Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

January 7, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Happy Endings: From Unemployment to Author

CareerJournal.com, the Wall Street Journal’s online career site, with

the help of Niels Nielsen, turned Tim Johnston, an unemployed

professional, into an instant media star. Johnston was attending

JobSeekers, the long-established job hunting group Nielsen moderates

at Trinity Episcopal church in Princeton on

Tuesday evenings. CareerJournal was looking for an articulate

unemployed person to write a column detailing his job search.

CareerJournal editors Laura Lorber and Perri Capell approached

Nielsen. In a preface to the book, written with Johnston, they write:

"As editors, we had long wanted to run a series of articles

chronicling the ups and downs of one executive’s path to reemployment,

but the right person who could create this ‘Diary of a Job Search’ had

not surfaced. We needed an executive willing to share the intimate

details of what likely would be one of the most difficult periods of

his or her life, someone who was willing to honestly tackle the tough

questions."

Nielsen presented the editors with seven names; Johnston’s was at the

top of the list.

The column was an immediate success, drawing hundreds of thousands of

E-mails and chat room postings from people who were suffering through

the same bad-economy job search that was testing Johnston.

"Diary of a Job Search: One Man’s Journey from Unemployment to a New

Career" (Ten Speed Press, $16.95) is the book that came out of the

journey of self-discovery that was Johnston’s job search. His columns

detailed everything from the despair of sending resumes into a black

hole to the joy of being at home to revel in his young daughter’s

second year of life. They speak of financial worries, hurtful comments

from people who ought to know better, interviews with idiotic hiring

managers, changes in career direction, and, finally, landing the

perfect job.

The book that Johnston, Lorber, and Capell have written contains more

than the columns. It weaves reactions of CareerJournal readers and

advice to job hunters between the columns. The result is an unusually

honest and helpful tool for anyone looking for a job or thinking of

changing careers. Beyond that, it is a human drama with wide appeal.

Johnston is an insightful man, and his musings encompass far more than

resume preparation and interview etiquette. He gets to the heart of

what work means, and of how it intersects with family, including

extended family.

Reactions to his experience make for good reading too. The experiences

they detail are often sad, and sometimes desperate, and always human.

Anyone who has ever been out of work will quickly identify, and

fervently hope that all landed as well as Johnston did.

U.S. 1 spoke with Johnston, who grew up in Princeton, in the summer of

2002, when he was about half-way through his job search – and his

column. At that time, he was living with his in-laws in East Windsor.

A graduate of Duke, his initial career objective had been the stage.

Duke did not have a theater major, so he majored first in economics

and then in pre-med, neglecting his studies in both to devote time to

his avocation.

His resume includes a stint at the Princeton Medical Center, where he

worked for a short time as an orderly. He also started a conference

department at Duke, led a theater group in Chapel Hill, volunteered

with the North Carolina Arts Council, worked as a computer consultant,

and earned both an MBA and a master’s in management information

systems from Boston University.

He got a job with an Internet-based non-profit at just the wrong time

– 2000, the year that the briefly-high-flying Internet world

collapsed. Out of a job, he returned home to the Princeton area, where

his in-laws graciously offered shelter and support.

Back in the summer of 2002, Johnston had been out of work for six

months, and had received nothing even vaguely resembling a job offer.

He had sent out more than 100 resumes, meticulously researching each

company and custom-tailoring the resume before taking it to the

mailbox. He had become convinced that "nobody is even reading

resumes."

His column had been appearing for weeks, and had generated tremendous

interest from among readers, but it had won him no interviews. He was

discouraged. He said that he and his wife, even living with the most

welcoming in-laws imaginable, were beginning to feel like children. He

was willing to consider jobs he would not have a few months earlier.

Maybe marketing, he said, quickly adding, "anything but consumer

products. I’d rather be dead than be a brand manager for Frito Lay."

