Mid-life Career Transition: Contract Work

Note: I started this article shortly after my last career transition and never published it. I’m now in another transition time and wanted to write something about my experiences with contract work.

Especially for older job seekers, contract work is often more readily available than full time employment, and it can be a “try and buy” for the employer and for the job seeker. Once the employer sees that you are a cultural fit, can do the job and are a hard worker they may be more willing to make a long term commitment. At my most recent company, virtually all User Experience employees came in initially as contractors and were hired after six months or so if there was a good fit.

Working with contract staffing firms

  1. Work with a small number of firms that have good placement records in your industry and that provide support for their contractors. In the creative space there are a few contract firms that are known for good contractor experiences.
  2. If you’re interested in a particular company, find a connection there who can tell you if they have a preferred staffing firm they work with. The firm that got me into Best Buy specialized in telecommunications staffing, and they had good penetration in the mobile division of Best Buy. Most of the contractors on my team were placed through them. At U.S. Bank, almost all the user experience people were placed by the firm that placed me there. Neither of these firms were the biggest names, but they had strong niche positions in good companies.

Consider your goals

  1. Learn how companies use contractors. My first two contracts were highly unlikely to turn into full time positions because both companies tend to use contractors long term, sometimes for years. The contract I took in 2012 was a contract to hire position so there was a good chance that I would become an employee (and I eventually did). Both types can be good solutions, depending on what you want and where you are in your job search.
  2. I was fine with a part time contract with little chance of going full time early in my transition, because it provided me with some steady money coming in that would extend my severance pay while I continued to look for something longer term. It was also an opportunity for me to try freelance consulting work, but without the pressure of relying solely on that type of work for income.
  3. Later in my transition my severance was gone, my Cobra coverage was ending and the consulting work I was getting was sporadic and at too low a rate to be a viable business for me. I was no longer interested in a long term contract and took a position that was advertised as contract to hire.

Negatives about contracting

  1. Contractors are “at will” employees and there is even less job security than there is when you’re a full time employee (which isn’t a whole lot). It can be stressful to have a gap between employment every six months to a year.
  2. Depending on the contract firm you work with, you may have benefits available through that firm but without the subsidies you get when you’re a full time employee, so health coverage is expensive. The good news is that with the Affordable Care Act insurance companies can no longer refuse coverage if you have pre-existing conditions.
  3. Some firms do offer limited holiday and vacation pay, but you’ll probably have to work a certain number of hours to be eligible. I find that when I’m doing contract work, holiday weeks are stressful because of the limited pay I receive those weeks, and I take very few days off other than holidays. Others are better able to take time of without pay and not be stressed by it.

Types of contracts

  1. W-2 contracts: When I first contracted in the 1990s there were very few of these. Most contracts were 1099 contracts. That changed due to some legal issues, and now most companies use W-2 contracts. This means taxes, social security, etc. are deducted from your checks, and you’re not subject to self employment taxes because you’re considered an employee of the contract company. This is an easy way to do contracting, but since there is more overhead for the contract firm your hourly rate will probably be less than what you’d get as a 1099 contractor.
  2. 1099 contracts: These sometimes go through a staffing firm and other times are negotiated directly with the company you’re doing the work for. Nothing is withheld. You tend to get higher hourly rates this way, but you may also need to pay self-employment tax and do quarterly estimated tax payments.

During my 2011-2012 transition I did a mixture of both. My primary contract at Best Buy was W-2, as was an off-and-on contract I did part time for another company. Some freelance journalism I worked on was 1099 work. I didn’t have to do estimated taxes because the majority of my income had taxes already withheld. I just had a bit more withheld from the W-2 payments to avoid getting penalties for not having enough taxes withdrawn each quarter.

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Things I Can Control (Midlife Musings)

After spending three years in the user experience group of a local company (6 months contract + 2.5 years full time employee) I was recently downsized again. The company has been outsourcing user experience work to an interactive agency. Why I specifically was downsized seems to be a mystery to everyone except the person who made the decision.

I’m frustrated, and certainly didn’t want to deal with this again at my age, but I’m trying to view it as an opportunity. I’m hoping to land in a place that I really love and where the work is satisfying.

