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College and the American Dream

25 Jan

I am not one of these the world is ending soon conspiracy types. However I think the American dream is just that a dream and like most dreams you cannot relive it or reclaim it once it’s over. Oh, you ever have a sexy dream that leaves you wanting more upon awakening? Hell you even go back to sleep and try to make your mind pick up where it left off but it almost never happens.

Well the American idea of going to college, getting a “good” job, a house, a spouse and a few kids and living happily after, for most Americans is a dream. Oh we start em young pounding into their heads that you must have a college degree in order to make it. Yet the reality is that for all the young adults who register in the nation’s colleges and universities at best only 30% of them will graduate with a 4 year degree and even that takes longer than 4 years for most students.

Don’t get me wrong, even in this recession we are seeing that the college educated are faring better than those without degrees but at what cost? Once upon a time in this country we produced things, folks knew how to do tasks that we all but hire others to do and even then we sometimes can’t find the help to do those so called menial tasks. Yet in almost 7 years of homeownership I have come to value the men and women in the trades and wonder why we are not encouraging our youth to consider jobs like plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc. If you have ever needed one of these types of folks you know that they stay busy and in many cases earn far more than the average college educated person.

The thing is for every person who goes to college and graduates and becomes financially secure there are probably a good 10 other college graduates who are struggling to survive under the weight of loan debt. College is expensive, gone are the days a kid could work all summer and pay a portion of the tuition. Unless a kid is slanging drugs, not too many kids are going to be earning any meaningful amount to pay towards their schooling. I have a kid in college and even with grants and scholarships, it’s still pricey and for the truly working class family hard to achieve.

Then there is the fact that as someone who completed their undergraduate and graduate education a number of years ago, it seems we now live in a world where even that is not good enough. The HR folks want to see that you are steady learning, adding continuing education, certifications, etc…when the fuck does it end?

If you are like me and a member of the sandwich generation, it starts to feel a tad suffocating with your own loan obligations, a kid in college and now an aging parent in my house. I am realizing that all the things I thought were part of the dream don’t really exist. Instead I strive to live in the moment, find joy and try not to think that I will probably have my social security checks garnished to pay back my student loans. So I will live in the shitty old folk’s home praying that I don’t have to resort to Meow Mix to keep my belly full. And why? Because I bought the dream that college was a necessity and would open the doors to good things when the truth is the good stuff is already there.

Perhaps as a society if we valued learning for the sake of learning and not just as a means to an ends we would all be better off. If we understood that all the degrees in the world mean nothing if it’s below zero and your furnace dies and you need a repair guy but have to wait 8 hours because you can’t handle a simple fix. If we valued all workers and what they bring to the table we would have greater balance in our lives and stop searching for a dream that will never come back again.  Better yet we would understand there are many paths to economic freedom and happiness without making folks believe their lives will magically be transformed by a fancy sheet of paper.

I feel I should add this post was inspired by several conversations I have had in the past day with different folks online and offline about the value of college.

Finding your voice…honoring yourself in matters of work

6 Jan

While I no longer do official New Year’s resolutions, one of my goals this year is to put myself first. Truth is over the years I have become a bit of a workaholic, it most certainly has not been intentional but the pit falls of working at small non-profits is there is simply less hands to get the work done. In my case I run an agency that provides direct services to clients, in our case youth and their families. If someone calls out sick and I am short staffed I have two options, close for the day or step in and work directly with the kids myself. Knowing that we are a safe place for kids at risk of getting in trouble after school I often make the choice to step in, despite the fact it means more work for me or letting down my family.

Last month, I really ran myself ragged to make sure our annual programs went off without a hitch and it is paying off. Donations are on the rise, we received some good press, all good things except that I have spent almost all of the past 6 weeks sick. I suffer from year round allergies but this winter is off to a record number of days where I feet like shit. To say I am run down is an understatement, my body is exhausted, worn out; my mind is not as sharp as it could be. You get the picture.

