Unemployment is capitalism's way of getting you to plant a garden. - Orson Scott Card
I've been feeling a bit anxious lately. I mean, I've had periods of unemployment before, and for the most part they were pretty enjoyable. Whether I travelled, took courses, improved my social life, or just tried to relax in general, I feel that I have been pretty successful.
This time it's different.
Shortly after quitting my job I remember talking to a friend I was visiting in Ottawa who asked if I was "funemployed." "What?" I asked. "You know, funemployed; you spend time with your friends, take courses, work on your projects." For some reason the picture that came to mind was of a hipster-ish girl, wearing some super stylish and artsy glasses, making a paper mache belt. She's funemployed. But what about me?
I'm not "funemployed," not this time. This time I'm "find-a-career-and-stop-fucking-around-with-your-life-unemployed."
What could be the reason for this? Well I'm 29 (and a half, or maybe one third, but who's counting?), I'm running out of savings, I have rent to pay every month, my girlfriend is in school and working part-time to pay the bills, and my resume has about 20 loose ends written all over it. Of course we could downsize, live with my parents, sell my car, sell the motorcycle, or sell whatever I don't need on kijiji. But I'm 29 and two fifths for Christ's sake. People this old don't do that anymore. They get jobs and they work hard at them, and they have kids and all that. Why haven't I figured this all out by now?
What I think of when I think of funemployment. Don't quote me on that though, this girl might actually be employed... I don't know her, so I'm not sure
Taking Control While Being Unemployed
I know I'm not the only one feeling overwhelmed, especially in my generation where this is becoming a common story. But when I step back and try to relax, I realize that there's hope, and that I am going in the right direction. Forget the past, it's time to follow my gut and experiment. I'm taking the next few months of my life to narrow down my choices and start creating a unique opportunity for myself out of all my skills and experience. If I think a job sounds cool, I'm going to see if I can try it. And if it's not cool, then at least I've learned from it and can move on.
Last week I put an ad up on Kijiji offering my services as a contractor's assistant. I even put my phone number on the ad. I've been volunteering at Habitat for Humanity once a week for the past three months now, and I've been enjoying it. So I figured it would be great to do the same job but get paid for it. The problem is I still didn't know how to do all that much on my own. I can't exactly call myself a carpenter. But surely, I thought, they must mentor people in these kinds of jobs. That's what an apprenticeship is for.
The first phone call I received was from a man who wanted to build a house himself. He already had the land apparently, but didn't want to fork out the extra dough to pay contractors to build a new home.
"It says you're an engineer, so you're a civil engineer?" He asked.
"No, mechanical engineer, but I'm looking for hands on work as a carpenter or assistant home renovator," I replied.
"Oh, so what have you done?"
"Well I worked at Habitat for Humanity, doing framing, laminate flooring, soffit, and other basic stuff."
"Oh, so do you know about foundations? I tried to hire a contractor, but these guys are too expensive, you know. So I need to find someone that knows about foundations. You know about plumbing?"
"No, wait, what is this for?"
"Well I want to build a house, and I don't have much experience building homes or anything. So you know about drywall?"
And it continued for a while...
I assume he was gathering some kind of makeshift crew of misfits to learn how to build a house together. He also asked how much I charge, which considering my situation was a bit of an odd question to ask. I guess he misunderstood.
What might happen if I build a house with the kijiji guy
Trial Job #1: Large Contracting Company - Drywall Installer
After a few more emails I heard about a job opportunity with a large contractor. I spoke with a guy over the phone who explained that I could try working, and I'd be evaluated at the end of the day based on my experience and performance. I had a feeling the job wouldn't be right for me, but knew I had to give it a try. So I agreed to work the next morning.
I woke up early and arrived on-site next to a series of subsidized townhouses. The main contractor met me and explained the tasks for the day.
"What have you done before?" He asked.
"Well, I've done a bit of everything, but mainly the basics. I volunteered at Habitat..."
"Yeah, yeah, I read your email. Anything you're particularly good at, or want to do?
"Framing would be nice"
"... Well, we don't have any framing to do. How about drywall?"
"Ok, well first can you install cabinets?"
"Uhhh (nervously), yeah I guess I can install cabinets"
"Ok, go install those cabinets, Jose will show you how to do it"
I met with Jose and Greg, who gave me a quick run down on the cabinetry situation. We had a row of about 10 townhouses that needed bathroom renovations, and I had to remove the old cabinets and install a new one. I also had to install new shower curtain rods, toilet paper dispensers and towel hangers.
"Jou have jour own tools?" Jose asked.
"Nope, no tools."
"Ok, use my old tape measurer. Ok and this set of anchors is for the cabinets. Jou have to drill into the tile with this masonry bit, but it's a bit hard to do cuz the tile crumbles. Take these anchors for the towel rod, since they can go right into the drywall, but they require a different screw... Ok jou knows? Oh, and jou have to cut the towel rod with the grinder. And wear safety glasses, jou don't want anythin' going in jour eyes or anythin'. If jou need a mask or a knife or a hammer or anythin' just let me know, it's all in my truck. Ok Brijan, jou got this?"