I saw something yesterday on LinkedIn that was so appropriate for my current situation, and for much of life. I can’t control the decision to lay me off, but there are things I can control. I can control whether I let this setback control me. I can control my attitude about it, and what I do about it. I am determined to turn this setback into a victory.

Things I can control

From jongordon.com

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Father’s Day Tribute

Most people would say I am my mother’s daughter. I look a lot like her, I have her strength and determination, and I’ve inherited her musical and artistic ability. However, some of the things I value the most came from my father, who died almost 10 years ago. I was thinking about this as Father’s Day approached.

My dad wasn’t perfect by any means, but he always had a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor. I know that my own sense of humor has gotten me through a lot of things in life that were hard, and it’s one of the things from my dad that I value the most.

Dad wasn’t a musician at all, but he loved music. He would sing silly songs to us, and he was always watching Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller, Ed Sullivan, etc. My musical ability may have come from my mom, but my love of music came from my dad.

My love of animals and nature also came from my dad. I wish he would have lived to see my wildlife photography. I think it would have given him joy. I have pictures of him with cats from when he was a boy, and he was the one our dog Pepper loved the most when I was growing up. After he retired he got a job at a local cemetary, where he could be outside all day mowing the lawn or tending the graves. He enjoyed that.

He was a simple man, who took pleasure in simple things. My mom sometimes wished he was more ambitious and more of an authority figure, but that wasn’t who he was. He was a man of peace and rarely lost his temper. When he did we took notice – “Whoa, dad’s mad! We must have done something really bad!” He hated confrontation. Much of the love I felt as a child came from him. I miss him, and hope they have a great celebration for all the dads in heaven.

For all of you whose dad’s are living, tell them you love and appreciate them on this day dedicated to dads.

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Mid-life Career Transition: What I Learned

This stage of my career transition is complete – I now have a job where I am at a comparable level in my career to where I was before getting downsized. I wanted to share some thoughts with my readers about what I have learned, and any advice I might have for others.

While Still Employed

  1. Live beneath your means. One reason I got through two years of transition relatively unscathed is that I had a healthy savings account and no debt other than my mortgage. Also, years ago when I bought my condo I decided I didn’t need a McMansion and I went for a modest place with a modest down payment and reasonable mortgage. That allowed me to live on a lot less income and still make all my payments.
  2. Don’t be complacent. You may have a good job now, but you’re one bad quarter or one merger away from being on the street. I’m not saying that to be negative, it’s just a reality. Keep networking, keep your eyes open, keep learning new skills, keep building your personal brand. That way you’ll be ready for whatever comes.
  3. If there are new developments in your field, make a point of learning about those new developments, even if your job doesn’t require it. Employers are looking for a perfect fit. One key technology that you lack can make a big difference in how employers perceive you. They don’t want to have to train you.

During a Transition

  1. No matter how much you want to rush into another job, take some time to assess where you are and where you want to be. If you’ve had dreams of things you’d like to try if you have the time, try them. No one wants to be downsized, but it can be a time of self-discovery that may set you on a delightful new path for your life.
  2. Use the resources available through the U.S. government, your state, county or city. They have a wealth of job search information, groups, training, and funding available for dislocated workers. I was able to get trained in several areas where I knew my skills were lacking.
  3. Get hooked into a couple of job search support groups. Many churches have them. I generally went to one group near home that I found encouraging and supportive, and another that was more focused in my career area where I got leads.
  4. Network, make cold calls, tell everyone you know that you’re looking for a job and keep telling them. You never know where the lead will come from that results in your next job.
  5. It may take one or more “soft landings” before you get to that job where you can finally say “I have landed.” They can be great opportunities to gain experience, learn about companies and just survive a rough patch. In my case that has usually been contract work, which I will write more about in a separate post. Especially for job hunters in their 50s, contract work can be a good way to get past some of the stereotypes hiring managers have about older workers and prove that you’ve still “got it.”
  6. Don’t despise the transition time. I’ll be honest, there were many times in my two year transition where I was discouraged, anxious, angry, and it wasn’t all that pleasant. However, I also had a chance to experiment, experience things ranging from freelance journalism to publishing a photography book, learning through formal and informal means, and getting way out of that rut I was in for too long at my last job. I also was reminded that I am a very strong and resourceful person, and I am proud of how I thrived during a very difficult time. I would not trade the past two years for a time of boring security inside a comfort zone that was starting to feel more like a cage.
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Landing a permanent position

I haven’t blogged for awhile now, but after a reader asked what ever happened in my job search I decided to write again.

