So, You’d Like a Job, Then?
Britain's David Dennis interviews American Terry Irving on
How to Survive Unemployment
Terry Irving was once a successful American. Through fate, recession and bad breaks, he became unemployed. He managed to survive unemployment, however, and kept putting one foot in front of the other as he put his kids through college, paid his mortgage and continued to live his own life to the max.
He wrote a great book, filled with practical advice, called The Unemployed Guy’s Guide to Unemployment. In it, he explains where and how to look for work in this dismal economy; what works and what doesn’t; and very practical advice about how to manage with less while you strive for more. Just to be practical, he published it under a pseudonym - Mike Mauss - which he created by combining the names of his cat and his dog. Now, he's decided to come clean.
I am the author of Disregarded: The True Story of the Failure of the UK’s Work Programme about the unemployment situation in Britain. I wanted to interview Terry about his American-centric book and see if he had any tips that would help the British unemployed.
Q) Hi, Terry. I wanted to meet you to talk about your new book: The Unemployed Guy’s Guide to Unemployment. Can you tell me why you wrote this book?
A) That's easy. I became unemployed. For the fifth time in my career, I ended up out of work. I was hoping that a book like this would help others deal with the shock of getting fired, the stress of living without money, and the difficulty of finding a new job. That, and I thought I could make a bit of change with the book, too.
A new study just came out from Pew that said that one out of four people in the US has been out of work at some point in the past four years and over half know of a family member or close friend who's been unemployed. There are too many people out there who need solid advice and need it now.
Q) In England, we currently have an epidemic of unemployment. I, myself, wrote the inside story of unemployment centres here in the UK. The training system is based around the concept of free labour. Would you have taken part in "shelf stocking" schemes for your benefits?
A) Probably not. I wrote in the book that working at minimum wage is wonderful from an "I will dig ditches to support my family" point of view, but it doesn't really work. A middle class family cannot survive on minimum wage in the US – hell, a poor family can't survive on the minimum wage these days. So every day spent working for less than your "Nut" (the basic amount you need to make to keep your family going) is a day wasted. You don’t have time to look for work that actually pays the mortgage and you're just falling behind a bit less quickly.
Q) The problem with that method is pretty clear. So, how do you support your family whilst you search for work?
A) Well, I didn't direct my book at the real poor. That's a very different life and a very different set of realities. I was looking at the middle-class family where you have a mortgage, school, car loans, credit rating, maybe private schools, etc. Unemployment insurance is pretty irrelevant in this case - it would take five weeks of UI to pay four weeks of mortgage ALONE. And that's without the government taking taxes out, which they do. I basically assume that a middle-class family can get by on savings, credit cards, home equity loans and freelance work.
Q) I would say that, in fact, your book is a guide for those who don't "really" need a job. It's for those who have independent means and just want to bleat about their unemployment?
A) No. David, no one in the US middle class can survive without a job and most families have less than four or five months’ worth of savings. But they still become unemployed so the question is what do you do when that happens? These people aren't independently wealthy. They have been squeezed for decades by the very rich - the 1%. If they get fired, it's a race between getting a new job that pays enough to keep going and the day that all their money runs out. I just give people the tricks to keep going.
Q) Do you feel the "middle class" is neglected, abused? Unable to sustain themselves from welfare and unable to continue their lives until they get back into unemployment? Almost in a "void"?
A) Very well put, David. It used to be that the middle class had jobs that lasted for life. They had houses at the shore and they took vacations every year. Now, they are paying insane costs for their kids' college, getting hammered by the collapse of the housing market and spending more and more on simply getting by. That's all fine if you're working at the sort of job you've been educated and trained for -- a white collar job. However, knock a leg out from under that structure and it can all go to pieces.
Even the lower class (and no one in America will ever admit that they are in the lower class) can't get by on welfare. Bill Clinton eliminated that back in the ‘90s. It was probably a good thing, as it was insanely destructive to the families caught in it. People took all their time to fulfil the bureaucratic demands of welfare, leaving them no time to get off welfare. It was very similar to the situation in Britain-- attend work sessions and classes all the time and have no real time to find the all-important job you need in order to escape.
Q) Welfare was destructive? I would have thought the destruction of industry was more apt to the description of “destructive”.
A) Nope. People are pretty good at finding new jobs--the industrial sector has basically either moved up to the lower-white collar jobs or into service jobs. People who need to make $30 an hour to get by can't compete in a global economy by making shoes. If you go to the places in the Rust Belt where the big factories closed, you'll find that new businesses, mostly in information technology and services, have popped up.
The industries that are left are producing things that simply cannot be produced in a low-tech society. Things like specialty steel, the first set of computer chips, etc. No, the real squeeze on the middle class has been the insane lowering of taxes on the very rich. That, David, is where the real problems lie.
