published Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Kennedy: Cheerful by force of will

During our 90-minute interview, Sabrina Daniel, 54, an unemployed Chattanooga educator, twice described herself as "sanguine."

Sanguine? Wow. You can go a year without hearing that word.

Ms. Daniel, a former elementary-school teacher who has been jobless for three years, actually manages to pull off cheerful optimism (the definition of sanguine), although she admits it sometimes takes a lot of energy.

Ms. Daniel is extroverted and glib. She has a master's degree and a specialist degree in school administration, plus 17 years of classroom experience across a handful of elementary schools. Yet, she has been underemployed or unemployed for much of the last decade since losing her last teaching job, an interim position in a Hamilton County elementary school, in 2001.

Since then, she has worked as a telephone operator in a doctor's office for five years and intermittently as a substitute teacher. Sometimes she picks up a job as a sitter for an elderly person. She's worked as a hostess at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

Nowadays, she looks diligently for work -- any work. Recently, she spent the last of her retirement money. Last month, she borrowed from a family member to pay her $537-a-month mortgage.

"I'm at the point that I'll do almost anything," she said.

At first, she was hesitant to talk publicly about her plight. Middle-class people are conditioned to be embarrassed about being out of work, she said.

Once, Ms. Daniel said, she heard a speaker at a training conference say that people in different economic circumstances value different things. For example, high wage earners (and presumably the idle rich) are said to value wealth and connections, middle-class folks value achievements and poor people focus on their greatest treasures, children. This is an oversimplification (almost every parent values a child, after all), but you get the drift.

As a former middle-income earner, Ms. Daniel said the loss of a good job, a type of achievement, stings. "Unemployment smacks of at least temporary failure," she said.

Ms. Daniel agreed to talk to me when I told her that the perspective of a long-term unemployed person might be helpful to the newly jobless, or even for people with jobs who fear they might lose them.

She offered these tips from the perspective of someone who has spent three years in the unemployment wilderness.

  • Don't forget that most people get jobs through networking.

As a never-married, single person with no children, Ms. Daniel said she doesn't have the sort of family structure that lends itself to easy networking. Time and again, she has seen others get teaching positions through personal and professional connections, she said.

"I've noticed several single teachers not working any more," she said.

To fill this gap, Ms. Daniel has started an email newsletter that is part blog, part personal diary. There are 30 to 40 people on her mailing list, people she thinks might be good bird-dogs for jobs. She documents the details of her job search and asks for prayers along the way.

"I do some sitting for a lady who is 90 years old," she said. "It came from one of the stream of people who get my newsletter."

  • Exercise.

Nothing beats simple exercise to hold stress at bay, she said. Otherwise, stress and depression linked to joblessness will leak out in unhealthy ways, she said.

"If you don't exercise it out, you'll eat it out or explode on people," she said.

  • Develop a spiritual life.

Ms. Daniel, a Christian, believes an active prayer life is crucial to people who find themselves unemployed. Asking friends, family and even simple acquaintances to pray for her job-finding efforts has been empowering, she said.

"This is going to be a difficult time [for an unemployed person]," she said. "You have to be honest and authentic."

  • Make job-finding a lifelong habit.

The oft-quoted maxim, "The best time to find a job is when you already have one," is true, Ms. Daniel said. Without being disloyal to a current employer, you should always be open to job possibilities and keep those networking pathways clear, she said.

"There is a line of thought that the time to begin looking for your next job is the day you start a new job," she said. "If I got a job, a real job, I've decided that once a month I'm still going to write my newsletter."

I asked Ms. Daniel to describe her dream job. She said it would be an assistant principalship at an elementary school or a corporate training position. But frankly, she's not picky. Even a steady, minimum-wage job sounds pretty good when you're broke, she said.

When it comes to finding a job, the Great Recession has been a stern gatekeeper. Ms. Daniel, for one, doesn't think her unemployment was caused, or will be fixed, by people or policies in Washington.

She takes some comfort in knowing that there are a lot of Americans in the same boat, and she believes perseverance and prayer will eventually solve her problem.

Until then, remaining sanguine is a full-time job.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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sig4ever2 said...

Sadly, although illegal, being in the "fifty-something" age range places her at a disadvantage as well. Age discrimination, particularly in this employers market, is alive and well - which is ironic as people in the 40+ age group have an exemplary work ethic that was once highly valued in the workplace.

October 3, 2011 at 12:19 p.m.
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