Alan is from Nevada, and — as you can see from the photo that goes with his story — he’s not from the part of that state that at least stays warm and dry pretty much year-round.
I’ve known Alan for about two years now from an online progressive music discussion board. I know bits of his personal story from reading through parts of his experiences in a political discussion thread.
Alan is a well-educated man. He is well-written, well-read. I am having him tell his story, entirely in his own words, beginning now, with accompanying music suggested by Alan himself.
I was born to a middle class family and lived my first 20 years in a Southern California suburban tract home. My father, who never completed college, worked for a utility company for over 30 years, and while we were never rich, we never went hungry. My mother looked after my brother and me when we were young, but once we were old enough to take care of ourselves after school, she went to work. I remember her working many years in the registration department of a college. It was a good childhood, and I still have many friends I knew back then. My father took the family camping every summer. I certainly grew up with a love of the great outdoors — hiking, backpacking, and fly fishing. He also instilled in me a strong work ethic and the ability to know right from wrong and that honesty is really the best policy and that hard work and integrity count for something. All of these things make me a better man, but they amount to nothing when I try to get a job these days.
I went to college for a while after high school, but was unable to decide what I wanted to do with my life, so I dropped out and went to work. If nothing else, I learned what kind of work one could do without a college degree. I did not care for the city life, so I moved to the mountains. I worked for five years in a factory.
Eventually, I became frustrated with the tedium and lack of opportunity. I knew I had a good brain and decided to make use of it. I went back to college. My parents quite reasonably told me they would have paid for my college right out of high school, but as I was now 30, I was on my own to pay for it. Of course, they weren’t cruel, so if I was strapped for cash they would help out. But I did manage to pay my own way through school with my retirement cash-out money from my factory job (I thought an education would be a good use of that money), and by working and getting scholarships and grants that were available at the time. I also got awards, which sometimes amounted to cash for college, just because I was doing so well in college already. I count myself very fortunate that I was not saddled with huge student loans to pay off. But I had to work hard, both in school, because the grants paid better for better grades and because I wanted to excel, and on any job I could get on the side and during summers.
I started at an excellent community college to take care of my general education requirements at a lower cost, and to start on my newly chosen major, geology. After two years, I transferred to a University of California campus. Two years later, I became the first in my family to get a Bachelor’s degree, when I graduated with highest honors. Highest honors is, I believe, the UC equivalent of summa cum laude in the Ivy League schools. And the University of California was still a good school when I was there, prior to the present-day budget cuts/tuition hikes. I was frequently told by my professors that I was among the brightest science students in the country. I believed that this was a good thing and would work in my favor when I went to look for employment.
Geology is a physical science. For even a Bachelor’s degree, one must have a strong background in calculus, chemistry, physics, and biology. It is much more difficult than the derogatory (for both athletes and scientists) term “rocks for jocks” would imply. Particularly if you want to be good at it.
Immedately after obtaining my Bachelor’s degree, I was convinced that I should continue on into graduate school. I had read advice in a book, the same advice (or, as I now know, the same lie) one can still find online, that claimed that the best jobs in geology go to those with a Master’s degree. People were trying to recruit me to study at their universities. Why doesn’t that happen in the work world? I went to graduate school at the University of Hawaii, a place I had never been before.
In order to get a Master’s degree, you must specialize somewhat. I knew that a generalized education would be most useful when I looked for work, so I tried to stay as general as possible, while working in the subfields of geology known as petrology, geochemistry and volcanology. I had loved petrology (the study of rocks) during my undergraduate years. I love chemistry, and chemistry would have been my second choice as a major. Hence geochemistry. Volcanology, because who isn’t fascinated by volcanoes? And what better place to study them? There are no jobs in that field, but volcanoes are awesome. And, according to Genesis (the rock band, not the book), you can dance on them.
I had thought I might want to get a PhD, but changed my mind when it seemed that the only job I might get with a PhD was college professor. Teaching didn’t seem to suit my introverted nature, although I admire those who can do it. I was willing to finish with a Master’s degree, which I worked very hard to earn.
While working for my Master’s degree, I met and married my wife, now of 18 years. So I can never say graduate school was a complete waste of my time. She has stood by me through good times and bad. There are some who would fly away when the money did. And the times we are in now are the most stressful of all.
