When the axe fell last August, Deborah Brody Hamilton wasn’t totally blindsided. The nonprofit where she worked as a fundraiser had been undergoing big changes, including a new CEO; money was tight. What did shock her happened after the downsizing, as she fell into a world with entirely new job-hunting rules.
“I had never been laid off before, and it had been more than five years since I looked for a job,” says Hamilton, 50, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. “In that time, the Internet had changed everything about the search process.” She was demoralized by time-consuming online applications, which never gave her any confirmation that an actual human being looked at them. And while she had never given a second thought to her age, it was now a liability. “I was suddenly aware that I was competing with people who were 10 and even 20 years younger than me,” she says.
Off and Running Right Away
Hamilton began job-hunting immediately, reaching out with emails and phone calls to her contacts asking for leads, ideas, advice, and informational interviews, starting with her many contacts on LinkedIn. “People either said, `This is a terrible economy, and no time to make a career change.’ Or there were the `follow your dreams!’ people, who said `Yes—now is the time to become an acrobat and join the circus.’ I didn’t find either response very helpful.”
A mutual friend suggested she talk to AnnMarie McIlwain, founder and CEO of CareerFuel, a website that connects job seekers and entrepreneurs with mentors and resources. At first, all Hamilton could think about was getting another job, fast. “I had tunnel vision,” she admits. McIlwain, who asked Hamilton to blog about her layoff for CareerFuel, kept asking gentle questions. What was her dream job? What did she want to learn next?
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At first, Hamilton (who is married with no children) brushed those questions aside, pouring her energy into finding development jobs, “simply because I thought I could get hired.” But her heart wasn’t in it. “I’d come out of interviews thinking, `I’d rather stick needles in my eye than take that job.’”
McIlwain suggested Hamilton consider two tracks—a fundraising job, and something different. “Gradually, the idea that I really wanted a job in communications, writing and development, which is what I did before becoming a fundraiser, began to crystalize,” Hamilton says. She narrowed the field and salary: Her dream job would focus on sustainability and environmental issues, and pay around $100,000. (“I know that sounds like so much money, but the Washington D.C. area has the highest median income in the country.”) She went back to her contacts, asking if they had any suggestions or connections that might help.
The Headhunter Time Trap
When she began to connect with headhunters leading searches in fundraising, she was encouraged. But times had changed. “The recruiter contacts you, and sets up a phone interview. A month later, another phone interview. Then a panel interview. Because there are so many applicants, the screening process just keeps getting longer. But going through this gauntlet didn’t mean I was getting any closer to a job. They were just wasting my time.”
Worse, she felt like the universe was conspiring to slow down her search. “In late October, Hurricane Sandy hit, and that shut everything down. Then came the election, then Thanksgiving. “If one more person told me to take the holidays off, I’d scream,” she recalls.
Instead, she intensified the pace, going through business calendars from the last several years, saved in Outlook, “calling everyone I had ever met and asking for an informational interview.” Blogging for CareerFuel helped. “I didn’t feel so powerless. Everybody else is calling the shots about hiring, but I get to tell my story the way I see it,” she says.
In December, she scheduled an informational interview with someone she had met briefly a few years earlier who was now working for a consulting company that develops agricultural solutions to address world hunger. He introduced her to another executive at Fintrac, who told her about a job opening that might be a fit.
The job was posted soon after, and Hamilton tailored her resume to better highlight her communications strengths. (Her job-hunting blog showed off her social-media skills.) At 6 p.m. on the Friday before Christmas, the HR department called to say they were checking her references, and that she would hear by noon on Christmas Eve
Noon came and went. Hamilton was so distracted she went out for a manicure. “It was the only thing I could think to do to make myself feel better.” When her cell phone rang at 2 p.m., she pounced on it, smudging her still-wet nails -- and accepted the job offer. “I cried when I ended the call. I was so excited I was shaking."
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She continues to be thrilled with the new job, in a fascinating new field: “The salary was comparable. I’m not required to manage people. And my boss is just phenomenal.”
But her five-month bout of unemployment was humbling and instructive. “I always thought I was highly marketable. I have a good network. I have good skills. I thought I’d be working again by October. This was really hard,” she says, adding, “I am very lucky that things worked out this way.”
What you can learn from Deborah Hamilton’s search:
Anne Marie McIlwain was inspired to found CareerFuel when her husband was laid off and overwhelmed by Google searches that netted more than 2 billion results. “We wanted to help people find a way to job hunt that wasn’t so daunting,” she says. The CareerFuel online community is free to join, as are most of the resources it suggests for job seekers and small-business owners. McIlwain says the tactics below can help in any search.
Get past the shame “Numbers don’t lie,” McIlwain says, and while long-term unemployment has declined by more than a million in the last year, “there are still 22 million people working who are underemployed. This is about the economy—it isn’t your fault.”
Network sooner rather than later Because Hamilton had consistently worked at building a professional network throughout her career, “when she said `Help me,’ she got help.”
Stay in circulation A big problem with job-hunting “is that you start to feel invisible. The only way to combat that is by being seen.” Have coffee with a friend, go to a free seminar at the library, or audit a college class. It’s not just good for your soul, she says, “it’s another chance to network. You never know who you will meet.”
Photo credit: Simon Bruty