Stuck in the Doldrums Since Sept. 11

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets an eerie feeling this time of year. Sept. 11, 2001, is as unforgettable as Dec. 7, 1941, was to my grandparents’ generation. Besides the national tragedy that unfolded before our eyes, it’s also a reminder, for me, about a bleak time when I was unemployed and how getting my foot in the door seemed next to impossible.

I remember leaving my house that fateful September day, jacket in hand, only to realize how clear and beautiful it was in Chicagoland. Blue skies and 70-something degrees.

“Not many days like this one,” I thought as I headed downtown. “Hopefully, there will never be another day like this one,” I would say to myself hours later.

But when I left the house that day, it felt like a new beginning—not a tragic ending.

It had been about three months since I last went into my office. We worked in a lavish space on the 28th floor of the Bloomingdale’s building on the posh Magnificent Mile. It was a great job and a dream location. Snacks were brought in every day, which was a nice perk.

Things seemed perfect. They weren’t.

I first started suspecting something was wrong at the end of 2000 when the holiday party got pushed back from December to February, and ultimately got canceled. Then the snacks stopped coming—and then the pay.

The small private company I worked for ran out of money. But I continued to work, unpaid, for about two months before I reached my breaking point. I mentioned to my manager how I felt, and I soon got a call from the CEO promising me a substantial raise if I stayed. She assured me that the venture capital money was on the way. It wasn’t—at least not at that time. I worked for about another month after that, and then I stopped coming in.

My new full-time job became finding a new full-time job, and it was the most stressful job I ever had. The U.S. unemployment rate at the time was about 5 percent. Today, that would be almost a dream come true, but back then it was a hideous nightmare.

In some ways, things haven’t changed much since then. Companies seem to go out of their way to make it difficult on job candidates, especially out-of-work job seekers. When someone loses their job, there seems to be a stigma that there’s something wrong with that person. I don’t understand that logic, especially during a recession.

Back then, I used the Internet to find job opportunities. “I don’t know how people did this before computers,” I thought to myself as I Googled my way through countless job sites. When I saw something promising, I’d belt out a cover letter, attach a résumé and send it off in an email. Occasionally I’d get a quick automated response that my résumé had been received. I know, because of the Internet, that companies get inundated with résumés. So I took that as a great sign that the company cared about its job candidates, but maybe not.

Many companies use software to weed out applicants, not realizing, or maybe realizing, that really good candidates are being filtered away in search of the elusive perfect candidate. At least before computers, someone would have to manually go through the mail and undoubtedly give a résumé at least a once-over.

Some of the interviews I did have were comical at best. One company brought me in and seemed to really like me, but at a third of what I was previously making. Another company did some strange cattle-call interview where I waited in the lobby with a handful of other candidates and was given about 10 minutes to state my case for why they should hire me. They told me I didn’t have the background they were looking for. So why did they bring me in?

In my time away from my unpaid position, I kept in touch with some of the people on staff. In early September, there was a rumor that the company was getting its venture capital money and that we would be paid on, you guessed it, Sept. 11. So I went in early that infamous day.

When I got there, my manager looked at me and pulled me into his office. “What are you doing here?” he asked, incredulously.

I explained the rumor I heard, which he shot down. He then pointed to the TV and said, “Did you hear a plane hit the World Trade Center?” I hadn’t, and only minutes later a second plane hit as well. That was the last time I ever stepped foot in the office.

A week or so later, I asked to be officially laid off so I could collect unemployment. Near the end of the year, some venture capital money did come in and I was paid most of what I was owed. It was quite a relief, but it would take me about 18 months to get back into my chosen field.

My 9/11 tale obviously pales in comparison to those who experienced the Sept. 11 tragedy firsthand. Thousands of lives were lost in the tragedy and its aftermath, and families were ripped apart. In some ways, it feels as if the country has never fully recovered from that horrific day 11 years ago.

That eerie feeling that returns every September? I’m sure that will never go away, but companies can do something positive for job seekers today. They can take a chance on a not-exactly-perfect candidate and groom that person to be the employee they want. Perhaps, then, the doldrums of the most recent recession will start to fade away.

James Tehrani is Workforce’s copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.