To say I am not in a good place about work right now wouldn’t be too far from the truth, don’t get me wrong I actually like what I do but its starting to dawn on me that sometimes when we give too much of ourselves, people come to expect it. If a worker who is only paid for 20 hours gives 30, 35 a week and it cost the employer nothing rather than honoring that commitment and drive employers take it for granted. Yeah, they toss you a thanks but do they really mean it?

I think one of the reasons the rate of unemployment remains high is because so many Americans who still have jobs are working themselves to the bone. We hear how hard it is to get a new job so rather than say “Time to move on” we say “I am happy to have a job” and put up with the abuse. I don’t even think all employers are intentionally abusing their employers but if they cab get greater productivity and it costs them nothing extra, why not?

I also think as women we are at greater risk for not receiving the respect and rewards we deserve in the workplace. Many times women even professional women are taken for granted in the work world. It’s no secret we are still paid less than men for the same jobs, yet as women we often don’t want to rock the boat. In some ways I guess that is the point of this post. I need to find my voice when it comes to my work; I have tried the round about way of stating my needs and don’t feel I am being heard.

The very fact that I am writing this might be considered dicey after all, it really isn’t too hard to figure out who I am and where I work in the real world and that’s okay with me. Whatever risks I may be taking are outweighed by the relief I feel in speaking my truth. Part of taking care of me this year is about honesty, honesty with myself and with others.

So if you are women in the workplace I would love to hear how you go about setting limits and boundaries and getting your needs met in the workplace.

How Not to Get a Job Part 2

20 Sep

As shitty as it is to be unemployed and looking for job, I must say it’s equally as frustrating to be an organization in need of an employee. The fact is in smaller organizations there is often no human resources department or person to do the initial grunt work of weeding through applicants, those tasks often falls to some employee or maybe even the actual employer. Who at the same time must do their normal job duties on top of taking time to try to find what they hope will be a fabulous new employee.

This month is turning out to be stress inducing multiplied by about a hundred which is why my posting has slacked off. Kids starting school, new grants, and more importantly the need for new staff at my center have got me wanting to pull out my damn hair, its crazy time people! So I am still interviewing for my center in case you haven’t figured that out, my task is made harder by the fact that as a very small non profit my budget is minuscule. Oh, but it’s far larger than it was almost two year ago when I took over as director. Back then there was no money to hire anyone else.

The interviews have continued and let me tell you while the official stats tell us that for every job opening there are 5 applicants; I am convinced that out of those 5 applicants the stupid runs deep for 4 of them hence why they are unemployed. I have grown convinced that for strong applicant’s jobs exist. Maybe it’s a sign that I am getting old and that I am slowly becoming a lovable curmudgeon but let me tell you meeting applicants who clearly do not bother to read job descriptions drive me crazy. Now I know as several folks have already told me, I am basically looking for a saint. Someone willing to commit to a full school year for very little in terms of remuneration. I want to be sympathetic to folks but the fact is when running a program devoted to at risk kids, the strength of our program is that we develop strong relationships with the kids. Relationships that really make a difference, for many of the kids that my center serves they lack stable home environments and the center is the one constant in their lives so it only makes sense that I hire someone who can at least commit to staying the entire school year. Yet out of the now many folks I have interviewed only two seemed willing to make that commitment. Unfortunately the two who were willing to do so lack the necessary skills sets for that particular position, though one candidate I did offer a lesser position that will allow me to train them and see if perhaps they can eventually move into the primary position I am hiring for.

Next thing, life happens…Lord, knows I have lead a life where shit happens. But if you have to reschedule an interview calling two minutes before your interview time asking to reschedule is a fail. Especially when the interviewer has given you their cell number so if you need to change the time you can do so in a timely fashion. Look, if you are interviewing for a position where timeliness and responsibility are a huge factor and I think a program where you would be the overseer of 20-30 kids falls into that category, please know you are being judged on everything. I know some of you may say damn BGIM you are a harsh taskmaster. No, but I need to know if I hire someone they are not going to call me 10 minutes before the center is supposed to open telling me they can’t make it. If that happens on a day I am say at meeting miles always then the center literally would not open. To the working families that use our services that means kids getting off the bus to a center that is closed if someone calls out at the literal last minute. Needless to say in this interview process I am paying attention to all the small details.