While I was away in graduate school, my mother earned her Bachelor’s degree, the second and only other in my family. She then got a job working for the city, which she kept until she retired. I am very proud of her. Like me, she decided not to settle for less than she could do, and she proved she was both smart and capable.
Upon graduation, and even starting before that, I was looking for work. It was different looking for work in the mid 1990s. While the internet existed, there were no job ads posted except for those seeking computer experts. Now every job must be applied for online, even scientific ones. I applied for work as a state geologist on the mainland and was told that my qualifications were excellent, but they had hired someone else. Probably someone they didn’t have to fly over to the mainland from Hawaii to interview. I applied for work with the oil companies, even though I was aware they do evil things to humans, animals, and the earth. I could see what they had to offer. They never once responded to my applications. I applied to mining companies. They, too, were unresponsive. Same with geothermal companies. I applied to the only area of geology practiced in Hawaii, environmental geology (there are no oil wells or mines or geothermal plants). I was told I needed experience, for a job that turned out to be quite simple once I had the chance to do it.
So I got some experience. I worked for a year as an environmental geologist. I learned the tricks companies play on the scientists they hire. They pay poorly. They put you on salary and call you a consultant. The salary is so they can get you to work overtime without paying the time-and-a-half pay that hourly employees get. I learned that there were workplaces where 100% of the employees were dissatisfied and didn’t plan to be there long. But I learned how to do the job, which mainly consisted of doing your job fast and working long hours. Easy for me. They had prepared us for that in college by giving us impossible tasks due the following day, for the completion of which you had to blow off all your other homework and bust your ass all night. But the job had little to do with geology as learned in school. Eventually they laid me off, due to lack of work. I suspect that the layoff was related to one project I was working on, that we were subcontracted to do, and that the contractor screwed up by cutting corners while trying to do too much in too short a time, which pissed off the ultimate client. It had nothing to do with my part of the job, which was mostly conducting tedious chemical tests of soil that always took the same amount of time every time. I may have been hired just for the duration of that one project, but the company knew no one would sign on as a temporary employee, so they advertised it as a full-time permanent job. Whatever the case, I was out of work.
After being laid off, I called every other company that hired geologists in Hawaii, at many of which people remembered me from my earlier calls when trying to find work after graduation. Imagine that, actually talking to the people who do the hiring and know what the job entails. Those days are gone forever, I’m afraid. Now we have “human resources.” All jobs must now be applied for online and all applicants must go through human resources. They have no idea what a skilled worker does or how his work affects company profits. Their own human resources jobs depend on a high employee turnover rate. So they have no interest in recommending the best candidates for any job opening. Everyone at the time said there was no work for geologists in Hawaii. Most were either laying people off, closing down environmental operations or their company altogether, or sending their geologists to work on the mainland. So I took the hint and moved to the mainland to find work.
Once on the mainland, I opted to move to northern Nevada. I had done field work in the Lake Tahoe area as an undergraduate, and thought nearby Reno might be a tolerable place to live. Nevada had mines and geothermal plants, in addition to environmental companies. So I thought I had a better chance at employment than in Hawaii. Wrong. For the vast majority of geologist positions to which I applied, I was told I was “overqualified.” What the hell is that? Do they not want the best people they can get? The answer was obviously, “No.” I also got one or two “Your qualifications were excellent but we hired someone else.“ And one or two, “We only hire PhD’s.“ And one or two, “We hired an engineer instead.” The latter was baffling, since I had seen the job ad and it was clearly for a geologist. But mostly, by far, in both public and private sector, I was “overqualified.” At one interview for a state job, a woman seemed to think it was a bad thing that I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps, succeeding in college after having worked in a factory. I had apparently done too many different jobs in my life to please her. Self-improvement is wrong in the eyes of employers, I guess. They don’t want anyone who might be good at the job working there. It counted for nothing that I had done the job before. I still don’t understand it.
So I took a few low-skilled jobs just to keep working and have an income. Until the current Depression, I had a good record of remaining employed. Once, we even moved, thinking that it was our location that was keeping me from finding work as a geologist. We moved to Seattle. That was a bust. No jobs there either, and everyone seemed unpleasant, probably because it seldom stops raining. I was told that there were few jobs in geology and that I was competing against people with PhD’s for the few jobs there were. All I could get was more low-skilled work up there, not enough to be gainfully employed, or even to be employed full time.