In the end, he didn’t have to settle. In the final chapter of Diary of

a Job Search, we learn that, 18 months after being handed a pink slip,

Johnston was happily employed in a dream job. He had landed a position

as CIO of the Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development Inc.,

a $100 million non-profit human services organization with 3,000

employees in more than 150 programs in nine states.

He had traversed a lot of ground, and the trip, as told in his book,

provides lessons to those who inevitably will need to tread it in the

months or years to come.

An example is a chapter titled "Discouragement at a Job Fair." He had

done his research and had pre-registered for a job fair. He had

arrived early to beat the rush. Pulling into the parking lot a full

hour ahead of time, he found it difficult to find a spot. Inside, he

inched his way toward the main floor for two hours and twenty-five

minutes.

"As I entered the room," he writes, "I watched the other job hunters.

Some were walk-running like children at a swimming pool as they tried

to find their target companies; others stood still, looking around. I

could see the horrible moment of realization on people’s faces. Some

understood immediately; others tried to cling to their hope and

illusions. Eventually it struck me: There would be no interviews with

recruiters. There was no plan and no order. This was a free-for-all.

We were preselected to be chumps."

As he worked his way around the room, he ran into recruiters who

refused proffered paper resumes, and told job hunters to just send

them to the company’s website. He heard recruiters tell supplicants

that they receive 150 jobs resumes a day for several weeks every

single time they post an open job.

"It was like Walt Disney World at Christmas," he writes. "But without

the security and order imposed by stanchions and ropes. At least at

Disney, you know you’re eventually going to get somewhere and that the

wait will be worth it."

Following this column, Lorber and Capell weighed in with analysis and

perspective. Throughout the book, they try to be upbeat and to offer

suggestions, but they have little to offer, other than all-important

affirmation, about job fairs.

"One lesson to be learned from Tim’s job fair experience," they write,

"is to keep your expectations aligned with reality. When unemployment

is high, at a career event job seekers are bound to outnumber

recruiters." They quote statistics saying that 70 percent of employers

and 76 percent of professional-level job seekers use job fairs, but

that only 23 percent of each group finds them effective.

After this comment, the book provides excerpts from five E-mail

reactions to the job fair column, which vary little. Alfredo C. writes

"I guess the real question on the table is why companies are holding

these job fairs at all, especially if the only feedback or advice that

is provided is to apply online. From my observation, the only things

the events do is waste people’s valuable time and created unneeded

travel expenses."

Another comment focused on the fact that the only uncrowded job fair

he had ever been to was one featuring only straight-commission jobs.

"So if you find yourself at a job fair that isn’t crowded or a cattle

call, that may be the reason," M.C. concludes.

Still, determined to be upbeat within reasonable limits, Lorber and

Capell provide a list of websites that list job fairs, and provide

strategies for those who are willing to brave the events. Wasting

little time on what appears to be a dead-horse topic, they quickly

move on to detail other, more effective, job search gatherings,

including networking groups, chamber of commerce meetings, and

industry associations.

This format is followed throughout, and includes advice on everything

from what to do when you hit the wall to productive use of the

downtime a period of unemployment provides.Johnston’s final column is

particularly affecting. Happily employed, he writes of what he learned

from his year-and-a-half on the streets. "I’d sought psychic

sustenance from unemployed comrades," he writes. "I now miss the sense

of belonging that I felt while I was struggling. While misery may love

company, so does hope. I had the pleasure of seeing some of my fellow

job seekers at their very best – when they were most human, humble,

courageous, and kind. I felt a bond with even those people I never met

– those who posted messages on various bulletin boards or simply

existed for me as ideas. We were bound together as partners in a most

difficult adventure.

"Now that I’m employed again, my fellow employed people are in sharp

focus. Since I feel lucky to have a job, and especially one I love,

I’m amazed to rediscover how many people are either indifferent about

their jobs or actually dislike them. They’ve allowed themselves to be

reduced to bags of minor aches, pains, and complaints.

"Employed or not, life is hard. But we have a chance to see it

differently."


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