The following is a guest post by Colleen Kong-Savage, an illustrator and writer who lives in Manhattan. She shares with us the difficulties of finding employment after a divorce and being out of the workforce for almost 10 years to raise her son.
Some people are good at making money. Others are not. I am not. In fact I’m really bad at it, and the fact that I am writing for a personal finance blog is rather ironic, if not downright ludicrous. I am that retail worker making minimum wage, not even taking those earnings home because she’s spending it on the merchandise she’s selling. I am your kid’s martial arts teacher who isn’t getting paid because teaching is considered part of her taekwondo training. I am the volunteer parent in the school yard ensuring the kindergarteners don’t get trampled by the third graders. Or I was until I got divorced and now need to learn how to make money.
Now that I have sworn off jobs that do not pay me enough to live, I am unemployed. After 300 job applications where the only employers who acknowledged my existence were those introduced through contacts, or men on OK Cupid trying to meet me, I have decided that my Practical Plan, to procure a steady job in graphic design, is every bit as impractical as my Dream Plan, to get steady work as an illustrator. Thus I have moved on to Dream so as to not waste any more time on the Practical.
I imagine myself to be an intelligent, creative employee with good people skills. I know I do good work. That costly retail job I mentioned earlier? Through my own initiative I landed that mom-n-pop shop some welcome press coverage with CBS News and the New York Times (it’s a long story). Plus I am committed and disciplined.
My latest greatest accomplishment was achieving a black belt in taekwondo this year. And I know I have some solid graphic talent because my small but loyal client base consistently sings praises that I don’t fish for; my son’s school community points to me as the go-to volunteer to design fliers, t-shirts, yearbooks, signage. What is it that makes it so impossible for me to find an income?
Are my skills out of date? Well yes and no. My expertise lies in print work and a large portion of design jobs today also include web design. I took a basic crash course to HTML/CSS and debated whether to enroll in more classes, but I am hesitant at this stage to throw more money into my education if it does not guarantee a job. My Masters In Fine Arts at Columbia was pricey, and if I knew then what I know now, I would not have made that investment.
This past year I signed up with five, six creative temp agencies, who all looked at my portfolio and résumé—one agency even tested me in basic digital design programs—and they all assured me that they had jobs for designers with my skill set. Alas not enough. My friend, who teaches graphic design, tells me in NYC there are about 100 applicants for every graphic design opening.
I imagine my skimpy resume is the most ghastly boil on my employable being. Actually it’s not that skimpy because while I had extricated myself from the job force in order to parent my kid (my ex made enough to support our family comfortably), I did keep up my chops by volunteering my graphics expertise to various NYC public schools and occasionally freelancing for small businesses. However, I left my last regular 9-to-5 job over a decade ago.
There was a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston a year ago which reveals a giant bias against those unemployed for longer than six months. Researcher Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University sent out 4,800 dummy résumés to job postings in various industries. He found that among a pool of similarly qualified candidates, only 1-3% of those unemployed for longer than 26 weeks were called in for an interview, versus 9-16% of those who were unemployed for a shorter term.
In fact the fictitious recently-unemployed applicants with no relevant experience were called in for more interviews than their experienced counterparts who had been out of work for more than six months. (Annie Lowrey, The New York Times). If my hireability expires 26 weeks out of my last job, my chances of getting hired in the design industry are remotely better than a cactus. I kind of want to cry about it, but the story reaffirms my decision to pursue freelance endeavors in illustration since no one’s offering me a job any time soon.
Part I: Just like every other parent who reads to her kid, I want to make children’s books. Fortunately for me I don’t need to hunt for artists and beg them to illustrate my writing gratis.
Part II: I fantasize about building an empire of toddler’s apparel sporting my graphics. By the way, last month I laid down my empire’s first building block when I opened up KONGA NYC: Beastly Attitudes for Kids, an online t-shirt shop, which I know you are dying to check out if only find out what the hell this unemployed creative does when she is not spilling her personal details on ONIG Financial Blog.
Part III: Finally, I want to fill out the drafty corners of my Dream with royalty checks from artwork that I can license out to manufacturers of greeting cards, bedsheets, posters, fabric, dishes, magnets, etc. etc.
Epilogue: I will probably also be working the register at Trader Joe’s in my nonexistent spare time for health insurance benefits.
