By Eileen Sepulveda
I’ve been looking for a job since the start of the pandemic. In the past few months alone, I’ve submitted dozens of applications and haven’t heard back from anyone even though everyone claimed they were hiring, but couldn’t find people to fill positions. Now suddenly, in the last few weeks, the news has been nothing but layoffs.
What I know is that I have plenty of experience and a college degree, but my longtime job search has turned up nothing. I can’t help but wonder if my age, or perhaps the fact that I am overqualified, is working against me. I certainly don’t want 2023 to mark another year of being unemployed, and I am desperately hoping to avoid reaching the kind of milestone you don’t celebrate: the longest I have ever been without work.
As job hunting has practically become my full-time job, I have gained a lot of insight into today’s hiring and application processes, and I’ve been thinking about how different it was when I was a teen looking for my first job.
An Introduction to a Technological World
My father bought us our first computer as a Christmas present in the winter of 1985. He had a large wooden desk custom-made. The desk was pure oak with a light coat of clear shellac. Using computers in school was already part of our curriculum as we solved math problems, read short texts, and played games. He tried his best to keep us focused. Although we couldn’t afford most luxuries, he gave us the tools we needed to keep up with technology. Of course, technology has come a long way from the 80s – and so have the methods of finding full-time employment or decent-paying jobs.
My first job was two years later, in a clothing store named Wings on 3rd Avenue, now known as the Bronx Hub. I was 13 years old. I was determined to earn money to buy clothing and essentials for myself – an important priority as a growing teenager — and travel around the city or anywhere outside the Bronx. I also wanted to help my family with bills. The thought of saving for college or anything of that nature didn’t cross my mind at the time. It felt far away, and I cared more about my independence and finding ways to elude poverty. When I was hired, the manager promised me cash at the end of the day.
My first on-the-books job was as a cashier at Big R Supermarket, where dad used to do all the grocery shopping. I was making about $3.35 an hour — the minimum wage at the time. Like me, most of my co-workers also grew up in the South Bronx, where the crack epidemic had rapidly crept in. It negatively affected millions of households — not only in the Bronx, but all across America, hitting communities of color especially hard. We all desperately needed a 9-to-5. That was seen as a way out of what some might call the “war on drugs.” There were few options for afterschool programs, with more emphasis on sports and cheerleading than arts and technology. Since we were so focused on the goal of survival, most of us did not have the luxury of pursuing our passions — like writing, which I have always enjoyed.
I didn’t appreciate how simple the process of getting a job was back then. I’ve been getting a harsh realization of how much harder it is today. It’s nothing like back in the day when you could walk in and shake someone’s hand or look them in the eye to tell them how much you wanted the job. Today, the process feels so impersonal and automated, and an actual human person often doesn’t even look at your application.
A Glimpse at How Human Resources Have Changed
I spent a year working in a temporary position as a receptionist at the Human Resources Department of a local hospital in the Bronx, where I shuffled through dozens of faxed resumes. I would carefully separate each, one by one, according to the position, which applicants most times indicated on their fax cover sheet. Otherwise, I evaluated the applicant’s experience and referred them to the recruiter for an in-person interview.
We didn’t have a limit on how many resumes we received daily. We also worked with temporary job agencies. I received over 100 resumes per day, not counting folks who applied in person. Once we removed a job posting — which had usually been thumbtacked to a corkboard – we filed away the remainder of the applications for future reference.
Today’s job market is much more competitive. On one job board, I saw a position that had more than 9,000 applicants in 30 days. Waiting for someone to respond to your application can take weeks or longer – if you get any response at all. It feels like you’re standing in a long line that never seems to move. When bills are due, many people cannot afford to wait.
Initiatives Like the Child Tax Credit and Universal Basic Income Can Help
There are job readiness programs that help develop skills like resume-building and provide job search help, but these programs are only available to individuals who qualify for benefits such as SNAP or government-assisted programs. Despite my ongoing struggles — I don’t meet the income limits to be eligible for these programs.
Some people face even more barriers in their job search. One of the major issues when looking for work is childcare. This is a challenge predominantly experienced by women — especially during the pandemic. As a recent Forbes story noted, “Since the majority of caregiving duties continue to largely fall on women’s shoulders, women left the workforce at a much higher rate than men. In October, 100,000 Americans missed work because of childcare problems as a big wave of viral infections such as the flu, the common cold, RSV, and Covid-19 swept the nation.”
My children are grown now, but when they were small, I was fortunate that my mom could watch my children while I worked as a dispatcher. After a few years, I joined a union that offered childcare vouchers — both of these things eased my burden considerably. I continued to work at the hospital for 15 years.
The first time I used a job board was in 2019. I was unemployed, unable to afford school, and desperate for work. Thankfully, the job search didn’t take long — after just a few applications and job assessments, I landed a full-time job. The job board made it easy to find work. I was working for a great company that geared its employees toward company growth and success. Employees were given the first choice for available positions within the organization. Through networking, I was allowed to co-edit their newsletter just a few months after I started. I was even learning how to save money while still being able to pay all my bills.
Things were finally looking up. However, the pandemic hit, and the company downsized in March 2020. I collected from the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program (PEUC) for almost a year. It allowed me to catch up with bills and pay rent. But unfortunately that same year, my dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so all the extra money I saved went to vet bills. Since then, I haven’t stopped looking for work — nor have I given up on my career as a writer and journalist.
During the last two years, I have been using all types of job boards like Indeed and Idealist — you name them, I’ve used them. For the positions I’ve recently applied for, the majority require you to create a personal account on their company career websites. Indeed serves as the advertiser, similar to jobs listed in the “Help Wanted” section of a newspaper. For the most part, the application process has been simple. But after each application I submit or account I create, I’ve noticed a spike in emails that have nothing to do with my application — or, my favorite — the emails informing me that “Unfortunately, John Doe has decided not to move forward with your application at this time.” And the cycle continues.
Since we are all still facing a pandemic and the financial challenges that go along with it, initiatives like the expanded Child Tax Credit can continue to help parents get back on their feet and assist with childcare expenses for parents. Meanwhile, a universal basic income could help provide families and people without children with money to cover essential bills — while they spend time looking for a job where they can explore their passions and creativity.
Despite contradicting news headlines — one day claiming no one wants to work, the next saying everyone has been fired — people like me will keep applying for jobs and hope our luck will change. In the meantime, it would be helpful for the government to prioritize policies that help us get there.