Friday, December 4, 2009

Surviving in a Survivalist Economy

I'm having a good day so far. I brewed some great-tasting coffee, new unemployment numbers show employers shed fewer jobs last month, and my Oregon Ducks are going to the Rose Bowl to give Ohio State a tutorial in how football is played.

But the new underemployment numbers are harshing my mellow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 9.3 million Americans are working part-time jobs to make ends meet - an all time high.

These jobs pay the bills but don't allow these workers to apply what they know, and there's no hint they'll get back to using what they know anytime soon.

Talk about depressing.

I have tremendous sympathy for these workers, because it happened to me during the 1990s recession. I know first hand how it feels to be painfully overqualified for the job you're currently doing. You do what you have to do to make ends meet, however.

And when times are tough, you feel lucky just to have a job, grateful that an employer was willing to take a chance on hiring someone who's overqualified and could bolt for greener pastures at any moment. As the employee, you feel grateful yet frustrated at the same time. It's a situation filled with mixed emotions.

My theme song back then was "Up Around the Bend" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The lyrics really spoke to me:

There's a place up ahead and I'm goin'
Just as fast as my feet can fly
Come away, come away if you're goin'
Leave the sinking ship behind
Come on, the rising wind
We're going up around the bend...
You can ponder perpetual motion
Fix your mind on a crystal day
Always time for good conversation
There's an ear for what you say...
Catch a ride to the end of the highway
And we'll meet by the big red tree
There's a place up ahead and I'm goin'
Come along, come along with me.

Crystal day...perpetual motion...big red tree. Somewhere "up around the bend" sounded great to someone who felt stalled out.

I went on to cover this topic from the employer's perspective back in 2003, when I referred to these part-time jobs as "survival jobs" and the overqualified workers who take them as "survivalists." An excerpt:

With bills mounting and few employment opportunities in sight, job-seekers are taking "survival" jobs for which they're overqualified. "Time is their enemy," says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "Any job is better than nothing for these people."

These workers have one thing in common: They're waiting for the economy to improve so they can get a better job. Hiring survivalists is a big issue for entrepreneurs deluged with resumes from overqualified applicants."People are leaving large companies to go with small and midsized businesses," says Roger Herman, a workplace futurist in Greensboro, North Carolina, and co-author of Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People (Oakhill Press). But how do you work with an employee who sees you as a port in the storm?

I could write the same story today, word for word.

So what should you do if you're a survivalist right now? Or, to borrow from The Beatles, how do you get back to where you once belonged?

First, it's important to do your current "survival" job well. Don't give your current bosses the impression that you view it as beneath you. Instead, use it as an opportunity to pick up a few new skills in addition to paying the bills. Remember, there's always something you can learn from every job, no matter how tedious or boring. Work hard, show enthusiasm, be reliable and be a team player.

That said, keep honing your core skills. Stay up to date on your industry. Read news stories and books about it. If you can, take a class at a community college that expands or enhances your core skills. Keep your eye on that place up around the bend, so to speak.

Also keep your eyes open for local conferences and after-hours business functions that will put you in front of people who work in your industry of interest. Work your connections for freelance projects that could offer you an outlet for your pent-up professional energies, as well as an extra paycheck every so often. Stay in touch with people.

If it feels right, you might approach your current manager to say you're happy to apply your core skills as needed at the company. The problem is, your manager may have trouble going outside the box - mentally speaking - to see you as an accountant with 15 years of experience instead of the cashier working Register #7. There's also a risk the manager might view your "offer" as disruptive, and start to think of you as a snotty upstart balking at the job you were hired to do.

Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer to being a survivalist in these times. It sucks. However, never lose sight of your core skills, and keep developing them. It might take awhile, but you will get back to where you once belonged.


  1. Hi
    I recently came through your blog and reading your post it is very helpful news for people thanks a lot for sharing this type of information.

    Keep blogging

  2. David,
    Thanks for visiting my blog. I wrote this entry based on my first-hand experience as a survivalist. I'm happy to see someone got something out of it!