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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Totally Wired, But Still Jobless

<B>Tim Johnston has a background in theater, but

didn’t seek out his current star turn. He is writing a series of columns

called Job Hunter’s Diary for the Wall Street Journal’ online publication

CareerJournal.com Response is unprecedented. Hundreds of kindred

souls are filling the website’s bulletin board with responses.

"It’s celebrity in a strange sort of way," says Johnston.

"I was a performer for a long time, but this is different. It’s

very, very intense. The column is getting more attention than anything

they’ve (the CareerJournal) ever done."

Johnston was born in New York City, and lived there until he was 11

and his family moved to Princeton. His father, Charles Johnston,

has been an investment consultant in town for two decades. His mother,

Judith Dejong, is remarried and living in Florida. Johnston

is a graduate of Princeton Day School. From there he went on to Duke

(Class of 1983), and began an eclectic career that, he is finding,

is a turn-off to potential employers.

"Duke didn’t have a theater department then," Johnston recounts,

"so I got into technical theater — building sets." He

immersed himself in the theater work, neglecting to a degree his major

areas of concentration, first economics and then pre-med. After earning

a bachelor’s in psychology, he returned to Princeton, working at the

Medical Center at Princeton as, among other things, an orderly at

Princeton House.

During that time, he frequently traveled into Manhattan seeking work

in the theater. Of that brutal arena, he exclaims, "horrible!"

He returned to Duke, planning to get a master’s of arts in liberal

studies, an area whose appeal at the time, he says, was "you could

keep staying in school without deciding what to do." He laughs

as he recounts his failure to get into a program whose very name evokes

vapor. "They said my proposal was too vague," he says.

But as so often happens the rejection quickly became a good thing.

He ended up starting a conference department at Duke, and moonlighting

as an actor in local theaters. His acting led to a job as head of

a theater group in Chapel Hill, a position he happily held for nine

years. He also gave time to the North Carolina Arts Council, and he

exercised the left side of his brain by doing computer consulting.

Participating in a panel discussion at the arts council, he became

dispirited to see that "non-profits have no business sense."

In his first column for CareerJournal.com, "Absorbing the Shock

of Losing Your Job," he writes that this moment caused an epiphany.

After 15 years of racking up a wealth of disparate work experiences,

he saw a way to pull it all together. He and his wife, Claire Rosenson,

an academic editor, decided to relocate to Boston, where he would

pursue an M.B.A. at Boston Universtiy. Ever the Renaissance man, Johnston

decided — what the heck — to earn a second master’s degree,

in management information systems, at the same time.

Upon graduation, he went to work for a nonprofit that created Web-based

courses for doctors. The year was 2000, a date business historians

will instantly connect with the collapse of nearly everything dot-com.

Johnston was out of a job.

Not a big problem, he thought at first. He and his wife

have a small child — one-year-old Hannah — and both have family

in New Jersey, and they welcomed an opportunity to relocate to the

area. They happily moved in with Rosenson’s family, who live in East

Windsor. Johnston enjoys spending time getting to know his in-laws,

both PhDs who, like him, did not stick to a straight and narrow career

path. Lee Rosenson earned a Harvard MBA, quickly decided he hated

business, obtained a Ph.D. in biology, and taught at Stockton. His

wife, Suzanne Levin, also taught science at Stockton, but then, in

her 40s, shifted gears, obtained a master’s degree in counseling,

and became a high school counselor.

The Rosensons, says Johnston, are gracious hosts. Having a secure,

pleasant home removed some of the angst from the job search, particularly

early on. He recalls thinking "this is pretty good. I could get

used to this."

But in his most recent CareerJournal.com column, "Money Is a Touchy

Subject for Unemployed Professionals," Johnston reveals that financial

worries are creeping in. He and his family have a rent-free roof over

their heads, but they still have to pay $1,075 a month for health

care, an amount Johnston finds "staggering," repay school

loans, and write checks to the day care provider that allows him to

hunt for a job and her to work on her editing jobs. In that column

he wrote that his biggest worry was the rent on his Boston apartment.

In a phone interview after the column appeared, however, he says he

began to realize his landlord was not trying very hard to rent the

unit, applied some pressure, and is now free of the lease.