Several years ago, I created a children’s book, Subway Line to Bedtime, laboring over it for almost two years. I showed it to a fellow martial artist, an established illustrator who had published a number of children’s titles. He was impressed and put me in touch with editors. Unfortunately none of them thought they could find a market outside of New York City. I showed the manuscript to several literary agents, as well as an editor who had reached out to me at an illustrators conference, to no avail. So I satisfied myself with a few copies printed out on Lulu, sent them out as presents and called it a day.
I have the talent and resources to pursue the Dream Trilogy for a couple years. How do I lead the pursuit towards success? After all, I am an artist, not a business person. Here are my challenges—my own career to-do list (by the way, I do welcome any constructive suggestions):
1) Crow loudly. I loathe self-promotion. It feels narcissistic and I worry about annoying people. You know that irritatingly incessant jingle of the Mr. Softee ice cream truck in the summer? It floats above the din for hours, luring children (erhh, children’s parents) into buying swirls of vanilla and chocolate, or frozen licensed characters on sticks. Perpetual crowing is a skill I need to promote my own products–artwork, manuscripts, online t-shirt shop, ONIG Financial Blog essays. Hopefully my Sirens’ song is less grating but just as pervasive.
2) Find the market. I have to balance personal vision with marketability. Subway Line is a bedtime story starring New York’s MTA. What I love about it is that it’s personal. But for publishers that makes it too specific for a national audience. Seth Godin writes about the Purple Cow, that magic product so radical and unheard-of that people don’t even know they want it yet. However most business folk—whether publishers, art gallery owners, furniture salesmen—are also pragmatic and want to invest in products proven to sell well. These days I am careful to consider marketability of my artwork and manuscripts when I begin them.
3) Make lots of stuff. Time is limited, but it’s important to have lots of ideas. My art licensing teacher, a successful owner of a greeting card company, blew me away with her prolificness when she related the tribulations of her first tradeshow, lamenting she had created “only fifty designs.” And my illustrator friend recently told me he had finally selected two of the six manuscripts he’s been honing to have his agent shop around. When I finished creating Subway Line to Bedtime, I felt I had completed a marathon. I now realize that Subway Line is a single mile in the marathon I am running. Heck, even this post you are reading began with a lot more paragraphs and ideas than what you see here.
4) Build endurance. Iconic bestselling author Agatha Christie faced five years of continual rejection before her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (rejected 20 times) was published. Even the first Harry Potter novel was turned down twelve times before gaining acceptance by Bloomsbury. Finding acceptance of my work is going to be about outlasting the rejection. Whether a job applicant, a t-shirt hawker, or an artist, enduring the rejections—ploughing through the no’s is the biggest challenge. Not because they hurt, but because I don’t know if after all the rejections I will ever find that one acceptance to get the ball rolling. My biggest fear is that I am wasting time.
When my son entered preschool, I attended the parent orientation, and the teachers did their best to soothe us new parents sweating the landscape of developmental milestones our kids had yet to clear—potty-training, separation, giving up naps. My son’s teacher listened and said with quiet certainty, “It’ll happen.” Before my son was born, I laughed at the nervousness of my friends who checked for their baby’s breathing with a mirror. Then I became a parent, too, and realized how much faith is required those first few years, faith that everything is going to be okay.
I need faith. I spend hours teetering along the edge of anxiety because I have no clue whether or not I am getting any nearer to creating a viable source of income for myself, let alone establishing an illustration career. The first months after separation were demoralizing because I could not get a job and realized I was completely dependent on my ex for finances. For a while I returned to modeling for artists as I did in grad school. You cannot live on an artist model’s salary, but in desperation to boost my morale, I returned to the tedium and cramping limbs that come with holding still for 20 minutes at a time. Now, however, I would rather use my time to move towards work that I actually want.
Writer Sara Zarr shared this thought at a conference: the time you spend before that first acceptance is the hardest. So while you wait for that break, just do the work. So I do. I make new art, I show manuscripts to that friend of a friend who is a literary agent, I post things in social media to let people know I am alive and available, I check in with the temp agencies, I update my website, I prepare my portfolio for an illustration showcase. I do the work. That is my mantra these days. Just do the work. It is all I can do.
Readers, have any of you struggled with finding a job after being out of work for a significant period of time? What were some of the things you did to help keep spirits up and food on the table? Do you have any suggestions or solutions for those like Colleen who are currently looking for work?
Congrats to the release of The Turtle Ship in 2021 written by Helena Ku Rhee and illustrated by Colleen Kong Savage!
Illustration & Design
Updated for 2021