.  The process was the same; initial interview by committee, followed by an interview with the Superintendent.  Only this time they all took place on the same day.  Someone else received and accepted the offer of employment. That same someone quit in less than a year.  I reapplied, but was not deemed worthy of interviewing a second time.

I was quickly learning, "Old lawyers do not die, they just have no appeal outside of the legal community and fade away into poverty!"  Fortunately, I still had substitute teaching and indigent defense appointments to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.  The "new economy" was not impressing me, one bit.  The days of responding to an ad, being interviewed and hired, evidently, were ancient history.

At U.S. Steel in 1964 I merely filled out an application, took a physical and immediately was put to work.  Had I made a mistake by giving up that job to go to college?  I sure was beginning to wonder.  In fact, I still do.  My best friend from high school retires from U.S. Steel in two (2) weeks, at the age of 54!  Here I am, ferreting out positions on the internet, researching the organizations and personnel, tailoring a résumé, attachments and cover letter, traveling hither and yon to interviews and I am still unemployed?

Ah, then there was the Milwaukee Public Schools.  In '98 I found a posting for a Labor Relations Specialist.  Been down that route with more than a few schools systems, so why not?  I applied.  What I did not know was the hiring was governed by bureaucratic regulation.  All applicants had to be ranked, 1-through-10, etc.  The hiree had to come from 1-through-5.  I ranked #9?  Se la vie!

Nearly two years later the same opening is advertised?  Being a glutton for punishment, I apply again.  This time I am ranked #1? What goes on here?  Could the pool of applicants have been so bad that I sky rocketed from #9 to #1?  Whatever, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, correct?  I am granted an interview.  The interview goes more than well, in my opinion.  But then, what do I know?  I have been through umpteen job interviews, which I think went very well, only to have A) a decision made not to fill the position at this time, or B) a job offer made to someone else who quits in less than a year.  I depart the interview hopeful, but in no way confident.  I am advised by well meaning people to be more agressive in my efforts and follow-up the interview with additional contact.  Wait a minute?  Was I not rejected by other organizations for being too agressive?  Is that a wise course to adopt?

I decide I have nothing to lose by following the advice.  I send a post-interview thank you letter highlighting pertinent matters that arose during the interview and, of course, my qualifications.  I also go on the net and undertook an intensive search for an electronic mailing address for my prosepective boss.  My highly developed "job hunting skills" quicly enable me to locate it.  I stay in touch with the Director via e-mail while the matter is still under consideration.  Not only do I send e-mails, I actually get responses!  I am doing everything right, I hope.

In late-March I return from a tough day of substitute teaching and go to the mailbox, as is my routine.  In the box I find an envelope from the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Being a veteran at this, without even opening the envelope I can tell it contains a single piece of paper.  Being a single sheet it can only be one thing, yet another rejection.  I open it.  It is.

Is there an end to this story?  Yes, but not necessarily a neat conclusion.  As I am reading the rejection letter the telephone rings. Who is on the phone but the person who had just rejected me, The Director of Labor Relations for the Milwaukee Public Schools.  A request is made to meet.  Not only is there a request to meet, but to meet off-site.  I ask not why, but quickly agree.  I figure at worst I may garner some valuable insights which I may be able to put to use at the next application/interview in my never ending quest.  That was my agenda for the meeting.

At the appointed date and hour I sit waiting in a Milwaukee restaurant.  In walks the Director of Labor Relations for the Milwaukee Public Schools.  After a perfunctory exchange of cordialities I am asked if I am still interested in the position?  I respond, Yes!  I am asked if I am still interested if it cannot come about until July 1st?  I respond, Yes!  After further discussion I am informed I will be contacted in late May.  No promises, and definitely no firm offers were extended.  I leave thinking, "We shall see?"

On 11 April the phone rings again.  Again it is my prospective boss.  I am told, "There has been a change in plans."  That does not bode well, to my way of thinking.  I am hardened to rejection and prepare to take in stride what surely is to follow.  The referenced change is one that would require me start on 1 June, instead of 1 July!  Do I agree?  What do you think?

Of course, the phone is liable to ring again, and who knows what will transpire, right?  In fact, it did.  I was asked if I could come in on 15 May and participate in preliminary negotiations with one of the unions to which I was being assigned.  I did!

While this journey began in 1973, and took on a frenetic pace in 1996, it appears to have ended?  I have a great position as a Labor Relations Specialist, doing what I enjoy, great pay, the protections of civil service and last, but certainly not least, benefits.  I can now go to a doctor, the dentist, get new eyeglasses.  Ah, the little things in life!  What I do not have, or know, is the answer to why I was repeatedly rejected and why I was ultimately hired.  If it was because of anything I did, or did not do, I know not.  My analysis of the "new economy" boils down to one of being in the right place at the right time.  Not very scientific, is it?  Sort of makes one long for the old days when employers either were, or were not, hiring.  Life was simpler then!

[Initally created  on Friday - 19 May 2000, 13:53 Hrs.]

POST SCRIPT:   Well, it is now eight years later?  Yes, I am still here.  I have gone through 3 bosses.  My salary is now 150% +  of what it was when I was hired.  In a mere seven more years I will be eligible to receive a full pension!  I can say, most days, it sure beats the grind of trying to make a living running one's own law office.  An added benny is that I live close enough to the office that I walk to/from every day of the week.

However, I would be less than truthful if I did not acknowledge that the current state of urban education has come as more than a shock to me.  I find little-to-nothing here to sustain my long held admiration for those who entered the teaching profession.  When I go out to school, I find the most professionally dressed personnel are the building service staff.  That is because they at least wear uniforms.  More than casual attire seems to be what teachers prefer.  The problem is, so dressed one is not able to distinguish them from the rest of the rabble roaming the halls.

I do not want to single out only teachers.  The school administration is fraught with problems.  It fits the classic image one has of a moribund bureaucracy.  Moreover, here at least, so much deference has been paid to the teacher union that it is the entity really running the district.  A major problem with this is, the union has no accountability to the taxpaying public.

I can go on, and on and on.  Fear not, I shall not do so.  I will point out that another problem is the aforementioned taxpaying public.  The problem is two-fold.  What little taxpaying public there is in this city does not make use of the public school system, so they pay it no attention.   Secondly, a very large majority of parents simply are not involved in either the rearing or education of their children.  Unless, and until, parents do get  actively involved, and stay so, there is little teachers, administrators and concerned citizens will be able to do to improve on the status quo.



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Created 3 Mar 2008 - 15:02:27 Hrs.

© 2008, G. David Yaros.  All rights reserved.