Still, as he writes in the column, it’s not easy for a 41-year-old

to have no paycheck on the horizon. "Not only do I have to think

about the money we’re spending," he writes. "I have to worry

about the money we aren’t saving." Then there are the psychological

issues. "Taking money from family makes my wife and me feel like

children again," he writes. "We’d rather not do it, but we

don’t think we have a choice."

The stigma of unemployment is creeping in, this last column reveals.

"I went to the doctor for a routine checkup," he writes. "I

left the employer portion of the form blank. The receptionist shouted

across the waiting room: `Who’s your employer?’ I shouted back, `I’m

unemployed.’ People buried their heads in their magazines."

It has been six months since Johnston got his pink slip, and despite

his double graduate degrees, computer expertise, and extensive work

history, he has had no job offers. This is not a good time to be job

hunting. He says September 11 is still on employers’ minds, inducing

a sort of paralysis, even though no one mention it. "They’re not

saying `we’re confused because of this terrorist thing,’" he says,

but he senses that is indeed the case.

A bad situation became worse in April, after the post-9/11 economic

recovery abruptly fizzled, and reports of corporate impropriety gave

skittish employers one more reason to stay frozen. In March, Johnston

says, his online resumes were at least getting a lot of hits, even

if they were not bagging him scores of interviews. "After April,

nothing," he says. "Nobody is even looking at resumes."

In addition to the resumes he has posted online, Johnston has sent

out about 100 to individual employers, spending up to one full day

researching each company and carefully crafting a cover letter. "I

go through draft after draft," he says. "It doesn’t seem to

work, and I’m not surprised."

Networking, he knows, is the way into a job. His brother-in-law is

the executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and

has hooked him up with a number of people in the non-profit arena.

He has other contacts as well, but, he says, "networking is no

good when nobody’s hiring."

It was networking, however, that got him his gig with the Wall Street

Journal. He started attending meetings of Jobseekers, a free group

that offers support and advice to the unemployed each Tuesday at Trinity

Church in Princeton. There he recognized Niels Nielsen, the group’s

organizer, as the father of a PDS classmate. When Laura Lorber, who

edits CareerJournal.com for the Journal, called Nielsen looking for

a columnist, he thought of Johnston right away.

A gifted — and very funny — writer, Johnston is enjoying writing

his column, but he says it has led to no job interviews. None at all.

He has landed four or so interviews on his own. He aced one, he says.

He and the interviewer hit it off perfectly, and at the end the interview

told him, "`I think you have the best grasp of the big picture.’"

Bad news followed. "`But,’" the interviewed continued, "`for

right now, I need someone with more experience doing this specific

thing.’"

And there lies the crux of Johnston’s job search dilemma. He is finding

that despite all their talk of prizing self-starting, entreprenurial,

think-outside-the-box types, what corporations still want is —

well — corporate man. Johnston says companies look for a resume

that reads like a step ladder. No one knows what to do with a person

who has gathered diverse skills in a variety of fields.

The Internet has made the situation worse. Johnston says he jokes

with other Jobseeksers members about job sites like the one Johnson

& Johnson has put on the ‘Net. It asks applicants for a specific position

to state whether they have a certain number of years of experience

in increasingly narrow job responsibilities. An example, says Johnston,

is "`How many years of packaging in a female products area do

you have?’"

Who could pass this test? he wonders.

Johnston says his ideal job would be a marketing position "for

any kind of company." After a moment’s thought he amends this

statement. "Anything but consumer products," he says. "I’d

rather be dead than be a brand manager for Frito Lay." Really,

though, he says the work itself is less important than the people

for whom he would be working.

After six months during which he has seen little in the way of hiring

activity for anyone, much less for someone with his eclectic background,

Johnston is facing the fact that he may not be working for anyone

any time soon. He is considering consulting, perhaps to non-profits,

and is increasingly interested in writing, too.

Already, just months into his writing career, he has experienced a

little typical writer/editor tension. He wants to write about his

experiences, but the Journal would prefer an advice driven column.

He says the last thing he wants to do is give advice to job hunters.

After all, he says, "I don’t have a job."

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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