Back to the Reno area, where we at least knew we liked the place. I got an opportunity to work in land surveying, and to learn a new trade with transferable skills. I learned field surveying and AutoCAD drafting at the same time, and soon became expert at both. Unlike in geology, I had no trouble finding work in the surveying field. They did not care that I was approaching middle age. They only cared that I could do the job well. As it should be.
Work would slow down occasionally. Sometimes because of winter weather, sometimes due to a temporary downturn in the economy. But I had work and my work was appreciated and acknowledged as the best.
I had earned several pay raises and decided to fulfill my dream of owning a home, something I would never have been able to do in Hawaii with its low wages and high cost of living. We had just had our first and only child and wanted her to grow up in a home. We had seen housing prices rise by $100,000 from one year to the next, and figured if we didn’t buy now we would never be able to, should the upward trend in prices continue. So we bought at the height of the housing bubble, with no clue as to what was to come.
I was 50 before I could afford to buy a home. My father managed to do so at 30. I would be 80 when I got the loan paid off, barring a miraculously large pay increase that might allow me to make more than the minimum mortgage payment each month. They say the jobs you get with a college education pay better. I’m not convinced. It has always been a struggle.
Throughout the years I worked as a surveyor/draftsman, I would occasionally apply for a geologist position. It never got me a job doing what I love best, though. I liked surveying and the associated travel and outdoor work, and I really enjoyed drafting. There was some thinking involved in both. Most of the people I worked with were much better at field work than drafting. Many could not use AutoCAD at all. I was always the guy people came to ask questions of when they were stuck as to how to do something in AutoCAD. The last company I worked for had a bizarre policy about AutoCAD licensing that required a signal to go to an office 400 miles away every time you used a command in AutoCad, to check for your AutoCAD license. This resulted in a drafting program so slow that, for the first time in my life, I worked faster than AutoCAD would run. I asked for help in this matter many times from my supervisor and from the company’s (information technology) department. They apparently did not wish to change the way they had it set up, so AutoCAD remained excruciatingly slow. My mind would be 10 steps ahead of where I was onscreen, and I would still be waiting for the last command to execute. Difficult to stay awake under those conditions. It is no fun being faster than software.
I had experience doing field surveying and drafting for projects in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah. I did not seek a surveying license because it requires a Bachelor’s degree now, and I already had two college degrees that weren’t doing me any good. What did I need with another one? My employers knew I was good at what I did, and they told me so. I felt that there was little I could not do with my education and experience, and nothing I could not learn easily. I saw no reason that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, at least until something in geology opened up.
In 2007, the construction and housing industries in Nevada collapsed and have not recovered. In 2008, the national economy and stock market crashed. For the umpteenth time, my 401k savings took a huge hit. The Bush years were not kind to my life savings. Employees are forced to gamble on the stock market, since banks no longer pay interest, and we lost money we could not afford to lose. Nevada led the nation in home foreclosures until Florida took over the lead in 2011. Nevada is a close second. Nevada continues to lead the nation in unemployment.
In 2007, I was laid off when no work was coming in for me to do. I found another job right away. In 2008, work slowed down again. By 2009, they could not keep us busy the requisite 32 hours per week to call us full-time employees, so they cut us to part-time. We would work anywhere from 0 to 24 hours a week. When they consistently couldn’t find us enough work to keep us busy the requisite 24 hours per week so that we could be called permanent part time and keep our benefits, they laid us off. I did not think I would have any trouble finding work, with my outstanding school and work records, even though I knew that work was scarce in surveying due to the construction industry collapse and the shortfall in public sector funding. But I was wrong again. It seems impossible to find skilled work, anywhere in the country.
I was underemployed throughout 2009, and have been unemployed for all of 2010 and 2011. I have applied for jobs all over the country, and a few abroad, because there are simply no job openings locally. I have had no interviews, not even by phone. I hate to lose our home here, but I am willing to go where the work is. If we stay here we lose our home to the bank anyway. I mainly apply for work that I am 100% qualified for. I have done this and been rejected the very next day for a job I have done before. As though comparing my resume with the job ad and finding a perfect match were a reason for instant rejection. I can’t pretend to understand that.
I have to assume it is, as mentioned above, that human resources will never recommend the best-qualified candidates for a job. Because there can’t be more than a handful of people in the country who can do what I can do. There are certainly some, but if I apply for enough jobs, and enough of the others find work, I have to be the top candidate eventually, if I wasn’t from the start. But not if they preemptively reject me from consideration.