Q) Let us say, for example, the middle class guy gets fired-- he needs a job-- he's offered a job making computer chips-- does he take it? Or does he turn it down? He has 4 kids, a mortgage, not a quid to his name-- credit cards maxed out-- what does he do?
A) Well, he is going to take a big step back, that's almost certain. The most important thing he must know is that he can't take a job that won't cover the 'nut'. You have to keep looking until you find something that will pay enough to get you by. People say to me, “We can't do that! How do we survive?” and I always say the same thing in reply. I had two kids, two mortgages, credit cards maxed out and I survived for years. You just have to hustle. The trick is to do it without becoming depressed or breaking up the family. I put two kids through good universities, have a 730 Credit Score and a house with a mortgage-- I survived and so can you!
Q) Would you say the family unit becomes more important when you are unemployed?
A) Of course. It's important because it's important. That's where real life is-- not at work--
and because you'll get by a lot easier with someone helping you than on your own. I'm not saying don't go to work at crappy jobs. You get whatever you can when you can, but your primary focus has to be on getting a decently-paying job with benefits (medical costs are the real killer here).
Q) Medical costs? Of course, those aren't taken care of under the US system of unemployment, correct?
A) No. The main causes of bankruptcy in the US are medical bills and the mortgage. I thought it was wonderful that the Mortgage Bankers Association walked away from its mortgage on a building in Washington, DC; but they tell all the rest of us how paying our mortgage is a "moral duty". It's getting a bit better now, but as a responsible family member, you have to seriously consider whether paying a medical bill is worth destroying your life.
Q) I take it Michael Moore’s portrayal of families being thrown out onto the streets, evicted, families destroyed is, in all reality, the truth?
A) Michael Moore is a lying bastard who uses TV techniques to twist the truth. It's bad, but there aren't families on the streets. Everyone works out something-- kids move in with their parents, people take in boarders, whatever. There's always that opportunity to move to somewhere cheaper. My favorite solution, however, is something called “getting a job” and that is why I wrote The Unemployed Guy’s Guide to Unemployment.
Q) That's the primary focus of your book-- getting back into employment. Correct?
A) I break the book down into three parts. Dealing with the shock of being fired; looking for work; and getting by without enough money. Most people look for work in the wrong way. They answer job ads and talk to HR people and fiddle with their resumes. I have been at the receiving end of those CV/ resume emails and I can tell you that all of that is completely useless. The only way to get a decent job is to network with everyone you've ever met. Someone, somewhere will see how your skills fit their needs. It's unreal over here. I've seen Harvard grad students applying for internships. This is how bad it is in the States-- Al Jazeera just released a list of vacancies and they had 8000 applications in the first three days.
Q) I was told this by an acquaintance of mine-- he networks heavily to get business. Is that the kind of thing you would suggest?
A) Networking is everything! People have an idea that the world has changed, that it's all depersonalized. It's not. It's all about who you know, who you've helped in the past and who knows you do good work. It's funny because the only type of people who have absolutely no problem with networking are ... rich people. They will use Daddy's friends to get a job in a split second.
Q) Many people just haven't got the networking skills to do that, Terry. How can people network if they have no idea how to network?
A) How do you know you can't? I doubt you've really tried. Have you contacted the people you went to school with? How about co-workers from previous jobs? Neighbors? People at your church? Have you asked people for lists of others to contact?
Q) Some people swear by cold emailing. Does that work?
A) No. That's just annoying. But if you get an email that says, "Joe X suggested I contact you about possibilities” no one responds badly to that. Usually, they try to think of a job or give some more suggestions of people to contact. Somewhere along the line, someone says, "Hey, that kid would be perfect for this." There you go -- you have found your “in”.
Q) This is a question that might make you cringe. You have been in some high level jobs. How many people have you hired through cold emails?
A) Well, including interns that only worked for me for a week or less, about ten. Sadly, I'm not usually in a hiring position. However, I've found jobs or contacts for others which developed into jobs for probably hundreds.
Q) Mike..sorry, Terry, you've read my book Disregarded. What did you think about the situation in the UK?
A) It seemed a bit dismal and almost Dickensian. My advice for young people who can't find a real job is to LEAVE. If you don't have any debts, you don't have kids, you don't have a house, I would say travel the world, intern everywhere, sleep at friends’ houses and have some fun. You don't need the grief, so why take it? If you can't find something you love to do, then do the other things that you'll never get a chance to do again - like leave home and be on your own.
I described in The Unemployed Guy's Guide to Unemployment walking into Las Vegas with $1.50 in my pocket and getting a job, a place to crash and a meal—all in thirty minutes.
Q) Where is your book on sale, Mike...err Terry?
A) Almost anywhere electronic – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Smashwords, iTunes. Also, if you are unemployed or think you're about to get fired and feel you really can't afford it (honor system) write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a coupon for a free copy.
Q) Thanks for your time, Terry. I hope the book is a success for you!
A) Thank you, David! I'm so glad to see the success your book has garnered!