For some reason I’ve always had at the back of my mind a plan for how I’d make money if I couldn’t do my normal job. It allowed me to indulge my fantasies about resignation when I was a disillusioned civil servant; it meant I could be brave enough to start a PhD; and it saved me from believing I needed to hang around my former university being paid £30 a week before I got my last academic job.
The plan all hangs on having a respectable typing speed, because I learned how to touch type last time I was unemployed, by playing obsessively on Mavis Beacon Typing Tutor for a couple of miserable months in 1996. And so, back in the 21st century, I wrote a big
cheque check and an only slightly disingenuous letter (step 1), got my US employment authorization through (step 2), applied for a social security number (step 3) and set about finding paid employment.
The first thing you need to do, as an academic looking for a ‘normal’ job, is to rewrite your CV. First of all, in the US there’s a weird division between academic CVs, which are called CVs, and other CVs, which are called resumes. (This is really only relevant in that it probably does you no favours to email out a temping cv with a filename ‘admin cv’ – you just look pretentious.) You then have to go through the heartbreaking process of cutting out everything on your CV you’re most proud of, and especially that hard-earned list of publications, and emphasising strengths that you have never previously thought of as worthy of any attention.
So step 4: do an inventory of your strengths as they appear to an administrative temping agency. Writing undergraduate lectures? That’s ‘advanced Powerpoint skills’. Marking essays? You can probably sell it as ‘proofreading’. Organising a conference is still organising a conference (yay!), but now with special reference to ‘ordering office supplies’ and ‘greeting visitors’. As for your imagined talents for explaining the phenomenon of affective piety, Middle English syntax or how to write a better essay next time… er, no one cares about any of them.
This is where you backpedal, step 5, and consider that this is all too depressing and maybe you could get some academic work if you really put your mind to it. We can call this ‘where I was in mid-January’. I sent out my CV to six universities, begging for casual teaching work. This was surprisingly successful: I got offered three courses to teach in 2011/12. But there are six months of rent, food and a quite extravagantly conceived trip back to Europe to get through before then, so it was back to the temping agencies.
Step 6: research looking for a job in Chicago. Misstep one was thinking I’d found a goldmine on Craigslist. The jobs on Craigslist fall into one of four categories. One: the worst job in the world. ‘Small engineering firm in obscure barely commutable Chicago suburb requires flexible executive assistant to perform personal and professional duties: keep accounts, excellent computer skills, field phonecalls, do my laundry, clean my house, manage tenant properties. Some evenings and weekends. Must be able to deal with
constant sexual harassment male dominated environment. Pay $10 per hour.’ Two: the perfect job, flexible, interesting, well-paid – but they never reply to your email. Three: ‘administrative assistant needed for small friendly firm. Send resume stating salary requirement.’ Four: a Nigerian-banking scam masquerading as a PA job. (You know, you have to receive the payments into your bank account and then track them in Excel.) I actually spent ten minutes on an application for that one, because the ad itself looked legit.
Step 7: Send your
CV resume to some temp agencies. Well, I say ‘send your resume’, but often it’s not quite that easy. You generally have to spend 20-90 minutes moving through online questionnaires where you laboriously input your work experience details, get irritated by forms that can’t deal with your lack of a GPA for school, college, anything, and then complete skills inventories. These ask you how many years and months you have spent doing ‘Powerpoint – intermediate’, ‘Powerpoint-advanced’, ‘Answer phones – intermediate’, ‘Answer phones – advanced’ until you think your brain will freeze.
Step 8: Phone the temp agencies to chase up the application after giving them a couple of days of grace. ‘Call back if we haven’t called you in the next two weeks,’ was the first response I got. There is no easy way to distinguish between a temp agency that has no work, a temp agency that doesn’t like the look of you, and a temp agency that might call you back tomorrow when they have time. Back in 1996 I wandered into branches of Office Angels in London and did typing tests on the spot. In 2011, or maybe just in Chicago, it is hard to find out where the branch even is.
Step 9: Get called in for an interview! After submitting twenty applications and chasing up fifteen, I finally got three interviews. Not for, like, actual jobs, you understand. Oh no. Just for the honour of being put on the agency’s books. I had two interviews one day on La Salle Street in the Loop, in towering buildings with grand marble lobbies and nondescript office suites reminiscent of Being John Malkovich upstairs.
Step 10: Do more paperwork. Emergency contacts, skill sets, social security, tax withholding(?), work experience listed in fifty different orders, more referees than you’d need to adopt a child, sign this, sign that, sign the other.
Step 11: The tests! I did the Office ones. I learned that no one in academia does the fancy formatting that accounts for about a fifth of the questions they ask you on Excel tests. (And did anyone ask me to calculate a standard deviation? They did not.) But then I aced my Word, Powerpoint and typing tests and felt very smug.
Step 12: More tests – clerical tests, on paper. This was when my smugness was knocked down by the realisation that I could barely remember how to do long multiplication. Then quickly rebuilt when I saw that there were two separate very extensive tests of my knowledge of the alphabet.
Step 13: An interview where you are asked to tell your life story so far, set out your expectations and generally come across as a personable human being who could be trusted to behave normally in the workplace. Something that goes down well with temp agency interviewers: hearing that you are here in America ‘because of my husband’s job’. Something that goes down badly: when you make it clear that your primary concern is how much money you can earn.
Step 14: The agency puts your resume forward to its client for a job paying $18-20 an hour that requires advanced Powerpoint skills. It comes to nothing.
Step 15: The agency offers you a job working as a receptionist for $12 an hour on Michigan Avenue, where ‘I think you might be a little bored’, but the job is there, on the table, for a month.
Step 16: The agency hints that they are offering you the job because you had nice clothes at the interview, and a British accent. They ask you to buy a jacket to wear to work, and to report at 8.15am. You are not a morning person. You agree.
I start on Wednesday.