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Perspective: Keep Working (Even If You Don't Get Paid)

(Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

In the past, I have written about how to find hidden talent, and hidden jobs, in dysfunctional markets. A job market is dysfunctional when jobs go begging even as qualified people go unemployed. But what happens when it is the economy that is dysfunctional, and there just aren't enough jobs to go around?

A good place to find unpaid work is with the employer who just let you go.

The common wisdom is that when you don't have a job, your job is to find one. This is a good way to frame the problem during normal economic times; if you don't go out and look, you're not going to land a job no matter how many are out there. But what should you do during hard times, when there are many more qualified candidates than jobs and lots of people must necessarily go without work?

No matter how good a salesperson you are, you aren't going to close a sale when there are no buyers. You start to feel discouraged and to doubt your abilities. Good salespeople know it's the product that is being rejected, not them -- but when you're seeking a job, you are the product. It's hard not to take rejection, or the silent treatment, personally.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of how people spend their days. The New York Times has a wonderful interactive chart of the data; please open the link before continuing.

By pushing the buttons on the upper right, you can change the demographic: from "everyone," to "employed," to "unemployed," and so on. The horizontal axis is time of day. Mouse over the graph to see what people are doing and when. Click on a color/activity for averages and for a comparison of people who are employed, unemployed, and not in the job market for that category. The big three uses of time for workers are (in hours and minutes per day): sleeping, 8:19; working, 5:12, and television/movies, 2:13.

"Work," in this survey, means paid work, so you would expect the working time to collapse to just minutes a day when someone becomes unemployed -- and it does. What's more important is that these people spend, on average, only about 30 minutes per day job-hunting (you'll need to click the "unemployed" button to see this; it's a vanishingly small slice for people with jobs). Furthermore, the distribution is very skewed: On any given day, five out of six unemployed people are not doing any job-hunting at all and the sixth is putting in 3 hours.

The unemployed spend more time on education than workers do -- about 1 hour a day versus 19 minutes. About two-thirds of this is spent in class, and one-third on homework. I suspect there is a big skew in this data as well, with a few people studying a lot and most people not studying at all.

So, how do unemployed people fill their days? They sleep an hour longer, watch an hour more television, and spend about 50 more minutes on chores. Nearly all their activities take longer, except work.

If you lost your job last month and have a new job that starts this Monday, it wouldn't be so bad to catch up on sleep and chores. But in a bad economy, when you're indefinitely unemployed, spending months this way will be disastrous because you're not doing anything that people are willing to pay you to do. Your skills and work habits are growing stale, and you're out of the professional and social loop.

I recently met an investment research analyst who published a report on the auto industry every month -- until he was laid off at a time when most people were worried about banks, not carmakers. I asked him if he still produced the report. He looked at me quizzically. But why shouldn't he still be writing his report? After he was laid off, he had the same contacts, the same knowledge, even the same access to expensive databases (through his public library) that he had before. What his employer had provided was identity, motivation, and compensation.

Yet continuing the work, even though he was no longer getting paid to do it, had not occurred to him. Now that everyone is worried about the automakers, people might be willing to pay good money for the current, informed opinions of a skilled auto-industry analyst. Unfortunately for him, he isn't one anymore. He gave that up when he lost his job.

A manager once told me: “I have no problem hiring the unemployed. But I will not hire people who are not working.”

My own life changed in the early 1980s when someone pointed out to me that there is never a shortage of work, even when there is a shortage of money to pay salaries. He was right -- and during hard times, the work piles up. There's plenty of work to do, even if there's no money to pay you to do it.

So how do you find work when there are no jobs? You can become a volunteer.

The data show that both the unemployed and the employed spend the same (small) amount of time volunteering: 8 minutes a day. It's probably worse in a bad economy, when many nonprofits experience budget cuts and let people go, leaving no one to manage the volunteers. Aspiring volunteers may be put on a waiting list, if they are given the courtesy of a reply at all.

But I'm not talking about doing good works; I'm talking about being smart about finding good work. So look beyond the organizations that are looking for volunteers. A good place to find unpaid work is with the employer that just let you go. If the reason you're not there is because funding ran out (but the work hasn't), perhaps you can continue for free while you look for your next job. You might even be able to make a little money, as a contractor, as long as the company doesn't have to make a long-term commitment and pay you benefits. I once continued with my former boss as a very part-time consultant, working for peanuts; one thing led to another and soon I had my own incorporated consulting firm and plenty of work that paid well. Working for free for the company that just laid you off might not sit well, but you need to keep your skills and contacts fresh.