I worked part time at Best Buy for almost exactly one year. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to do some freelance work to supplement my regular pay, it wasn’t steady enough nor was it lucrative enough for me to continue doing that long term. The affinity marketing work I had done from July through February also dried up for a period of time, and the work I was doing my last few months there wasn’t in line with my career goals.

In July of 2012 I started a new contract at U.S. Bank as a content strategist. This was full time with a much higher hourly rate, and I fit in really well with the content strategy team and with the online banking team I was a part of. Effective January 24 I became a full time employee of U.S. Bank in a lead content strategist role. It’s nice to have health benefits (I could write a lengthy blog about my health insurance experience once COBRA ran out) and I like being paid for holidays and days off. It’s a relief to be an employee, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to do the contract work that saw me through a two year long transition.

I think that older workers need to be willing to do contract work. Many companies are hesitant to hire older workers without having them come on as contractors first. Once they see that you’re a good worker and a good fit with the company some of the concerns don’t seem to important. It’s also a good chance for you to check them out.

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Tips for spotting urban wildlife

So many people are amazed at all the wildlife I see and photograph in my inner-ring suburb of St. Paul, MN. They say that the only wildlife they see, other than squirrels and bunnies, are road kill. Actually, urban wildlife is plentiful, but here are a few tips for seeing more of it.

1. Get out and start walking: Although you might see a family of deer stroll across your back yard, you’ll have a better chance if you turn off the TV and computer, put on some hiking boots and go out in a wooded area, wetland or prairie. Not sure where to go? Most city and county Web sites have information about local parks and hiking trails.

2. Put down the iPod and mobile phone: Often before I see a wild animal, I’ll hear some rustling sounds, or a cry, and when I follow the sound I see the animal. Smell can also be helpful. Sometimes when deer are near, particularly on a damp day, I notice a smell like a sweaty horse. The more you listen, the more you learn to identify the sounds of each bird, each animal, even the rustling of a deer vs. the rustling of a turkey or a squirrel.

3. Hone your powers of observation: When I started hiking I know that the animals were all around me, but I didn’t see them. Look along the edge of lakes and ponds and you’re likely to see turtles sunning themselves, herons fishing, and maybe a doe and her fawns drinking. Look into the underbrush at the side of a trail and you may see a deer or a turkey or a coyote watching silently. Binoculars or a camera with a good zoom lens can help you determine if that blob you see is an animal, or just a blob 🙂

4. Leave the dog at home (at least occasionally): I know, you and the dog enjoy a good romp through the woods, but most wildlife won’t come near if you have a dog with you. Take the dog, but go out once in awhile by yourself if you want to see wildlife. (OK, I do have to admit that a friend who hikes with his three spaniels got a better look at a coyote than I’ve had while hiking, but generally the dog will keep wildlife hidden).

Just a note about wildlife photography… best case, the real pros have digital SLR cameras with great zoom lenses, and they sit and wait for the wildlife to come to them. However, I’ve done pretty well with a Canon SX10IS “near SLR” camera with a 20x optical zoom, just taking pictures on the fly as I hike. I can’t always get the picture, but it’s amazing how often I do get really good pictures. The most important thing is to follow steps 1-4, since at the heart of good photography is observation and having a good eye for composition.

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Life Lessons from a Tortie Cat

Memorial Day 2001, 11 years ago this weekend, I adopted a cat from a local Humane Society who has transformed our little family with her larger than life personality. To celebrate her adoptiversary, I wanted to follow up my post about Life Lessons from a Tiny Old Cat, and share some of the things Coco Bear has shown me.