I have had plenty of time during the current Depression (to call it merely a Recession or to claim it is over is to ignore reality) to look closely at my own background, but I see nothing that should prevent me from being hired. My age if human resources foolishly believes middle-aged people are of no use. But my age is not given on my resume. I was advised to list only 10 years of job experience and not to give college graduation dates. And since I was doing both field and office work at my most recent job, I must be fit to work.
The fact that I am unemployed seems to bring on a bizarre discrimination, although I explain in my cover letter that the layoff was no fault of my own. I have heard that they believe people who are not working lose their skills. I got A’s in college and have an excellent work record. Clearly, I am not the forgetful type. Sure, it would be nice to stay in practice with the software, but the American way of business is to never pay an employee so well that he can afford the software and equipment needed to go into business for himself. Work is simple for me, and I can be up to my former speed in less than a day. I have never had any problem quickly learning new software, and upgrades don’t slow me down at all. And AutoCAD, to me, is like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget how.
I suppose it is possible a former employer might have said something bad about me, even though I have always been told I was doing excellent work everywhere I have been employed. I can’t imagine what would be in it for them, to make a false statement about me. I have three reasons to suspect this has not happened, but I could be wrong. First, human resources does not run a work record check on everyone who applies for a job. They usually don’t do this until they interview you, and often not until after they hire you. Second, if there were something bad on my work record, it would have come up in an interview by now. It has not. Third, companies can fire you if they suspect you have misrepresented yourself on your resume, cover letter, or in an interview. I have never been fired, or even questioned about past workplaces. You see that years of unemployment can cause you to suspect that you are the reason you are not being hired, when in fact it is the insanity of the system that is keeping the best people out of jobs. And some companies have the nerve to complain that they cannot find enough skilled people in this country to do their jobs. The educated, skilled people they need are out here, in the USA, being kept from the jobs by the companies’ own human resource departments, and their desire to use cheaper overseas labor.
My mother died last month. She and my father had been married for 58 years. I could not afford to be there when she passed. My unemployment insurance extended benefits run out this month, and we will be without income. My wife, daughter and I have all been without health insurance (and dental and vision insurance) for two years. My daughter has had a toothache for at least a month, and I have nothing of value to sell to pay for dental treatment.
It’s good to be an American.
The better you are at something, the less chance you will be hired to make a living at it. And you have to pay insurance people with no medical knowledge whatsoever a huge sum of money just to have access to health care. And then they can deny you treatment for what ails you. Or at least refuse to pay for it, even though the policy says they must. And they know you can’t pay. Because they already have all your money.
I know I am not the only one in this predicament. People with advanced college degrees are still a minority in this country. Those I have talked to who have Master’s degrees are either out of work or doing something outside their field of study for low pay. All have tales of being called “overqualified.” Now, this even includes teachers, who are being laid off as if they were to blame for this country’s failing education system.
It irks me to hear government telling us that a good education is the solution to this joblessness and bad economy, even as they cut funding to our schools and lay off our teachers. And we can’t even provide jobs for the best-educated among us now, including those who made it through school while the schools were still in good shape. It’s all talk. Nothing is changing in the way hiring is done in this country. They don’t want the best-qualified people. I don’t see that changing in the next 10 years or the next 20. It will probably get worse as the population continues to be dumbed down.
I continue to apply for work, but without much hope. I have always been willing to work very hard so that my wife and daughter can have a decent life. My college grades show that I was motivated to work hard even before I met my wife. Now I do not have the opportunity to work. If I had an interview, and blew it, I could blame myself. I have the skills, and the education, and a good resume, but I have yet to get an interview in this Depression. And my skill and education level prevent me from being considered for lesser-skilled, lower-paying positions.
I am angry that I have done everything right in school and on the job all my life, and cannot find employment. I am disappointed that I cannot earn enough to help pay for care for my father. And I am frightened about what will happen to my family when we have no income. I have never been rich, but I don’t know how to be poor. I have always worked, and gotten by. It is all I know.
I would encourage anyone who knows people in similar circumstances — long-term jobless either now or in the recent past, aggressively searching in order to turn their lives around — to get in touch with me so I can share their stories as well. I’ll get into the causes of their unemployment, and — as I’ve shared so intimately in my own posts — the feelings that go on inside of them as they face their individual struggles.
If you know of anyone, send me a message on Facebook here.
This nation needs to start thinking about putting politics aside for good and start solving the problems for real.