ON Friday we learned that the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent last month and that the economy lost 263,000 jobs. I have been unemployed since February. I have also been incredibly busy.
My last job lasted one afternoon. I showed up at a large parking lot in a semi-remote area with a group of other job seekers. In a large area cordoned off with orange traffic cones, we walked around wearing fake suicide bombs and emitting low-level radiation. Our job was to test bomb-detection equipment. I earned $44.
After that, even temporary work petered out. I am not unemployable. I have a master’s of fine arts and spent two years in the Peace Corps. All that looks fine on my résumé. But there are also gaps in my work history: long empty months punctuated with only temporary periods of employment. I have had lots of opportunities to practice glossing that over for potential employers.
The truth is, I don’t have a lot of real-world career experience. I worked my way through college as a baby sitter, sandwich-maker, camp craft director and nursing-home aide. After graduation, I held to my chest a spotty collection of skills sprinkled liberally with artistic theory and personal vision.
In my master’s program, we talked a lot about theory and personal vision. We could experiment with whatever we wanted and it was wonderful. We tried not to dwell on earthy, unpleasant topics like money, or how to make it.
In the Peace Corps, I taught art as a vocational skill. Artists, the headmistress at my school in Ghana told me in words that were less than prophetic, “can always make a living.”
If I were to make an artwork expressing this period of unemployment, I would make stacks and stacks of little box-shaped rooms wallpapered with résumés. Each room would have one little person inside and one window. That is what I felt like. Boundless possibilities, but hemmed in by the walls of an apartment where I spent every day looking for a way to afford all the things I wanted to do.
The worst thing was the feeling of uselessness — the fear that I was simply unskilled and unable to compete. Where had I miscalculated when I was planning out my life?
An unlikely solution finally pulled me out of my metaphorical shoebox wallpapered with résumés.
“I’d love to work for a literary agent, reading the slush pile,” a friend told me one day. She was unhappy in her job and had been considering a career change. “I’m just going to call around,” she continued. “And see if I can.”
“It’s not as easy as that,” I said. (I had just been turned down for a part-time job supervising naptime at a day-care center. Apparently other applicants were more qualified.) But my friend found a local literary agent. She e-mailed him, called him and pursued him until he agreed to let her work for him free. Now she reads, edits, writes — and avoids the dreaded résumé gap.
This was a revelation for me. People will hire you to work for free. Whether you are overqualified or underqualified matters a lot less if you aren’t being paid.
Inspired, I set out to find my own free job. I got in touch with a nonprofit arts program. Someone contacted me about creating a logo for the program. Then an illustration project came up. Suddenly, I was really busy.
I had never created a logo before. But I downloaded a free, open-source graphics program, went through a couple of tutorials and then got to work. Now I have another skill to add to my résumé.
In my free time, between applying for jobs and working for free, I work on my portfolio. I join art societies, clubs and organizations, and follow other artists, writers and agents through online forums and Twitter. This takes up a lot of time. I’m beginning to understand that this is the period in my life when I have to teach myself.
I registered at the unemployment office and began searching its online database. The woman who interviewed me asked, “Are you willing to work anywhere, like in a warehouse?” I nodded, but not without hesitation. In high school, I worked in a clothing factory folding and bagging long underwear, using a tagging gun to shoot the plastic connectors through the tags (the things that are so annoying to tear off later). My hands were covered in scars from the long needle on the tagging gun. The insides of my nostrils were coated with blue lint from the fabric. I used to think about how much I wanted to go to college, so I would never have to work at a place like that again.
It is true that I don’t face some of the challenges confronting many of the newly unemployed — I’m healthy, for instance, and I don’t have a family to support. But it’s also true that I need a job, any job.
That said, in the last few months I’ve learned something new, something that might even be useful to others: my time is valuable, really valuable, even if it’s not measured in paychecks.
Jennifer Williams is an illustrator.