  1. Each day is a wondrous gift, with the potential to be amazing: When the alarm goes off in the morning and my eyes aren’t even open, Coco leaps out of bed and starts rolling around on the floor kicking up her legs, just delighted to have a new day dawning. She makes me smile and share her optimism about a new day to live.
  2. Throw yourself 100% into everything you do: Nothing is done halfway with Coco Bear. Playing, eating, kneading, showing love, sleeping – all done with nothing held back, and no apologies.
  3. If you mess up, charm can help you make amends: Particularly as a young cat Coco was always doing something to make me tear my hair. She dumped water glasses on my head, broke stuff (before I discovered museum putty), banged cupboards to get my attention (before I discovered magnetized closures), rattled mini-blinds to get me up in the morning, and so many other things. I would be so exasperated, and then I’d look at that caffeinated looking face and dancing eyes, and that look on her face so close to a grin that I have to laugh instead.
  4. A sense of humor can get you through anything: Refer to the previous point. I had to learn to pick my battles with Coco, and just laugh and enjoy the rest. There is a quality called “tortitude” that many tortoiseshell cats have, and it can be great fun if you have a sense of humor.
  5. Take time to play: Coco still loves to play at almost 14 years of age. She’s very good at getting me to take a few moments to enter into play with her. She looks like a kitten, with big dancing eyes in that round face of hers.
  6. Make time for those we love: Coco and I have a special morning ritual called “tummy time” where I lie on the bed and she kneads on my abdomen and purrs up a storm. When she’s done she curls up on the bed for a nap, after licking my chin and eyebrows. Some days I’m running late and don’t want to take the time, but it’s worth the time to see the joy it brings her – and me 🙂
  7. Problems are temporary – love can heal: Some nights I’m dragging in the door with the weight of the world on my shoulders, feeling like life is an 18 wheeler that just ran me down. I walk in the door and see Coco rolling on the floor so delighted to see me, and then inexplicably she goes and licks the silk flowers on the coffee table. My cares fall away.
  8. You’re as young as you feel: If Coco was human she would be around 70 years old, but she still has the attitude of a young cat. We let age limit us, but she is just herself.

Happy Adoptiversary Coco Bear!

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Memorial Day Tribute

This weekend we remember …

… the men and women who gave all in wars over the decades and even centuries, in defense of our country. I haven’t agreed with some of the wars we’ve found ourselves in, but I take nothing away from the courage of those who served. It doesn’t matter whether they were drafted or enlisted, whether out of patriotism or to get GI Bill benefits. When they were called to serve, they served sacrificially.

No generation is untouched by war, and all have lost too many people to war. For me as a baby boomer, it was people I knew from high school dying in Vietnam – and others who made it back getting far from a hero’s welcome. For my dad, a World War II vet, he lost people he served next to, and friends and classmates. He didn’t talk much about it – many veterans carry secrets they never talk about. For this generation it’s Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken such a toll.

My thoughts are with parents who lost children to war, and children who lost parents. I pray for spouses who lost partners, siblings who lost brothers or sisters, soldiers who lost dear comrades and platoon leaders, and in a special way the survivors of those who could not make the adjustment back to civilian life and terminated their lives – one of the ultimate tragedies of war.

On Memorial Day weekend a number of years ago I was watching an episode of a show called Doc, and I was introduced to a song by Billy Ray Cyrus really moved me, especially in the context of the episode, which was a tribute to veterans and also to 9/11 firefighters who gave all. I want to quote the chorus today (complete lyrics here (C) 1993 Mercury Records, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc.):

“All gave some and some gave all
And some stood through for the red, white and blue
And some had to fall
And if you ever think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some gave all.”

I also remember family and friends who have left this life. The older I get, the more of them there are. I particularly remember my dad on this weekend. I have many happy memories of my dad, singing his funny songs and taking me ice skating. Dad, I remember.

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Midlife Career Transition: The Journey Continues

I haven’t posted for awhile – life has been so busy! The midlife career transition continues, and life is still a bit unsettled. Theoretically, I’m working full time at my Best Buy contract. In practice, the promotions I was working on came to an abrupt stop in early March and probably won’t start up again for a couple of months, so I’m doing a hodge-podge of fairly boring admin work, and most weeks there really isn’t enough work for me to work full time.

I worked a couple of Fridays on another contract for a company I had worked for briefly last summer, and I’ve been doing a few hours of work each week for them. That has helped make up for any shortfall I had from Best Buy, although this week they had no work for me. If I stay at Best Buy I’d like to work about 20-25 hours there and get another steady contract or freelance position, but so far that hasn’t happened. I had an opportunity for another position there, a senior writer position, but that fell through.

