Monday, March 16, 2009

Pull up those bootstraps!

Today Abby printed a letter from a woman bemoaning that her bachelor's degree was useless, and I couldn't help but groan a little on the inside:

DEAR ABBY: I was a stay-at-home mom for many years and enrolled in college when my youngest entered kindergarten. I held various part-time (and later full-time) dead-end jobs to supplement my husband's income. It took 15 years, but I finally graduated with a B.A. in history, although I have since discovered there isn't much I can do with my degree.

After almost 30 years of marriage, my husband decided he wanted a divorce. I am now on my own and struggling to survive. I have no marketable skills, can't afford to attend school full-time because I must work in order to have benefits, and don't have the money to pay for more training without going into further debt. I don't know how I'll ever be self-supporting.

My current job pays $10 an hour, the benefits are good, but I don't really like my job or see myself ever earning a higher hourly wage. If it wasn't for alimony, I'd be even worse off, but that won't last forever. (I have three years left.)

I'm thankful that my kids are on their own and don't need my support, but they can't help me either. What options are there for someone in my situation? -- FRUSTRATED IN NORTH CAROLINA

Now, I feel a little bad taking her to task, because she's in a particularly difficult position: recently empty-nested and divorced, she was a non-traditional student and seems never to have had a very satisfying work experience. Add that to the current economic climate and we wind up with a very different beast than the 22 year old liberal arts major who stays in school just because they don't know what else to do and have convinced themselves they'll never get a job.

But......still. She's managed to finish her degree, work, and raise a family--she needs to give herself a little credit and put those skills to use! Maybe her past work experiences weren't exactly gateways to the corner office, but surely she did SOMETHING of value. Did she serve customers well? Was she a good listener? A creative problem solver? A mediator in conflict? Loyal and never missed a day of work? All of these things count! What on earth does she mean she has "no marketable skills"? Of course she does.

Abby was encouraging:

DEAR FRUSTRATED: You are an educated, literate, mature college graduate. You could make some executive an excellent, competent personal assistant. Depending upon what the requirements are in your state, you might also be able to be a teacher's assistant in one of the schools.

Contact an employment agency and ask if it can give you a skill assessment. I am sure you could find a job where your attributes would be appreciated if you start looking.

These are both great suggestions--substitute teaching might be another option that could potentially ease her into being a teaching assistant. But I think her options go way beyond these if she is open-minded. Yes, it's true that many jobs are looking for more specialized backgrounds than they used to. I've definitely noticed that more places want people who majored in business, communications, HR, etc. when previously the rule of thumb I always heard was that it didn't matter what your major was as long as you had a degree. (Or maybe that was just a line my liberal arts school tried to sell me...)

The college degree may not a golden ticket anymore, but work experience IS. This woman has a leg up on all the green graduates who will be excluded from jobs looking for "3-5 years" experience, if she can find a way to spin her myriad experiences as relevant. I agree she should seek help from an employment agency or, maybe even better, the career center at her university (many provide free support for all alumni) to see what suggestions they have.

As for her current job, why can't she see herself ever earning a higher hourly wage? Can she seek a raise (maybe not this year....) or is there some way to earn bonuses or other useful incentives?

A person with a college degree, a job, health insurance, additional financial support for three years to come, and independent adult children for whom she doesn't have to provide does not get to say she has no options.

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