Little Details1/29/09

Laid off … not laid to waste

Jan. 29, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

It happened at Chef’s Corner. I munched on a delectable currant scone, waiting for my boss. It wasn’t unusual for us to rendezvous at the eatery, halfway between my home and office. As soon as she sat down, I sensed something wrong.

“Is everything ok?” I asked.

“No … I’m sorry,” she hesitated. “It’s your job. We no longer have funding for it. We tried everything we could. We just couldn’t make the numbers work to balance our budget.”

My fingers released the buttery scone. All I could say was, “Bummer.” A rock hard lump of emotion lodged in my throat. My vision blurred as I fought back tears. I felt my part-time “career” slip away, like water through my fingers. I had no control, no ability to hold on to what had been a perfect job. I loved facilitating workshops for incarcerated women preparing for re-entry to the workforce.

“Yes, it is a bummer,” my boss said. She assured me my work was valued and appreciated, that I’d done a great job. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you find something else.”

I worked for the non-profit for four years. Funding always seemed shaky. Grants came and went. My salary, funded largely by U.S. Department of Labor monies, seemed relatively safe. Our director always found money, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. She worked her magic splendidly, every time … until now.

Funding to train Americans — laid off tech workers, displaced homemakers, and yes, formerly incarcerated folks — transitioning back to work became less of a priority as increased dollars were funneled to Baghdad to fund the war effort. My job seemed just another casualty of misguided foreign policy.

I called my husband. He bought me lunch. Tears mingled with balsamic vinaigrette at Three Tomatoes as he gently offered support.

I grieved for losing work with a strong social mission. I mourned the loss of fair wages recognizing my education and experience, albeit slightly interrupted by parenting. I feared I’d never regain the flexibility to set my hours, indulging in 5 a.m. work sessions at my computer while my family slept upstairs.

My dream job was gone. I needed a new dream. I scoured newspapers and Web sites, sent an e-mail blitz to former colleagues and casually mentioned my job search in social situations.

Applying for jobs yielded a humbling spate of rejection letters. I was told on one occasion I was “one of 60 highly-qualified applicants.” During an interview I’d spent hours preparing for, the stressed interviewer kept calling me “Diane.” She skipped over the warm fuzzies entirely and fired her first round with, “What are your computer skills?” I sent a nice thank you letter and withdrew my application. I was interviewing employers just as much as they were interviewing me.

Confidence weakened, I wondered if I should invest in a bottle of Clairol to mask sprouting gray. I didn’t. I revamped my resume and took classes through CVU’s Access Program to enhance skills in desktop publishing, databases and spreadsheets. I asked my then 10-year-old for help with PowerPoint. I sought advice from trusted women friends in the working world. I consulted a job coach guru. My boss kept her word — we met for breakfast periodically and she shared job leads.

Each day, press outlets report on mounting job losses. Economic staples such as GE Healthcare, Gannett, United Airlines and numerous retailers reduced jobs. Dark clouds of potential lay-offs hover locally over some of our most prominent employers — the State of Vermont, University of Vermont and IBM. Yahoo and Microsoft, icons of the information age, announced first-ever reductions in force.

As the ground beneath us trembles, it’s hard to acknowledge that sometimes our worlds are shaken up for good reason. Although I want to see jobs preserved, I acknowledge we’re sometimes torn down just so we can build ourselves up again in newly configured ways.

I worked through emotions of surprise, sadness and anger when my job evaporated. We tightened our financial belts at home. That’s when the light bulb went on: I realized I’d enhance my job security if I learned to bring money into an organization. I wanted to be viewed as a revenue-generator, not a revenue-drainer.

I signed up for a one-day workshop on grant writing that cost $125. I learned a lot and wrote the facilitator a thank you note. She called and offered me a job! A successful stint at her firm allowed me to parlay my experience to my current position as a part-time development professional. I’ve found teaching and writing gigs to round out my work. Looking past the tears and frustration, I realize I was supposed to lose my job to find new work to love.

In this uneasy economy, my husband and I continue working together, paying life’s bills while feeling grateful for every paycheck that rolls in. Times are tough but we must remind ourselves, so are we.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com or editor@willistonobserver.com.