Beyond work, I’m finishing up the last of my search engine marketing courses, SEO Writing, and preparing to participate in the Art on a Line show in mid-May. I’m completing a couple of new watercolor paintings to exhibit there, and I’m going to bring a couple of my cat paintings to perhaps drum up some business as a pet painter.

The career transition and my experiments in freelancing are still interesting and I continue to grow. Part of me is so ready to get a job with a salary and benefits that is predictable and safe, but whatever happens, I wouldn’t trade this past year or so for anything!

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Life Lessons from a Tiny Old Cat

Sometimes life lessons come in unusual ways. I had the privilege of sharing my home for almost 12 years with an amazing cat named Raleigh who taught me many lessons I can apply to other areas in my life. She died two years ago tomorrow, so this blog is a way to honor her and share those life lessons.

  1. Make a good first impression: Raleigh walked in the room the night I went to meet her prior to adopting her, and she mesmerized me. She had a presence that drew all eyes in the room to her. She had me at hello.
  2. Don’t let fear control your life: Raleigh had been through a lot and had a lot of fears at first. The door buzzer, the vacuum, loud voices, sudden movements, thunder, Velcro … all of these things scared her. I admire the courage she showed, overcoming those fears one by one and becoming the confident lady she was later in life. I even saw her roar at the once-feared vacuum cleaner.
  3. Be a leader people want to follow: Raleigh’s nickname was The Empress. She had this regal air, and she was a bit bossy and determined to get what she wanted. However, she was a benevolent empress that her younger sister and I loved.
  4. Be gracious, without fawning over people: Raleigh liked having people over, although if it was a group she might lay low until people settled down a bit. She would come out when I hosted a family meal and greet each person, sniffing them and rubbing them, and allowing them to pet her but not to take it too far. Everyone was enamored by her.
  5. You can be tough and still be a lady: There was a movie called Steel Magnolias about a bunch of southern women who were a lot tougher than they looked. I called Raleigh my steel magnolia. She was a southern belle (she was even raised in Kentucky) and if she was a human she would have been sipping mint juleps with someone fanning her and feeding her grapes. She was also small, and in her later years so frail that it looked like a light breeze could carry her away, but she had a core of steel and was a real fighter, without ever losing her grace and elegance.
  6. Be yourself: Raleigh’s younger sister Coco was (still is) a pretty wild and crazy girl, who did things Raleigh had never even thought of doing. Raleigh would see some of those things and try them, but always with her own style. I laughed the first time I saw her bat down a tree ornament. She did it so elegantly, and looked so pleased with herself. Coco would have attacked it much more strenuously.
  7. Aging happens, but don’t dwell on it: Raleigh was almost 19 when she died, old for a cat, but cats don’t care about age. She knew that on days when her kidneys or pancreas were acting up she didn’t feel good, and she slept more as she aged, but she still played and still did what she felt like doing.  Humans are the ones that fret about aging and try to fight it. Raleigh just lived, and lived well, and made adjustments as needed.
  8. Don’t hold grudges: I had to give Raleigh subcutaneous fluids the last couple of years of her life, and especially at first I was very bad at it. I’d do a bad needle stick and it hurt her, and she’d cry out and take off. Other times it would leak and she’d get all wet, and sometimes she would bleed. Even when it went really bad and I’d cry or yell in frustration, she’d be on my lap cuddling five minutes later. She never held it against me.
  9. Look at the big picture: Probably 10-15 minutes out of each day she was submitted to atrocities – pills being shoved down her throat, the dreaded subcutaneous fluids, etc. The rest of the time she had a good life. All of our lives have unpleasantness and difficulty, but overall there is far more good than bad, and Raleigh knew that.
  10. Never give up: The night before she died, Raleigh was so weak that she could barely walk. She tried to jump up on the bed to cuddle with me and she couldn’t do it, and fell on the floor. I lifted her up on the bed, and she looked at me with a peeved look, jumped off the bed and tried four or five times, until she finally got on the bed by herself. Once she did it herself she curled up happily. Her determination inspired me.
  11. Love is worth the pain of loss: Losing her was very hard, since we’d gone through so much together over the 12 years we’d been together. I went out a month later and adopted another cat, because the joy far outweighed the pain of loss. I’m thankful for every day we had together.
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