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February 24, 2003

Tips, Pointers, and Trivia I Hope You Don't Need: Part 2

As far as sequels to previous articles go, this one was unexpected. I didn't think it would ever exist, or that I'd be writing it. Part one, penned way back in late October, was supposed to be the final reflections on a long and arduous job search. As it turns out, that job search is even longer and more arduous than I thought.

I probably shouldn't have been as happy as I was back in October, as my job search didn't really end. What I fell into was a very unusual set of circumstances, but ones that I felt had a good chance of actually producing something worthwhile. I found a very small, relatively young company locally that had been growing well for the past couple of years and had need of services that I could provide.

With extremely small companies (say, less than 10 employees), adding one person onto the payroll is a significant liability. Unless the business is extremely healthy, or the position being filled can positively contribute to the bottom line either immediately or within a short time frame, filling that position simply can't be done without dragging the company into the red ink. Although red ink can be weathered to some degree, when you're a small business looking for bank assistance it's the kiss of death. Banks care not how much you make or lose, they simply care that you're not losing. One year of loss can ruin an otherwise sterling profit history, making chances of a bank loan evaporate.

This was the case at the company I had found, and my position would certainly be a much longer-term investment than they could carry immediately. However, there is government funding available for small-to-medium businesses to assist such companies in commercializing new technologies. This company had received such funding before, and it was extremely likely that such funding could be had again - funding that could be used to pay my salary.

What I decided to do was rather unorthodox, but what I deemed to be a good bet. I would volunteer at this company - work for zero wages or benefits of any kind - with the expectation that if and when funding came through it would pay my salary, and I would get hired on. The owners agreed to this, and brought me on under this understanding. My first task would be to write the funding proposal that would bring in the money that would pay me. Sure enough, after a few meetings and some discussion, I managed to write up a proposal that looked great and could have received funding fairly easily. It was a modest sum of money that we were asking for, which would in theory further speed the process along.

After a long month of waiting for news on whether our proposal had been accepted for funding, we finally got word: we were conditionally approved for funding. I would have been ecstatic, save for the word "conditional". Sadly, the condition was that the funding body had only just run out of funds to allocate, and we were on a waiting list. I wasn't overly worried, as I had been informed that decommitments usually come at the end of the calendar year, when multi-year projects are balanced. I was eagerly waiting mid-December for word of funding being freed up, and becoming a full-fledged employee.

Unfortunately, mid-December came and went, and no decommitments of sufficient size came through. Although still possible, decommitments were becoming less and less likely. At this point, it looked like we were screwed for the fiscal year of the funding body, which ends in Spring. As our proposal was approved, once the new fiscal year came about we'd get our money, but waiting until Spring to get paid was not something I enjoyed thinking about.

Another couple anxious months went by, and word came again: no funding available. The current fiscal year's funding was not only committed, but over-committed. Absolutely no funding could or would be made available before the next fiscal year. With this news, and the realization that my employment insurance was fast running out, I had to make a decision. I approached the owners and told them: pay me, or I have to look elsewhere. According to their finances, the money was not there for me to have, so I packed my things up, and left.

Did I make a bad decision? I don't think so. I got out of the house and learned some things over the past four months. Although I stopped actively looking for jobs shortly after I started my volunteer work there, I did start up again after the first round of bad news. There were no other opportunities available to me at the time - nothing to apply to, no job interviews pending with the pre-Christmas slowdown - so I decided that doing something was better than nothing, and could only make me more invaluable to the company. It was a good decision, but the worst possible case happened, and now I'm at home again, combing through the job boards.

In my previous article I left off with point 5: Don't hold your breath. This rings with even more truth now than it did then. With the past four months still fresh in memory, I would like to continue the list:

6. Try something new. I would not recommend working anywhere for free in normal circumstances, but in my case this is exactly what was needed for me to even have a chance at getting into a small, young company where I would essentially start a new department and possibly even get an equity position in the company. Assuming the company is well managed throughout the next few years it will certainly grow, and I would have grown with it. Department head? Sounds good to me! It would never have happened, however, if I had not taken the unusual step of working for nothing.

While my exact course of action may not be applicable to everybody, there are other novel ways to try landing a job. I had already explored starting my own business and soliciting business back in the summer. I dabbled with changing careers entirely, although I admit I did not look into this as deeply as I could have. The point is, if pawing through classifieds doesn't work, do something else. I did, and I failed, but I'm glad I did something as opposed to nothing.

7. Always hedge your bets. I had every reason to believe back in October that after maybe a month, possibly six weeks on the outside, I would be hired and getting a regular paycheque. Unfortunately, I was somehow blind to the fact that I was relying on only one source for the funding needed to pay my salary, and I didn't know that the end of the funding fiscal year was approaching as we submitted our proposal. In short, the worst possible scenario happened. Luckily, I had read the writing on the wall a few months ago and had been looking for other jobs to apply to. It has thus far paid off - I've had quite a number of interviews and phone calls about positions in the past few weeks. While I'm no closer to getting paid than I was a month ago, the prospect of finding an employer that can pay me immediately has greatly increased.

In reality, I'm no better or worse off than I was back in October. I have less to do now, and won't be expected to show up at the office anymore. I'll be able to field calls from headhunters immediately instead of having my wife take a message, and I won't feel guilty about taking off half a day for an interview. For that matter, I could be out the door for an interview with an hour's notice if need be.

Of course, I can't downplay the crushing defeat that I've felt either. Having built up so much hope for this local company I can't help but feel betrayed by some greater force. While I remind myself that I'm now being interviewed for positions that would be superior in many ways, it is still hard to come so close for so long, only to realize it's not going to happen and I have to back off. I'm honestly surprised that I'm not depressed - or at least, so depressed that I notice it.

There are some bright spots. I have some excellent leads into positions that I know I can succeed in. I've been blessed with the generosity and helpfulness of former colleagues and friends alike. I'm even on at least one short list for a position. And if everything else fails, I know a nice little company locally that's coming into some money in the Spring...


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