When I read Kelly Swanson’s Aug. 29 commentary “America, the land of opportunity? Not for me,” it brought back memories. I was cruising along as a senior systems analyst in 1990 when what is now referred to as “the high-tech recession” hit. I’d recently received a $5,000 raise. But a few less-than-stellar quarters, and I was out the door, fired efficiently one morning at 9 a.m. They handed me a final paycheck and a box for my personal effects, then an armed security guard escorted me out of the building.
Like Swanson, I even had a master’s degree. Our job hunts were much the same. I kept shortening my résumé, shaved nine years off my perceived age to get it under 40 by eliminating four years of military service, two years by dropping the M.A., and three years of odd jobs and unemployment I struggled through when I came back from the Vietnam War. I got interviews, but the response was either “overqualified” or none at all. I hit bottom one day when I had a long talk with a headhunter. One of my post-Vietnam odd jobs had been as an employment counselor for veterans. I asked him how I could get his job, and he replied: “You wouldn’t want my job. I’m on straight commission and it’s been six months since I made a placement.”
That was it; no more job hunting for me. Time for Plan B. Step one: Sell our Minneapolis house and move to our tiny lake cabin. Step two: Go to Thailand for the winter. My wife is Thai, and I was a Thai/Laotian translator/interpreter stationed in Thailand for two and a half years. I spent my Thai winter trying to figure out the rest of Plan B. Perhaps we would decamp permanently to Thailand. But first we had to return to Minnesota to complete the sale of our house.
When we returned, I found a message on my answering machine from a headhunter I had visited eight months earlier. I called him, and the first stirring of “good news” began. Not a real job, a temp assignment, and not as a systems analyst, but as a coder (same as the first computer job I’d had 22 years before), and only for six weeks. But it was 35 bucks an hour and would be the first money I’d made in 18 months, so I took it. Off to Cargill’s corporate headquarters in Minnetonka to work a gig so minor that their data processing department wouldn’t touch it. But the customer was satisfied, and three months later called again — same department, a four-month contract this time. And so it went for the next seven years, contracts at Cargill, most short, but one lasted 16 months, plus some other places, most forgettable. I was working 800 or 900 billable hours a year on average — no benefits, of course, but I could fall back on the VA. Our cost of living was cut to the bone, and since I had saved a goodly amount of the money I’d made during my 20 “fat years” in computers, we were not without resources, so I began to deploy some of them into what might be called “microbusinesses.” I became a stamp dealer and an assistant veggie farmer (my wife is the boss). I imported teak garden furniture from Laos, published several computer apps and, more recently, some books about my “spook and spy” days.
All of my microbusinesses have made money — not great amounts of it, but more than enough to get by. They have been challenging and fun, and if I hadn’t been “overqualified,” I wouldn’t have gotten to do any of them. So don’t give up, Kelly Swanson, but don’t pin all your hopes on the conventional system of jobs and employment. Perhaps you, too, need a Plan B.
James Stanton lives in Hutchinson, Minn. He and his wife can be found on Saturday mornings at the Hutchinson Farmers Market.