Also while it’s illegal for employers to ask certain questions, why the hell are so many of my applicants over sharing with me? One woman in a cover letter mentioned being a single Mom….that’s cool but honestly I don’t need to know that about you. I also don’t need to know that you are on unemployment and trying to see if you can work my job and collect your benefits at the same time. I have had several applicants share that with me and each time thought um…okay. People, people…I want to know you only insofar as it would affect how you work, all that extra shit is just too much. Besides if you are over sharing your personal life with me, how the hell will I know that you won’t over share about the folks we serve?  In my work confidentiality is a huge deal; I need to know you won’t be down at the local coffee shop talking greasy about one of our families.

There are so many pieces of finding a job that is a good match for the employer and the employee but in both instances a little common sense can go a long way. We are living in a time when all around us we are encouraged to live open lives, hell just turn on the television. Reality shows have changed how we view what’s right and wrong…um, competing on a show for a 5th rate celebrity frankly says a lot about you. Social media which I have a fierce love/hate relationship with has broken down the filters that we use to have, hell even I am guilty at times of over sharing and being a little out there online. But in the work world especially in a place where you are dealing with vulnerable folks, a certain amount of integrity is needed.

Anyway wish me well as I start another round of interviews this week. Happy Monday!

PS: If you are looking for a job, you really need to be mindful of what you put out on the interwebz, because when employers do background checks we really do take a look at your online persona. Some might say I am an intrusive employer but my agency reputation and my professional reputation hinge on making sure I don’t hire a pedophile or some other unsavory character so I need to do the appropriate checks. I am not turning down any applicants due to their political beliefs or things like that but if you like to engage in borderline illegal activities in your off time, well that does give me reason for concern.

How not to get a job!

7 Sep

Hello readers! Life has been busy, busy as we prepared for the kidlet’s first at the educational industrial complex…ooop! I meant school. So far she survived the first day of course when its only two hours and it involves animal crackers and a bus ride, it’s not too stressful. Though the verdict is still out on whether or not she will  stay in school since I am leaning strongly towards homeschooling but I will keep you posted.

In other happenings, after slaving for the last two years at my non-profit job, I have finally secured enough funding to actually hire additional staff and thus make my life just a tad bit less stressful. Though I am finding the entire process of hiring to be stressful, as a small agency it’s important to hire folks who are going to love the work, be dedicated and are totally okay with earning peanuts.

Thankfully the shitty economy works in my favor, after all 7-8 years ago I doubt I would have had degreed folks tripping over each other just to get their foots in the door of an agency where I will work em like slaves, pay em peanuts and occasionally say thank you.

That said, if you as the job seeker think you have it bad, let me tell you it’s no fun weeding through resumes some which make me think they were written by twelve-year old’s masquerading as adults. Today after I spent some time weeding out the obvious no’s, it was time to set up interviews and let me tell ya I learned something new.

First candidate, not a perfect match but met the minimum standards of what I am looking for in a candidate, so I try to call to set up an interview. Except I noticed something funny on both the cover letter and resume….there is no phone number. Um….how the hell can I reach you without a phone? So I email the candidate who replies and tells me they are traveling for the month therefore they are not available for an interview in the time frame that I am conducting interviews.

Let me get this straight. You applied for a job, no phone number and now not available for an interview anytime in this calendar month. Call me old but last  time I looked for a job, I was relatively available for interviews. No, I don’t expect you to be available tomorrow but if you aren’t available to even interview for a month, why bother to even apply? Hey, if you got some thoughts on that, please let me know.

Next candidate, I give a call and this person answers the phone like I am Capital One demanding payment on an overdue Visa. It took a good minute or so before the person realized I was calling about a job and then switched up their tone. Um….first impressions matter, even on the phone.  By the way telling me you were planning on calling about the job was a bad idea. Why? The posting specifically says no phone calls please.

Look, the ability to pay attention to details is very important. If you send a resume on Friday and you think calling the company on Tuesday is a good idea, especially when the posting says no calls. Guess what? That means no fucking calls. Some might say it shows initiative and yes that is true but it also shows someone who does not pay attention to details and as the person running a small agency, unwanted calls at inconvenient times is a nuisance.