"... Yes (overwhelmed)."
At this point I was rethinking my whole decision to work for a contractor so soon after volunteering. I grabbed all my equipment and walked into one of the units. The house was filthy. I placed all my equipment in the bathroom and assessed the situation. Ahead of me was a dirty medicine cabinet with tons of old medication and cleaning products stuck to the inside. The wall had been painted a light baby blue, and had chips of plaster and drywall missing. I had too many questions. How do I put in the towel rod if there's plaster missing? How do I use the grinder to cut the shower rod? What bit am I supposed to use again?
I knew I had to do something soon or they'd find out I was a fraud; I was in way over my head. So I looked inside the cabinet. Perfect! Four screws and I should be able to take it off. I took the impact driver and got busy. The cabinet didn't budge; it was stuck to the wall somehow. I looked for a sledge hammer, but there wasn't any room in the bathroom even if I could get one in. I yanked on it clumsily and still nothing happened. Finally I gave it a good tug, put all my weight into it, and the cabinet cracked off the wall. Underneath the cabinet and now in the sink in front of me were a handful of dead cockroaches, and a brown syrupy film.
"Jose!" I yelled. "Do you have any rags I can use to clean dirt off the wall?"
"Jou mean like debris or somethin'? Jes, I have rags in the truck."
I cleaned the wall and started to drill the holes for the cabinet anchors. So far so good. Besides clumsily moving from the floor to the wall and back to the floor again as I juggled the drill, anchors and screws, level, and cabinet, I was able to mount the cabinet. I realized after that it wasn't quite level, but it was close. And before I even had time to check with Jose, they were calling me to help with drywall.
This time I didn't even get much of a rundown on how to do the job. Greg showed me where the tile backing drywall was, and basically left me to it. "Is it lunchtime yet?" I thought. "At Habitat for Humanity we'd all be eating pizza together by now for lunch, and someone would joke about how he was done for the day." The differences between the paid and unpaid worlds of home building and renovation were starting to show.
I spent the afternoon struggling, slowly putting together the pieces and installing the tile backer for one of the washrooms. I looked in one of the other units, and Jose had already finished installing the tile backer and had filled in all the seams and cracks in the time it took me to stare at a piece of drywall. My hands were starting to chafe as well... I had forgotten to bring the appropriate gloves for handling drywall. And I didn't have a mask. Greg wasn't wearing one, but for some reason Jose had one on consistently. "Is silicosis an issue here guys?" I thought to myself.
My workbench for the afternoon.
My shoddy drywall work. Notice the quality of the surrounding walls.
Me looking amused after a long day of work.
After a few hours of asking Greg for help, and him getting frustrated by my shoddy work, I finally kept to myself and started to make real progress. I started making my own decisions as well: "this won't fit next to the existing drywall, so I guess I'll just spend the 20 minutes it's going to take me to cut through the wall with this inefficient saw." I knew I wasn't coming back at this point, so I thought I would try to make the best of it for the rest of the day, and be on my way.
Greg came in at one point to check up on me and one of the tenants asked him why they were doing the tile backing when the mold hadn't been removed from the ceiling yet:
"They were supposed to come and remove the mold from the ceiling first. How come you guys are putting the tile in already?"
"I don't know lady, we have to put in the tile, that's my job. They tell me to work on the walls and that's what I do!" Said Greg.
What a great atmosphere! Let's do the bare minimum to fix up this hell hole of an apartment shall we? Mold? Cover that crap up with some tile backing. Cockroach droppings? Wipe it up and slap a medicine cabinet and some plaster over top of it!
Lessons Learned: The Difference Between Volunteering and Working
So what did I learn from all of this? First of all I learned that you have to fight to get paid, especially if you only work for one day. They have yet to respond to my requests. More importantly however, I learned about the effect money has on the working environment.
At Habitat for Humanity everyone is smiling. We get to work in the morning, say a cheer in Swahili, and get going in small groups on different tasks. If I don't understand how to do something, I ask, and I don't feel bad about it. Most of the time I don't even have to ask because there's someone to help me through it. If it takes me too many hits of the hammer to put a nail in a piece of wood, one of the older guys gives me a hard time about it. But it doesn't matter to me because I'm learning, and I don't feel rushed.
At the contracting company you can feel pressure in the air. Time is money. I can ask for help, but I feel bad about it; each time I do I'm taking time away from their work. No one seems all that happy either. I get a few quick comments or questions about my progress, and before I can answer, they're off working on something else themselves.
Now I know this doesn't represent contracting and construction in general; but it did bring to light the reality of work, especially for someone who's used to working in an office. The world isn't always the kindest of places, and it's especially less so when you have to work your way up from the bottom. I have learned however that I probably need to be a bit more picky than your average high school graduate when looking for ways to learn a trade. I'm young enough to start from the bottom, but too old and impatient to go through too much school all over again. I'm ready to work, but will need to find someone willing to teach me. This isn't going to be easy...
For more on job experimentation:
Trying Different JobsPart 2: HVAC Technician