Before yesterday, the last employment forum I had been to was pretty grim. Hosted by San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce, the gathering is held every Wednesday at six and is open to anyone who wants to attend. On the night I went, about fifteen people huddled in a smallish conference room and offered their resumes up for critique by the two women who were leading the forum on that particular evening. Everything about the experience was energy-sucking and depressing, like a Muni ride home at the end of a long workday: too many people in too small a space; everyone looking world-weary and downtrodden; all of us wondering if we’ll ever get to where it is we’re trying to go.
Contrast that event with yesterday’s LaidOffCamp, an “unconference” for the unemployed, the underemployed, and the “I’m employed, but there’s gotta be something better out there.” LaidOffCamp’s founder, Chris Hutchins, put the event together in a matter of weeks and in doing so managed to assemble a gathering of smart, interesting, skilled people who brought a life and an energy to the day that made joblessness feel almost fun.
Hutchins started off the day looking a little overwhelmed. My friend Frances noted that Hutchins’ face bore the expression of a guy who has a party at his parents’ house that very quickly gets out of hand. (Though attendance was expected to be somewhere around two hundred people, closer to four hundred actually showed up.) Most people leading a conference that has suddenly doubled in size would have likely freaked out and hid behind the bar (that is, if most people are like me). But Hutchins is not most people (or, he’s not me, anyway); he gathered everyone together, quickly organizing presenters and scheduling their sessions. (An “unconference,” as I have recently learned, is one in which many–if not the majority–of the presenters sign up on the actual day of the conference, with the idea being that everyone in the room is an expert about something. Thus, at the 9:30 a.m. start time, still many presentation slots were yet to be filled. Hutchins filled them quickly, though, and once he did, we were off!)
The day started with some socializing and “light” networking that went a long way toward building the good energy that flowed all day through the venue–which was, thankfully, not a smallish conference room but the spacious Soma club, Temple. My friend Frances and I started our LaidOffCamp experience in a discussion group titled, “emotional turbulence.” People shared ideas for working through the frustrations that often come with being unemployed, and I think most people benefited from simply being reminded that we aren’t the only ones feeling like we’ll never have another job again.
After some emotional sharing, it was time for “managing your unstructured time” with my favorite folks for the day, the “Plan C Partners.” Normally I avoid people with too much enthusiasm and a computer full of powerpoints, but the “Plan C Partners” were incredibly charming–enthusiastic in a “we want you to get something out of our workshop” kind of way, rather than a Tony Robbins, “look at all of the teeth I have in my mouth when I smile” kind of way, and I appreciated that. They shared concrete tools that anyone can use to stay productive, my favorite being, “Do something useful and practical, and complete it.” In other words, if you hit a wall with your job search, choose another task (reorganizing a closet, taking clothes to Goodwill) that needs doing. Getting that job done will not only allow you to check something off your to-do list, but will give you that “feeling of accomplishment” that is so often absent from the daily grind that is trying to get a job.
Other things I learned at LaidOffCamp:
Lesson #1 – The San Francisco Bay Area is hella full of attractive, unemployed people.
Lesson #2 – I need to get on Twitter.
Lesson #3 – I need to post my resume online.
Lesson #4 – You can start “branding” yourself by making a list of adjectives that describe your favorite city, your favorite animal, and your favorite beverage. I know you’re skeptical, but it totally works–here’s me as a brand: “Verbal Cupcake–She’s friendly, tart, and sweet.” It’s so true!* (*My friend Jackie completely agreed that this slogan is accurate, so you can believe it. Truth in advertising–that’s what I offer.) In all seriousness, this is advice that helps those of us who aren’t very good at “marketing” ourselves; this simple exercise helped me think about how to “package” my personality and put that into my resume. (Thanks again, “Plan C Partners”!)
Lesson #5 – Employers wanting to contact you on LinkedIn have to pay a $3 fee to send a message to you. But if you join groups on LinkedIn according to your skills and interests, and an employer who wants to contact you about a job is a member of one of the same groups as you, that employer can send you a message for free. I’m on LinkedIn, and this was still news to me. Sadly, so was the fact that you can join groups on LinkedIn. I learned so much!
Lesson #6 – There’s a website called “Workstir” that allows you to set up a profile for yourself through which you can advertise the skills and services you can offer to others on a project basis. This is a particularly useful tool for “career changers” like myself who would like to add a few good gigs to the resume and a few good recommendations to the LinkedIn profile.
Lesson #7 – I really need to post my resume on line. Employers almost always do at least a cursory Google search for resumes listing the skill sets and experience keywords that they are looking for before posting a job (and often, they don’t post the job at all if they find the person they’re looking for during a Google search). Again, for career changers like me, this was a total newsflash. I’m young and I love me the Internets, but I had no idea employers would be having that much success finding candidates simply through keyword Google searches.
These are really just a few of the many things I took away from LaidOffCamp. There were a few glitches that I’m sure Chris Hutchins will refine and iron out for next time, but considering this event came together in a few weeks’ time and had twice the expected attendance, I’d say the day was mostly a success. When I left the Chamber of Commerce jobs forum, I made my way home feeling drained, exhausted, and not a wit more informed than I was when I first arrived. But I left LaidOffCamp feeling far more energized, far more empowered, and far more connected to other people than I have felt in awhile; in fact, I can’t wait to go to the next one! The only thing I would add to the next Camp would be s’mores. No matter how great a camp already is, it’s always better with s’mores.