Lastly, the person who sent an email asking how to apply for the job when the listing was real clear…it read “email resume, cover letter and 4 references to or mail to Helping Agency 123 Job Lane, Jobs Now, ME 55555.” So sending an email asking how to apply shows someone who lacks the ability to follow the fucking directions.

Look, being jobless sucks!  I did 18 months of unemployment/freelance gigs back in 2007-2008 and that was before the economy went to hell in a hand basket. But taking a few extra minutes to follow the directions or hell even writing in the body of the cover letter that you are traveling and not available until a certain time goes a long way in presenting yourself in a good light.

By the way, while many folks for whatever reason hate talking on the phone, if you are looking for a job you really need to put your best voice forward when answering, worse case if its Visa, hang up.

Whose responsibility is it?

13 Jul

Due to the fact that I am no longer an anonymous blogger, after all in Maine it’s not as if there is a plethora of Black women working as Executive Directors of small non-profit agencies. I am about to share a story but won’t be able to fill in the back story since while I like to talk much shit, I am rather fond of the paycheck I collect a couple times a month. So I apologize that I can not get too juicy with this story but it’s a story that needs to be shared.

I run a small agency that works primarily with low income youth and their families through a variety of services that we offer. The economic downturn has increased our workload at a time when frankly the money to fund such operations especially in smaller communities is drying up. I spend my days plotting to keep the doors open so not only do the area youth have a safe space to come to but so that I can make sure that the college boy will be able to attend college in the fall and that rice and beans don’t become a staple in our house. (Nothing wrong with them, I’d just rather eat them a couple times a week and not daily)

To be honest it’s a hard time to be in the non-profit sector, it’s never been a cakewalk but in the past several years it’s gotten even harder. Which is why I was stunned to find myself in a conversation with someone who is very knowledgeable about the field tell me point blank, they just don’t understand why people cannot provide for themselves. In a nutshell this person told me they think that most poor folks are lazy bums who are coddled. Furthermore that while the work that folks like me do is good; it bugs them how much bureaucratic waste goes on at agencies. To further elaborate this person felt that too many times folks like me (but not me) get hooked on good salaries and don’t do jack. ….Ummmm, wow! I could go on but the takeaway is that there is too much governmental waste supporting bums and maybe if we stopped helping folks they would pick up their own slack.

Like I said, I’d love to give you more details but I can’t. On the other hand this conversation made me wonder what would happen if social services simply did not exist? I wish I had faith that people would suddenly do the right thing and provide for their own families but in many cases, I see people daily who lack the means to do that. Of course there are scammers, over the years I have met many people who burn out of the helping professions because frankly it gets hard to do your job when you see people work the system. But I truly feel that at the end of the day the folks who do that are in the minority, most folks who use government and social services would probably rather not use them.

In a society such as ours whose responsibility is it to take care of the less fortunate among us? Once upon a time family connections were tighter and people could rely on family for help but as our connections to family have shifted often the help is not there. Either people physically are not able to assist or in these tight times cannot afford the monetary assistance.

Should we even have safety nets (are they really that safe) in place to catch our less fortunate?

Let’s talk about it. I am not even going to discuss the assumption that folks in social services are paid too much. I can count the number of coworkers I have had in almost 15 years in this field who were only a hair above the clients financially speaking. I am convinced that no one does direct social services without it being a calling, low pay, paltry benefits for jobs that require a certain level of experience and suck the life out of you. Yeah that’s the high life baby!

What’s Up with Generation Y?

11 Jul

Turns out it was hot all week up in my corner of the world. For those who say global warming is a myth I say bullshit to you. Maine is by and large a pretty temperate place to be in the summer time. High eighties and nineties rarely happen and there is still a large portion of the population that doesn’t even have air conditioning. I hate heat in any form especially when I am sleeping or cooking so I have a few window units but let me tell you this weeks’ blast of summer to the extreme made me realize that my units were not nearly as high powered as they could be. And by the way old houses while they can’t hold heat in the winter time when you want them to they hug the hell out of the heat in the summer time.

