Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Lucky Break

I worked at a long string of dead-end jobs after college. I didn't have much choice, living in a rural, economically depressed region at a time when the entire country was mired in a recession. I spent way too many miserable years as the assistant to the director of a social service agency, a loathesome troll who began each morning drinking a reeking cup of valerian root tea, complaining about his sex life while studiously working a wadded-up Kleenex up his nose.

When finally I could take no more, I accepted the first alternative I was offered, a position as an administrative assistant at another nonprofit. It was an improvement in some ways - I liked my boss and the people I worked with were very nice, but the job itself was the most mind-numbingly boring experience imaginable. My official job duty was to cover the phones and answer people's questions about the agency's services. The problem was that very, very few people ever called to ask questions about our services. The few calls I did get I answered with desperate enthusiasm, regaling the hapless callers with long-winded details about our programs, the history of our corporation, directions to my favorite Mexican eatery - anything to keep them on the phone a little longer. The other seven and a half hours a day, I arranged and rearranged my pen and pencil drawer, deliberately messed up file folders so I could kill some time fixing them, and perused the only reading material available, the Arcata Yellow Pages. Really. This was before the days of ubiquitous internet access, which would have at least allowed me to stare at the computer looking busy. There simply was Nothing. To. Do.

The other problem was that I was at once riduculously overqualified for administrative work and yet utterly hopeless at it. I was a college graduate with solid industry experience, and it was frustrating to exist more or less anonymously among people who could have and should have been my professional peers and to have little meaningful interaction beyond handing them pink "While You Were Out" notices. I tried to tell myself the job was a great foot in the door, that I was making valuable contacts in my field, but the truth is that people there only saw me as a secretary, and when talk of promoting me came up, it was to a job as a senior secretary. I was in no way qualified for that role, which involved things like recording meeting minutes in shorthand (might as well have been in hieroglyphics) and processing payroll records using Lotus 1-2-3 (the one time I tried this, I messed up the program so badly a rep from IBM had to be called in to fix it). But with no other prospects looming, I dutifully followed the departing secretary around taking notes.

Then one night I was at a party at my friend Robin's drinking vodka martinis when I found myself in conversation with Tamara, who owned a successful vocational rehabilitation business in town. I was telling her about my job, in the slighly defensive tone I always employed, explaining that I was working as a secretary - but ONLY until I could find a better position doing the kind of work I went to school for, independent living skills training or job development. To my surprise, she perked up. "Hey, you know I am looking for a job developer right now. Call me on Monday, okay?"

With that chance encounter, everything changed. In just a few weeks I was proudly riding the elevator up to my new job on the top floor of a stately Victorian office building overlooking Arcata Plaza, such a lifetime away from the converted redwood processing plant on the edge of town that housed my former employer. Suddenly I was a different person. I was no longer Aimless who answered phones and made coffee, I was Aimless the "Job Placement Specialist" with embossed business cards and a busy schedule of appointments with clients. Freed from the role of meek junior secretary with no opinions, I spoke up with confidence at monthly industry breakfasts and canvassed the town establishing parterships with local business owners. Tamara and I quickly became close friends, taking ski trips together and meeting for drinks at the Plaza Grill after work. On slow afternoons we would sometimes close the office altogether and stroll along the town square, shopping for soap and bubble bath and sipping strong, amazing French Roast at our favorite cafe.

The only slight, niggling problem was that I could in no way afford that lifestyle, not on what I was making there. Tamara paid me well but I was working entirely on billable hours. Business was starting to slow and the insurance commissioner had recently put strict regulations on vocational rehab billing, an industry which used to be known as "milking the golden calf." When my W-2 arrived in March and I saw that I had earned less than $12,000 for the year, I had to reluctantly admit that my parents were right - it was time to move on, to look for jobs with stability and benefits and a future, jobs that probably would not be found in the isolated North Coast.

So move on we did - and every job I have held since then has offered with a decent salary and health benefits and vacation leave and bonuses and incentives and all the other goodies that Tamara couldn't provide. But she gave me something more lasting . . . a chance.


Blogger moosie said...

I'm so glad you shared this story! It lets me know it's normal to float a bit before finding your niche.

3:11 PM  

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