Back to work

If you’re looking for a job, this post is for you.

For nearly 20 years, I was a newspaper copy editor in Milwaukee, where I was born and grew up. Then the Journal Sentinel began cutting its staff through buyouts. In the summer of ’09, a round of buyouts didn’t yield enough cuts for the company, and that August I was laid off, among dozens in the newsroom who lost their jobs.

One year later, I landed in a rewarding position: grant officer/writer for the Columbia St. Mary’s Foundation (, which cultivates philanthropic support for the health-care system serving the Milwaukee area. When I told this to Susan Older, whose Displaced Journalists online community ( shines light in a gloomy time for journalism and employment, she urged me to write about it, to show out-of-work journalists that we should and could survive, even in a wretched economy. So I wrote this for Susan, for my friend and fellow writer Julie Weber, who writes a blog that I recommend ( –- and for you.

I knew that I could do the job with the foundation. And I wanted to do the job, as I would be writing applications for grants to support programs such as free health clinics for the poor. I would be telling important stories about a vital resource, and how it could be brought to people who lacked access to it. Like journalism, the foundation would call on my communications skills to comfort the afflicted. For me, it was the right opportunity at the right time.

Yes, before making that case and getting the job, I needed to hear numerous résumé critiques and make revisions, to do lots of networking and to profit from luck. Most important, however, was that I could talk about significant transferable skills from journalism: writing, editing, research, working on my own and as a member of a team to meet deadlines. (That set complemented one from my background as a scholar in American history and political science.)

Earlier, I had put those skills to work for scholars who had me edit their grant applications. More recently, I used the tools in volunteer work for two nonprofit groups. I sought out the work after getting excellent advice from a grant officer who was kind enough to give me an informational interview – build a track record, he said. So I did some cold-calling, got a lead from a networking contact, consulted Web sites listing volunteer opportunities, and found Make A Difference –- Wisconsin ( and Daystar Inc. ( The former recruits and trains volunteer instructors who present seminars on basic financial literacy (how to handle credit, make a budget and manage a checking account, for example) to teenagers. The latter operates a long-term shelter for women who are recovering from domestic violence. My work for these groups was very gratifying because it enhanced my credentials and references, showed initiative, gave me a chance to do some good work, and allowed me to add nonprofit experience on my resume.

In the meantime, I was taking courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College for a certificate in information design and publishing: introduction to digital media, Web site development, Photoshop and InDesign. The coursework was a step toward another important credential (I need just two classes to finish), it showed employers that I wasn’t standing still during unemployment, and it let me meet instructors and students who gave me job leads, contacts and valuable advice.

All these things put me in a good position to get the job that I’m fortunate, grateful and proud to have. I’m glad to tell this story again, and to share some advice that I hope will be helpful, even if it isn’t new to you:

1) Get out there and network, network, network. And network on the Web, especially on LinkedIn. If you’re not on LinkedIn, get busy and get connected.

2) Get some retraining. Go to school or seek resources on the Web that will add to your knowledge.

3) Do volunteer work. You will feel better for it, you will help someone with your skills, and you will make good networking contacts.

4) Seek out informational interviews with people who work in jobs or at companies in which you’re interested. They can give you valuable information and lead to job contacts.

5) Identify transferable skills and promote them. Journalists: remember that grant writing requires the type of skills that you have honed for years. So does RFP (request for proposal) writing. Think of how you can communicate important messages, for your own cause and for others you make your own.

6) When you see a need for your skills, offer to fill it. You’ve seen many business brochures, PowerPoint presentations and promotional and informational literature that are filled with typos, grammatical errors and infelicities. Fix them. Look at it as a chance to make freelance money, or to do pro bono work that will make you feel good and gain networking contacts.

7) Even though opportunities aren’t as abundant as they should be in this economy, do not –- do not — give up easily. Find a place for yourself. Make a place for yourself.


One Response to “Back to work”

  1. jennifermkerner Says:

    Excellent advice from a very real, very inspiring story. I’m in a tight spot and wanting to land a job in which I can use my skills and feel like I’m making a meaningful contribution. This is a great reminder of the ways to make that happen. Thank you!

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