So while lots of great ideas passed through the noggin this week, I was simply too spent to actually do anything other than drink cold beverages and whine and say someone turn this fuckin heat down. However between gripe sessions I did do my daily reading and stumbled across this sweet piece of story. I am starting to think those folks at the NY Times need to hire me or some real working class folks impacted by the economy so they can stop writing these bullshit ass pieces or maybe its that the folks in New York are living in a bubble separate from the rest of us. So they are unable to get a clue on what real hard times looks like.

In any event, to recap this piece in case you don’t feel like reading. We have a kid from good upper middle class stock who graduated from college 2 years and has not found a job…oh but he turned down a job paying $40,000 a year at an insurance company because well it wasn’t quite the path he wanted to go down. So until recently this kid was living at his parents’ house while they provided room and board, he now lives with his brother in Boston and his folks are paying his share of the rent until the end of August. Oh my!  

I have a lot of friends who often say I sometimes seem older than my years and maybe that is true. Just the other night I was looking at elder boy aka the college boy now and thinking back to when I was his age. Well when I was his age, he was growing in my womb and I was getting the crash course in grown up life. By the time I reached the same age as the kid in the Times piece, I had been married, divorced on the brink of remarriage and actually was making a career change all by the tender age of 24. Nowadays I meet members of the so called Generation Y and the Millennials and often think damn, you are a lazy fuck.

Look, I never planned to become a crotchety old woman saying these things but I have to be honest in the past couple of years I have seen a disturbing trend where I encounter younger folks and the expectations are that they are owed more though they have done nothing to achieve it in the work world. Look, you cannot work a year or two and expect you are going to shoot up the ladder; you got to pay your dues.

It also says a lot about how this generation which actually my son is a member of has been raised when a $40,000 a year job is looked down at. In the real world and not just rural America plenty of folks wish they had a $40,000 a year job, no it’s not a great deal of dough but if one lives frugally it can be more than enough. Generally speaking a daily latte and weekly stops at the mall won’t be happening on such a salary yet you generally can be assured of the basics of life.

Before I decided to write this piece I actually spoke to my son since I did not want him thinking I was attacking his demographic and he said he understood where I was coming from. However he said he felt it was not the entire gen Y crowd that seems delusional about their worth but that yes by and large a great deal of his peers do see themselves starting at the top rather than the bottom.

Again call me foolish but I think there is a great deal of value starting one’s professional life at the bottom, first off you get to really see the organization, field, etc. You also are still at a point in life where you are still learning who you are , where you want to go and while making a great deal of money is nice when you are young there is nothing wrong with having a little. Even though I married young when I was between husbands I had the roommate adventure, quite the journey in young cheap living. Bottom line these experiences grow us as humans, every shit job we work in our early 20’s, every shitty place we have will hopefully stay with us when we grow up and become real adults.

But the younger generations today want it all, my son’s theory is that the media is to blame and while  I want to say nah…I think he may be right. Mine was the last generation not raised on a steady diet of cable TV, yes many of my peers were the early latch key kids but there were still kids like me who did have a stay at home parent and no TV. I have said before, I got cable for the first tine when I was an adult, in fact lately as I have been checking out You Tube and I have been stunned to learn there were actually videos for many of my favorite songs in the 1980’s, granted music videos of the 80’s were primitive compared to what today’s kids see.

The media that is constantly  bombarding our kids teaches them that in order to be happy and successful you need XYZ and sadly as a nation we have fallen for the same hype which probably has a lot to do with the financial crisis we find ourselves in. After all if I wear this label or that label I will be happy. Yet its this type of imagery that our kids have digested that leave them unable to function in the real world, after all if I watch My Sweet Sixteen on MTV or whatever reality show $40,000 often sounds like a very small sum of money and you get a kid straight out of college turning down what in reality is a adequate sum of money because we have a bling bling culture where we want lots of money.

So while I hope this is not taken as a slam on younger folks I will say it’s a lesson for us all that we need to look at the values we live by as for the young man in the Times piece, hopefully he won’t be turning down anymore jobs.

ETA: This is a link today’s letters to the editor of the Times that I think are worth reading about this topic and Scott Nicholson.

