What I Learned From A Year of Free Agency

In 1998 I found myself, for the first time in my career, a “free agent,” meaning that I was not a “regular” employee anywhere; in fact, I was untethered to any organization and loosened upon the world.

Fortunately, my spouse works, so I wasn’t desperate to accept just anything. I had his health insurance and some savings to tide us through the rough spots and give me time to find a job that was better than the one I had left. So I decided not to feel desperate, to give myself a few months’ sabbatical to experiment with different careers, and to work from home, perhaps even to start a career-services business. Of course I never dreamed that this state would last an entire year.

As a human-resources professional for more than 20 years and a writer on career topics, I assumed I knew how to find a job. I assiduously sent out numerous resumes via snail mail and e-mail and went to a score of interviews that year. But getting a job proved harder than I thought. I meticulously kept track of what I was doing, but responses were relatively few. The market seemed very competitive, even for temporary assignments replacing HR staff during vacations or leaves. I got the distinct (but unproven) impression at times that my experience (i.e., age) was not universally viewed as a positive and that it might actually have been threatening to some of my wetter-behind-the-ears interviewers.

When my resume-sending efforts didn’t produce a good return on investment, I had to steel myself to start networking. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with this, since I did not like the feeling that I was asking for help. Typically, I’m the one who provides job-search assistance, not the other way around. Nevertheless, I gathered up my assortment of business cards, even those of people I didn’t really know, and began making calls. I put out the word that I was seeking a new opportunity to friends, acquaintances and family members. I also made cold calls to local hospitals and other businesses. (I’d even planned to put on my business attire and drop off my resume at various companies, but I never got up the nerve to do that.)

What did I learn from pounding the pavement, or, rather, the phone lines?

  • Networking rules!

Here’s why:

  1. A former colleague whom I had met only once hired me for a five-month full-time recruiting stint at a major hospital.
  2. A HR director who belonged to the same HR networking listserv group as me (but didn’t know me personally) hired me to replace her for a month while she was on disability leave.
  3. My sister-in-law’s sister’s boyfriend, when I called him, gave me the name of an editor at a major newspaper whom he thought would be interested in free-lance articles. I wrote him what I hoped was an engaging cover letter and included clippings as well as a writing resume. The editor passed my materials around the office. My career articles, plus my photo, began appearing in the New York Post a month later, and I started getting fan mail. Then,
  4. A career-development director, whom I vaguely remembered meeting and exchanging business cards with at a career fair years before, agreed to have dinner with me. A few weeks later, confronted with a family emergency, she asked me to teach her evening class on the “World of Work” at a nearby college for a month. It was my first teaching job in years, and I loved it. Finally,
  5. At the end of the yearlong semi-voluntary sabbatical, when I was ready to accept a lower-paid job I didn’t really want, the wife of my husband’s former business colleague passed my resume on to her boss, and I landed the terrific job I have now.
  • A career in writing, teaching, consulting, career services or home-based business will have to wait.

Once I researched and interviewed for positions in these areas, I realized I didn’t want to focus solely on one of them, nor could I earn enough to pay my bills. I also realized that I liked my field and wanted to stay in it. While I would love to have a patchwork job composed of various roles, it’s not in the cards for now.

Ironically, within a few months of starting my new job, a publisher asked me to write a book on job searching. An executive had read my articles in the New York Post and liked my style. So coupled with the adrenaline-inducing challenges of a new job, I spent weekends researching and writing a book.

My research revealed that as a job hunter, I had lagged in the follow-up department. I sent out scads of resumes but never called employers to see if they arrived or tried to talk to a hiring supervisor or even the human-resources staff. That type of personal touch, I now know, can pay off, particularly if your timing is good, say, if you call right before lunch or just before the end of the workday. A tired hiring manager appreciates hearing an intelligent, respectful, reasonable voice on the phone and may, on the spur of the moment, invite you to interview.

My research also showed that I should have volunteered to work for a local newspaper or in other ways to get my foot in the door in various fields. I also should have taken classes in software programs I hadn’t mastered (e.g., Excel or PowerPoint). I did, in fact, teach myself a desktop-publishing program so I could produce business cards, brochures and materials for my teaching and business ventures.

I learned that starting a business from home wasn’t something that should be done on a whim. It takes research and talking with more experienced business owners, creating a financial and business plan, and test-marketing. Plus I’m not certain if I have the personality or drive to be an entrepreneur, since I like the camaraderie of working in an office and being part of a company.

Looking back, it was a wonderful year off. (Of course, despite my anxiety about the future, claustrophobia from being homebound, and compulsion to hop on the train and meet my former colleagues.) I learned that by taking time off, I can experience professional and spiritual growth and enrichment and that I can bounce back into the work world when I’m ready. This is something everyone could benefit from learning.


By Janet Garber

job, Jobsearch