For the past 6 months, I have been unemployed. I have a matric from one of the best schools in the country. I have an Honours Degree in Finance from one of the best Universities in the country. I have 5 years of work experience. No criminal record. Only good reviews from employers. On paper, I should able to find a job, but I’m struggling.
What my situation demonstrates is that being unemployed is not only reserved for the unqualified or those with blemished track records. In South Africa’s constant climate of high unemployment, it is a situation that can happen to anyone and it is a very scary and difficult time to endure. In this article I will share some of the things I have learned during my time spent out of work to help you cope with the difficulties of being unemployed as an educated professional. I think these lessons are always more meaningful when they come from people who have actually followed their own advice, but unfortunately a lot of what I have to say I have learned through my own mistakes rather than accomplishments. But I feel the advice is still sound and will be useful regardless of the source.
Come to terms with it
Have a conversation with yourself and make yourself aware that you are in a difficult time and that life is going to be hard for a while. You are going to feel a lot of negative emotions: stress, anger, denial, rejection, depression and more. These are normal emotions and you are going to feel them often. That’s normal. The important thing to understand is why you are feeling the way you are. Once you understand why you are feeling angry, for example, you are less likely to misplace those negative feelings. If you are unaware of the source of your anger you might find yourself snapping at a loved one about something minor that would normally never bother you. It is important to realise that you aren’t mad at them, you are mad at your situation. Doing this exercise will allow you to control yourself and not allow your predicament to affect the way in which you interact with the world around you.
Don’t blame anyone
This lesson is directed specifically to white South Africans. As a white male explaining that I am unemployed, I get a lot of people trying to console me with the line, “Shame, it’s so hard for you because you’ve got the wrong skin colour in this country.” While I appreciate the genuine intention these people have of trying to make me feel better, I do not entertain for a second that I am some kind of victim of Employment Equity. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I believe Employment Equity is the best source of education available in this country to previously disadvantaged South Africans currently. I concede that being hired on colour rather than merit will not necessarily mean the best person for the job every time. However, it does expose millions of people to the opportunity to learn from highly educated and experienced professionals in a workplace that they otherwise would not have been exposed to. The lessons learned in the workplace can in turn be passed onto their children at home (who are not being provided with adequate schooling by our government by any stretch of the imagination). It is this sharing of skill and knowledge that I believe will truly empower the black middle class and allow South Africa to improve its economic future in spite of our unacceptable failure to educate our children.
Secondly, every single one of my white friends is currently employed. The situation cannot be all that bad if I am the only white person I know who can’t find a job.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important for the job seeker: Blaming the system will not help you find a job. Being bitter and angry will not help you achieve your goals. You are in charge of your own fate. You must strive to achieve despite all obstacles.
Embrace your support structures
Your family and friends are vital at a time like this. Many people shy away from their loved ones because they are embarrassed about their situation. But the fact of the matter is that the only one who feels that way is you. The people who love you do so for a reason. They will not turn their backs on you because you are in difficulty. Spend time with them. They are the people that make you feel good, that make you laugh, that make you feel comfortable and give advice with genuine good intent. Tell them your fears, apologise to them if you lash out at them (and you will!) and enjoy their company. It is important to remember that they are what really matter to you at the end of the day.
This might sound like a strange thing to say but I believe it is crucial to your sanity at a time like this. Once you’ve touched base with your recruiters and looked at the new job postings and sent your communications for the day, there is nothing to be achieved by staring at a computer all day, thinking that pretending to be serious on your own will help you get hired. Read a book. Watch a movie. Lie in the sun. Do something that makes you feel relaxed and happy and don’t feel guilty about it! You will never have free time like this until you are retired so try and make the most of your forced hiatus.
One of the biggest mistakes that I have made is to not use my free time to learn anything. Whether it be a language, or a craft or a skill, make a concerted effort to learn something new. My problem was that I told myself the excuse that my unemployment would be short-lived, so I didn’t have enough time. But as one month turned into 6, I realised that I had squandered an opportunity to develop myself. Having learned that lesson the hard way, I started to learn how to code online. It has been a fascinating (and free) exercise and I wish I had started earlier. Learning something new allows you to add purpose to your time without a job, and you will be able to look back and realise that you gained something in spite of not working. It also keeps your mind stimulated which can be a real challenge when you are out of the workplace for a long time.
There are going to be dark days. There are going to be days when you have no confidence, that you feel rejected and useless and have no ambition to fill out ANOTHER application just to be denied or ignored for the umpteenth time. On days like these I would lie in bed watching series all day with the curtains drawn and only leave my bed to get food. This is going to happen and you need to allow yourself to collapse and just take a day to vent against being constantly proactive and efficient. As long as these days only happen once in a while, I have found that they are helpful and have allowed me to refocus and reenergise after having a total shutdown. Being positive and upbeat is impossible to constantly maintain and letting yourself crash is a necessary weakness.
Being interviewed again and again is a very tiresome process. It can get quite repetitive and monotonous. You get to the stage where, even though it is the gateway to your goal of being hired,you could think of nothing worse than going to try sell yourself to yet another person. It is in these moments when your mental state is critical. Apathy will get you nowhere in an interview. Employers are generally looking for confidence, passion and enthusiasm and it is certainly within your power to tick those boxes. Before each interview, no matter how “over it” I am, I always remind myself how important and valuable every chance is and that I will kick myself if I don’t pick myself up and give a great account of myself to the interviewer. Having regrets because you messed up an interview due to lack of effort will seriously erode your mental state. So get psyched and make sure you give every interview your all, no matter how you may really feel about it!
I wish I could write a bit more about the best way to actually get a job but I don’t feel I have demonstrated how to be really effective in this regard. My 2 cents is just to advise that you persevere, call prospective employers on the phone rather than email where possible, build relationships with recruiters and follow up often. I know it is difficult but try not to worry too much. It is a debilitating way to use your mind and worrying has never achieved anything. Rather focus that energy on being prepared for the challenges ahead so you can take your chance when it comes.