You may be able to create a job out of whole cloth. During the Great Depression, when many jobs were in manufacturing, it was not feasible to start your own factory. Now, many of us have all the means of production we need: our brains, our PCs, and the Internet.

Andy thought he was only a few years from retirement and the golf course when his newspaper gave a severance package to him and 40 others in a desperate attempt to stay afloat in a world of new media. Rather than head off into the sunset, he and the others joined forces and formed their own online media venture. They embraced the technology that was threatening their employer's existence, and now Andy is having the time of his life, learning more each month than he had in prior decades. Nobody gets paid at, but costs are negligible, their skills are staying fresh, and they're having fun. Long-term, unpaid work may not seem very appealing, but it's far better for your future than doing more chores and watching more TV.

Susan, who has a Ph.D., says: "I use this tactic when I've run out of steam: I think of 10 things I'd like to have, people I'd like to meet, jobs I'd like to create, or projects I'd like to do. And then I pursue ALL of them." She realizes that most new ideas are doomed to failure. Her solution: diversify. Because she starts 10 new projects, she can drop the losers and concentrate on the winning ideas with no loss of energy.

What kind of projects might you do? Find a laboratory -- or several -- to collaborate with. Read papers, attend group meetings, and suggest new ideas. Write a paper, find some data and analyze it, write a tool in a new computer language, commit to giving a talk at a group meeting on something you don't know yet (and then learn it before the date). Build a Web site, referee papers, critically read other scientists' papers before submission, tutor students, or mentor younger scientists. You tell me what you can do. Really, send me your ideas:

But first, read these guidelines for how to search for jobs in a down market.

Be of use to others. Just as with exercise, it is easier to work when other people are involved. If your goal is to land a paying job, you have to meet the needs of others, not just your own. Unless you are ready for retirement, don't put all your time into a pet project nobody else cares about.

Ask to help. When interacting with others, don't make the topic, "How can you help me," but rather, "How can I help you?" If you say, "Because I am unemployed right now, I have time to take on new projects, even those that don't pay," you'll get many more lunch dates than if you ask to talk about "opportunities that may be opening up." Read the Recession-Proof Graduate, an excellent free guide on how to do this.

Ask for help. People are eager to help if they can. But don't beg, and recognize that they aren't interested in sharing your pain. I often invite people to dinner to discuss a problem on my mind.

Contribute to a community. I'm not just talking about the church group or the condo board -- these can be huge time sinks -- but rather your community of professionals. You can think of everyone you know as your community. Help bring them together.

Concentrate on value, not pay. I have seen people turn down jobs in their field that pay only $20/hour because they were once paid $100 -- and instead accept minimum wage to baby sit. This is only wise if you're pursuing a new career in child care. Concentrate on being of maximum value to others and realize that the price you're paid is a function of supply and demand, not your self-worth. Don't blame others for a bad economy or their inability to pay; work with them.

Replenish inventory. Not only must you keep your skills and knowledge current, as friends and colleagues move away (or die off); you also must find new people. As you get older, you will discover that young people are a wonderful source of new ideas and enjoyment. They, in turn, can benefit from your wisdom. Your math ability might not get better with age, but your ability to meet new people and help them out certainly can. Hanging out with young people may even help you live longer.

Educate yourself. But beware because college classes can be very expensive. You can almost always do better than paying $1000 a credit. Study on your own or hire a tutor for private lessons. One friend found it much easier and less expensive to learn Mandarin by living in China for 6 months than to pay for three credits at the local university. A professor I had in graduate school said, "College is a great place to get an education if you can't think of anything else to do."

Look where people are not hiring. When even unpaid internships draw hundreds of candidates (and not just students), the odds are usually better that you'll find work with people who aren't looking. I took my son around to the vendor exhibits at the AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers) meeting one year and we asked at each booth if they had student internships. The odds were much better when the answer was "no" -- because the competition goes away, but not the work.

Look for work and you will find jobs. Get good at finding work, during good times and bad, and you'll develop talents that will land you paid work consistently. Being of value to others is where pay, and pleasure, comes from. Even after you land a job, don't forsake your community and all those people you've been helping. If you lose your next job, they will have plenty of work waiting for you.

In April of 2009, Brooke Allen mentioned at a conference his belief that there is never a shortage of work and suggested that people help each other as mentors, project leaders, interns, and so on. The attendees found the idea worth pursuing, and together they created the Web site as a free and open resource for job seekers.