This is where I am. Job seeking during COVID.

It’s hard to imagine a person at this moment in history that has been unaffected by the corona virus pandemic. On one end of the scale some people have been minorly inconvenienced; they couldn’t head to the pub, they had to wash their hands more frequently or they struggled to find toilet paper and pasta for a few weeks. At the worst of it people have lost loved ones or have been left destitute. My experience is one of bad luck and job seeking.

Job seeking at the best of times can be a minefield. There are the jobs you really want but may be outside your experience, jobs you’re suited for yet throw up red flags during the interview process and jobs you could do with your eyes closed but perhaps you’re over qualified for. Once in a while the stars align and a job appears that seems perfectly written with your experience in mind, offers a level of responsibility suitable to your experience and appears to be a job you could settle into and grow professionally. And best yet, you actually see it because you are actively job hunting.

Just recently I thought I had found such a role. Four years ago, my now wife and I moved down to Melbourne from Wollongong, NSW. I took up a role as a Senior Graphic Designer, the sole designer in a small advertising studio. As the studio grew, I also took on the responsibility of an Art Director. This job helped me and my partner settle into a new city, regain some financial stability and helped us save for a wedding. I grew close to my colleagues yet started to feel a bit starved for creativity. So, after the wedding I began looking for a new job, spent some time redesigning my resume and portfolio, reworking my profiles on sites like Seek and LinkedIn and started building a bit of an online network. It was the first time in my life I was searching, not just to get a job, but to find the right job for me.

About five months into my search, a job appeared for a Senior Graphic Designer at an independent studio. The job matched my experience to a tee. I applied and after about six weeks I had essentially written off the application as a dead end. Until an email unexpectedly appeared in my inbox asking if I would be free for a chat. The interview wasn’t what I expected, we didn’t really go through my portfolio. We talked more about my past work environments, what I was looking for and what they were looking for. Rather than look at my most recent work, it felt as if they looked at my work history as a whole. For me this approach was a major benefit as my experience is broad and in places quite niche. They were looking for a designer who could form a bridge between the two creative arms within their studio; print and digital, and they saw me as the right fit. I saw an opportunity to put my entire professional experience into practice and an environment where the projects were broad reaching and creatively stimulating. Above all, I saw a role in which I might possibly settle into and grow.

I was contractually obligated to give a 6 week notice to employer before leaving, I am doubtful at the number of employers who might wait that long for a new employee to start, but my new employer was able to accommodate. It was during this time COVID-19 started to spread to Australia. About two weeks before I was due to leave my last studio, I got a call from my new boss asking whether I could delay my start by 14 days. Considering they had waited for me and I had some annual leave to be paid out (plus I was about to move apartments and having that time during the move would have been beneficial), I cautiously agreed.

The day after I left my previous employer came the news I was dreading. I had a phone call with the new studio, they told me that they were letting go of the majority of their staff, including my new position. I wasn’t entirely surprised, I had two weeks to think about them delaying my start, knowing their clients were sports and tourism based and seeing those industries get decimated by social distancing and travel bans. The more I watched the news the more I was certain I might lose this job.

The day I lost my job was also the day the news was showing the long lines outside of Centrelink. I’ve looked for work in a recession before. I graduated at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, but as a student living at home I had a safety net. Having just recently graduated, I simply went straight back in. I completed a Masters course at Wollongong University – something I was considering doing but until that point I was wanting to get some practical experience before taking on further study. This allowed me to ride out the last recession but this time I didn’t have that opportunity.

The first weeks of restarting the job hunt was a conflicting experience. There were practically no roles for graphic designers on the job boards but without the stresses of work I was sleeping easier and waking up earlier. The move kept me busy for a while, organising movers, cleaners, packing and unpacking kept me busy and kept my mind off the situation. In some respects, it felt like a mini holiday, and we definitely started breathing a bit easier when the Centrelink payments started.

Looking for work has been different this time around.

Recruiters at the moment are also doing it hard, the job market is flat, they too are feeling the pressure of fewer jobs and more applicants. Personally, I’ve haven’t yet had a success with a recruitment agency. I do appreciate their efforts, and the interview process they go through to understand a candidate better. Historically, this is where the relationship seems to end for me. The next correspondence I have is usually initiated by myself, either by reaching out via email or applying for a job they’ve posted online. I have recently engaged with a new recruiter and so far, this experience has been positive.

Other times an initial job description has begun as a simple role, then over the course of a few interviews and phones calls, somehow that role has evolved. What was once a mid-level job has now taken on senior responsibilities of 3 additional roles from different departments. Whether it was their intention or not, it enhances the sense of vulnerability and desperation you are already feeling as a job seeker. You begin to feel as if you are easy prey, an experienced applicant in an over-saturated job seeker market and the sharks are circling.

Then there are jobs who ask for proof of capability before offering an interview. Despite having 11+ years of experience as a designer, I take no issue with spec work to prove myself.  The request for spec work should come with the reasonable expectation that you are further along in the recruitment process, it gives both the employer and applicant a chance to understand whether they would be a suitable fit for the role before committing extra resources to the application. The time and effort put into spec work could potentially be better served applying for other roles. Recently a fashion retailer asked for concepts for a social campaign with a supporting EDM before the prospect of an interview, it was potentially intended as a method to filter out applicants, though in this instance, felt like a red flag for idea farming. I was excited when another advertiser posted a job I could really imagine myself in. I actively suggested that I respond to a spec brief to show how my skills can translate to the role. They agreed and rather than a spec brief, sent across an active brief. I spent about 12 hours developing some concepts, and cautious to not give away work, had a flattened, password protected PDF sent over to them by close of business the next day. I received an initial response of ‘WOW, showing them to the team now, will be in touch soon’. While this sounds positive, three weeks later there’s been no further contact from them, leaving me wondering whether I might look them up one day and see a design of mine in use.

With the restrictions around workplace distancing, more and more interviews are being conducted by video conference calls. I’m no stranger to this, in my move to Melbourne the majority of the interviews I had were conducted over skype. They don’t often allow for someone’s full personality to be conveyed, but one thing I would like to remind interviewers of is that the applicant can see you typing notes to each other and the microphone picks up things. Even things said under your breath. When the recruiter informed me 20 minutes after the interview that I didn’t get the job and I asked if there was any feedback. The recruiter’s response was ‘they didn’t feel your answers suitably matched what they were looking for’. An applicant might get a conflicting idea if after every question you heard one of the interviewers say to themselves ‘oh that’s a good answer’.

This period of my life hasn’t been all bad, it has allowed me to reconnect with freelancing. I’ve been working with a friend’s distillery to design their branding and labels, while also working with a family member who is currently setting up a brewery with their friends. Helping them establish their branding so when they’re ready to announce themselves, they have a brand ready to go to market with. I also have had time to draw, and now to write – creative outlets which have laid dormant for a long time. And best yet, I’ve managed to spend more time with my wife. Never before in our relationship have we had the opportunity to spend as much time with each other. Our work timetables rarely allowed us two consecutive days together and for the moment we get 4 days each week to spend with each other which has been great.

Yes, this job search has been tough but there are more interviews booked in and, if they don’t work out, there will be more to follow. I know things will eventually pan out, I just have to keep recognising and enjoying the small positives along the way.