Have degree, will adapt
When I graduated with a degree in Cultural Studies last year, I remember picking up a copy of Walrus magazine and seeing a photo of a grad, gowned and capped, completely submerged underwater. It was a metaphor for feeling as though we’re drowning in debt with no job prospects, and, echoing Canada’s Ministers of Finance and Labour, the authors of the article suggested that post-secondary institutions should guide students into the job gaps, such as those in the trades.
I remember thinking, “Really? This is the answer? The world has become so completely inhospitable that we must drop our dreams of becoming teachers and artists because our country needs plumbers?” Dismal visions of workers in Soviet Russia passed through my mind, marching solemnly to work they were entirely ill-suited for and uninspired by.
If this is the best advice out there, I thought, I’d better come up with my own solution. I was working in Kingston as a grocery store check-out person when Prof. Rena Upitis, Artsci’81, Law’81, MEd’82, the former Dean of Education, called me about a possible job. A friend of my parents had recommended me to her.
Rather than seeing my current employment as a negative exemplar of my general degree of ambition, Rena saw me as someone who could put on a brave face and make the most of a limited array of job prospects. She hired me as a marketer and jack-of-all-trades for Wintergreen Studios Press, an offshoot of the Wintergreen Studios she had started, as an educational retreat near Westport, Ontario.
There was a huge learning curve for most aspects of my new position. When Rena asked me to do the search engine optimization on the Wintergreen Studios website, I admitted to her that I had to Google the term. She laughed, and we got the job done, but it struck me how accommodating she was while I was learning the bottom rungs on my job’s ladder. Of course in other ways I filled in gaps in Rena’s knowledge. For example, I knew how social media could be harnessed to develop an audience as well as a brand identity.
In the nine months I spent working full-time for Rena, I learned how to plan and execute high-profile galas, market books, host and build websites, use Adobe Illustrator, and write grant proposals to national funding bodies. My job was scaled back when the funding for my position dried up, but by then I had a solid skill set that I could parlay into a freelance lifestyle.
As a result of my involvement with Wintergreen’s community network, I began getting job offers to do websites and marketing jobs. As a freelancer, I discovered how to listen to the specifications of a job and provide a realistic quote, how to troubleshoot issues without an expert supervisor, and how to manage my own life so I could still work part-time for Rena.
I have to admit that this life has not always been easy. Sometimes clients change their minds about jobs, or they don’t request a cheque from their head office until the day you thought you’d be receiving it. At first, freelancers are regularly faced with rent due and not enough in the bank to buy dinner. I’ve learned that self-employment is like camping; you have to be prepared or you’ll be disastrously exposed to the elements.
There are so many moments, though, that make the freelance life worthwhile. I do work more hours than most people, but I also have time during the day for yoga classes, working on a PhD proposal, making art, and having dinner with friends. My days take on a pattern even though my workload rises and falls with my clients’ deadlines. All of it is manageable and respectful because, as a contractor and consultant, I’m a valuable member of each organization I work with.
My friends ask how I managed to become so lucky, and I tell them the same thing each time: figure out how to monetize your interests.
Forget the advice offered in that Walrus article; never give up on an idea that could become your vocation because you’ll be more knowledgeable about topics that you find fascinating. Maybe you’re an avid Facebook user. Well, there are a lot of people out there who aren’t, and perhaps a potential client is one of them. Think of an example from your life in which an event that used to attract five people now attracts 20 or 50 because of Facebook. Research how to write a media release. Find out what free event listings are available in your city and what publications exist in your client’s field. With a strong and friendly pitch, you can land yourself a fun, short-term marketing contract. Zero job security, yes … but it could be in your field of interest and education, with hours that suit your other jobs or activities, and with people who admire your ambition and creativity.
Self-employment isn’t for everyone. No question. You have to be confident and relatively out-going. You also need equipment and time. I’m fortunate enough to have a MacBook Pro, for instance, so I was able to learn the Adobe Suite on a machine that can handle the application. I had a lucky break and learned skills while working on a long-term contract.
Some students and young alumni won’t be able to find the time to learn new skills, but if you are able to find or make the time and you put together the necessary tools, I’d advise you to think strategically and be adaptable. Believe me, self-employment beats the heck out of working at a menial job or having no job at all.
The writer is the Marketing Director of Wintergreen Studios, sits on the board of the Kingston Arts Council, is an artist and writer, and has built websites and marketing plans for the Friends of Kingston Inner Harbour, Peace Quest, and other clients. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.