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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
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
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
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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