The View From Your Recession

A reader writes:

I’m a graphic designer living near a large city in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from college a year ago with my BA and I’ve been looking for paid work ever since. I’m originally from Australia and came here to study, so I’m still on a student visa that dictates I find work in the field of my major (design and photography) while I wait for my permanent residency to come through.

Finding work has been an exercise in the impossible. In the last year, between applying for positions in person, online, by mail, cold calling, and in many cases simply going door to door at creative agencies and trying to seek work directly from business owners, I’ve applied for about 60 positions. I’ve gotten lucky enough to score a job interview twice (without luck), and I managed a 3 month unpaid internship late last year, but it led nowhere since – surprise! – they couldn’t afford to hire me at the end of it. Right now I help a friend run her fledgling photo business just for something to keep busy – but again, it’s unpaid.

I have a strong portfolio, a good work ethic, am personable – hell, I even have the Aussie accent going for me. Ultimately it leads nowhere. My experience thus far suggests that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve accomplished or what your skills are – if you were unfortunate enough to graduate or find yourself looking for work in the last two years then it sucks to be you.

The speed with which rejection comes is absolutely astonishing. Thinking along the same lines as the career counselor that was featured last week, I thought that applying in person, portfolio under arm and dressed to impress would be a good idea. Even if there weren’t any immediate openings, surely the act of being bold enough to walk in uninvited would count for something, and I could (hopefully) put a face to my name and be a first port call when something comes along. While I’m sure this works in normal circumstances, it assumes there will be job openings at some point. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case.

Most times I’ve tried this approach I’ve been rejected before I’ve even had a chance to offer a business card or show my portfolio, the reality being that most creative agencies have seen downturns of near 50% (since their health relies entirely on the health of other businesses to buy new ad campaigns and the like) and they can barely find enough work for the designers left standing. Even when I offer to work for free, on the assumption that it could lead to work later down the line, I’m still rejected on the basis that even if I was given an unpaid position, there’s not enough work for me to have anything to do!

I don’t begrudge any of these businesses their rejections of me, as most have been nice enough to review my portfolio and take a resume after explaining their hiring situation. Most of them like my work. I’m told frequently that if they were hiring, I’d be an ideal candidate.

I dropped in to see one of my professors two months back, curious to see how other graduates were doing. She’d always been particularly nice to her students, and took a keen interest in her students’ lives after graduation. My graduating class was somewhere between 30-35 students, and I was eager to find out if I was crazy, or if this was somehow normal. I found out that of my graduating class, only two of us had found work. The best part? One of those people was me – she was counting my unpaid internship. The other fellow who’d found “work” had also received an unpaid internship, but like myself, had been cut when it expired as his agency couldn’t afford to hire him either.

During my internship, I remember one of my co-workers telling me about their previous intern, an incredibly talented young woman who’d produced some of the best work they’d ever seen. My co-worker had just been to Starbucks, where said intern had served her and wished her a nice day. The sad part is after a year of looking for something, anything paid, I would relish that opportunity.

I’ve never been someone who believes that work is easy, that life will suddenly make sense after graduation or that a perfect career will drop into my lap. Getting your career in order should be a challenge. Climbing the ladder of life should take time. But you need a rung to start from, and right now there’s a lot of ladders out there without rungs.