Burnt Out

28 Jun

I don’t like to blog about my job because one of the drawbacks of living in a small state like Maine is folks tend to know who you are so things like anonymity just don’t exist even on the web. Hell, a good portion of my Twitter followers are Mainers and it turns out the degrees of separation even on a site like Twitter when it comes to Mainers is probably about 2 degrees at best.

Yet as I have been reading some real cool blogs lately that talk about the non-profit sector as well as related articles, I feel there is a segment of the non-profit world that writers and consultants leave out. That would be those of us that work at the tiny of tiniest agencies. I am talking the agencies and organizations in many parts of the US that do serious front line work like food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters where at best there is 1-2 paid staff members and a cadre of volunteers that provide the services. The IRS recently instituted guidelines this year that all 501c3’s must now file a 990 so that they can get a better sense of who really is out there in the non-profit sector. The best estimate is that there is approximately 31% of all US charities have gross receipts under $25,000. That means until recently those folks didn’t have to file a tax return, yet that is a hell of a lot of agencies doing work and making do in many cases with some less than optimal situations.

I know because I work at such a place, granted our gross revenue is higher than the previous  minimum threshold required to file taxes but our budget doesn’t even tip 6 figures. Which when you consider the fact we are in the business of providing after school and summer programming for kids is a miracle. It’s a good thing we are faith-based because we are praying daily to keep the doors open.

Lately I have been encountering others like me though who love the work we do yet we are burnt out. However unlike life in any major sized city where even with the economic downturn if one gets truly tired of their job, one can generally make the decision to look for work at another agency it becomes virtually impossible to do that in a rural state. In 8 years of living in Maine, very little of mid and senior level management positions have turned over at any of the larger agencies in my part of the state. Of course not! Where would these folks go? Unless they are leaving the state or hanging out their shingle as a consultant or retiring from the work force, there simply is no place to go.

Which means for Gen X’ers or even some of the Gen Y folks the only viable options to get management experience is to take on the leadership roles at the tiny agencies. Yet after 18 months in my current position, I am burnt out. I wear multiple hats at my job, oh let’s share all the hats I wear: program director and designer, chief fundraiser and sole grant writer, director of volunteer management, manager of the actually site (though I do have a solid volunteer who works directly with the kids as well). On a bad week though I might even have to physically clean the facility! Two months into my position, my site guy was out on sick leave and I had to con the Spousal Unit into assisting me as I mopped and cleaned toilets. Yeah baby! Talk about the glamorous life of an Executive Director.

Though as you can imagine after 18 months of juggling all these balls in the air, it was only a matter of time before I started asking myself what the hell am I doing? I earn peanuts, have no paid healthcare benefits, thankfully I have a flexible schedule (why the hell not, I am the creator of the schedule) and generous paid time off. I will tell you that at the root of it all I love the work that I do, I love knowing our agency makes a difference, we are there for kids who have very little in terms of safe options after school and in the summer. Families trust us. Yet lately I struggle with the needs of my own family, since technically my gig is only part-time but like my predecessors I work closer to a 40 hrs a week schedule because simply put the job needs to be done.

In many ways the work I am doing goes against all I learned in grad school as well as in my job experiences in Chicago yet in rural and small town agencies it’s the only way to get the work done. Generally speaking I believe organizations have a responsibility to treat its employees well, pay them an acceptable wage and so on. On the other hand as the creator of my organization’s budget I know first hand what we can and cannot afford so realistically I can not get a salary increase when the money simply does not exist. Right now I would love to bring in a consultant to work with my board and jumpstart us towards creative and energizing ideas but that too is not within the grasp of our budget and none of my connections in the consulting world can take on a free job at the moment.

Previously I worked as a non-profit consultant with a focus on strategic planning and fundraising, most of my work was with small agencies and often we would have great sessions, renew the energy yet in smaller agencies without enough hands to do the work, such plans often go flat. So I am aware that even an excellent consultant can’t change the course of our ship without one hundred percent buy in from all participants.

So if you have ever worked or currently work in a small agency how do you stay sane? Share your tips and ideas.