May 10 2010

One (Of Me) Born Every Minute

When I tell someone I’m a Graphic Designer, they’re almost always impressed. It’s such a cool job title. When I tell them what kind of work I’ve done, the excitement fades and an awkward expression comes over their face. It’s a familiar expression and it just says “please stop talking about your job.”

I got my first break in 2006 with a business-to-business catalog company. It wasn’t very exciting products, but it was a start. At the time, everyone else wanted designers with 2-3 years experience. I had just graduated college and, aside from student work, I had no experience. Not to mention I was given a lot more responsibility than I’d get anywhere else. The pay was bad compared to my peers, but after less than a year I was managing the catalog. I figured I’d get my 2-3 years and come out with a very strong resume.

Then the recession hit. I was laid off in 2009 and now everyone wanted 4 years experience for the same work. What feedback I got mostly fit into two categories: you’re over-qualified or you’re under-experienced. I couldn’t get an entry-level job because I’d been a project manager and I couldn’t get a job as a project manager because I’d only been working in the field for 3 years.

Things started to look a little better that fall. There were a few solid leads and I actually had a couple offers on the table. Nothing spectacular, but the work was certainly more exciting and the pay would be a slight improvement over my last job.

Then I got the call. My former department head was quitting. They wanted me to take over her job and head up the department.

You may think me foolish for accepting a job from a company that had already laid me off once. The thing is that nobody, and I mean nobody, in my field manages an art department in their first 5 years as a designer. It’s unheard of. And while I fully expected to be paid less than I was worth, the base pay for this position was twice what I’d been making before.

I turned down my other offers and accepted the job. I’d start in a couple weeks. I’d start back at my old pay with my old job title and transition to department head when the old department head left. In the mean time, she would teach me everything about her job that I hadn’t already done.

When it came time for me to take on my new responsibilities, things changed. The plan had never been for me to take over as department head, only to take on the added responsibilities of the department head. There would be no change in my title and I would not be getting that raise. I’d lost all my other offers to come back and they knew it. Even though I’d been misled and everything I’d agreed to had been misrepresented, times were still tight and there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go.

A couple months later, I thought I had turned things around. I had done the impossible for the company and redesigned a 64-page catalog from scratch in two weeks. It was in the bag and it looked great. I’d worked long hours on this. I’d even been flown out to Maine in order to approve the final prints. I kept thinking how, after just a couple more catalogs, I’d have a much stronger portfolio and resume. I’d taken on something huge and been treated like dirt, but I owed the company nothing and I could use this job to move on to something better.

That’s when the final blow came. After the first samples of the catalog got shipped in, my boss called me into his office and once again I found out I’d been misled. The company had been looking for an outside design firm since before I started. My old department head’s quitting had thrown everything off and they needed someone to fill in until they found the right firm. Now they had. I had six weeks to transfer my files and wrap up my unfinished projects. With the way they’d handled everything, all I could put on my resume was that I’d been let go after completing only one project.

It’s difficult for me to confront the prospect of unemployment again, but I do know what to expect. Plus, my wife has a well-paying job now, so our finances should weather the storm. What really hurts is how cruel and calculating this whole setup was. They could have just as easily hired a freelancer or even asked that the department head stay on for one more project. I get that a company has to focus on the bottom line, but this just feels like they went out of their way to crush me.

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This post was submitted by Sam.