Life Skills Belong On Resumes

I’m Qualified But Don’t Qualify For The Jobs That Would Help Me Bounce Back From Poverty

“He said you’re smart.” “Well, I’d like to think so.”

The other day, I visited three different government websites and my student loan company site, and I filled out the first half of my bankruptcy attorney’s extensive questionnaire, all before noon, because I’m applying for income-based forbearance and an income-based repayment plan going forward on my student loans. Finally I’m doing the paperwork part of bankruptcy. The process has taken more than two years of saving and a move to a more friendly state (California) where it only costs around $2,000 to begin, and getting my 2015 tax information to my good friend / accountant.

This was a typical morning for me, since I’ve spent the majority of my 15 adult years in poverty and am, at long last, attempting to drag myself back to the starting line with nothing but a three-year-old laptop and some donated furniture. And I’m lucky in that I have a good internet connection, access to all of their “papers,” and knows what agencies and websites they qualify to enlist for assistance.

#PovertyIs extraordinarily time consuming. It is also extraordinarily expensive. And not just because the bankruptcy filing drills you about whether or not you can sell some of your clothes and furniture to pay off a credit card or two, even though those things would be far more expensive to replace than hang onto. I didn’t log any billable hours this morning because I was filling out forms, going through tax papers, and sitting on hold with the IRS to find out why they sent me a bill that’s clearly for someone else’s FY2014, only to find out that high call volume meant they couldn’t get to me today. “Please try again later on another business day.” Great. Because I have so many of those available to waste, as does my accountant.

#PovertyIs extraordinarily time consuming. It is also extraordinarily expensive.

But #PovertyIs also a skill builder. I track more information, juggle more accounts, make it to more appointments, fill out more government forms, and spend more time demanding agencies like Covered CA, the IRS, and my student loan company (whichever one that most recently purchased my loans at any given time), and follow through with the services they say I qualify for than most high level, highly paid account executives in any industry do for all of their clients put together. I’m a bookkeeper, logistics guru, time manager, customer service representative, budget squeezer, multi-tasker, personal advocate, and more.

If only any of those skills counted on a resume or in an interview.

In our capitalistic, individualized, cookie-cutter economy, you’re required to explain where you developed the skills that would make you a “good fit” for the position to which you’re applying. Because poverty is widely seen as a personality flaw, or a cut-and-dried designation of a person as irresponsible and unprofessional, I can’t exactly list “15 years in poverty scraping it together” as the method by which I became so good at tasks any employer should value.

And if I tacked on “while struggling with multiple misdiagnoses and treatment of mental illnesses and associated disorders” to how I’ve developed such great “life skills,” I would be further disqualified.

My last full-time, “professional” job was in 2003, when I was making a paltry $27,000 before taxes as an executive assistant to an employment law attorney. My last management job was overseeing disabled customer service for Continental and America West Airlines at O’Hare International Airport for $9/hour. (Since neither exists anymore, that should tell you the time frame.) That’s right: I was middle management, the worst, most stressful kind of management, and making way less than a living wage. Regardless, those positions were long ago bumped off my resume by higher paying service industry jobs, typically worked two or three at a time. So now, even if I were neurotypical enough to work in an office setting, I wouldn’t qualify despite the fact that I’m qualified.

I’ve talked to my cousin extensively about this unfair hurdle that contributes to keeping people in poverty. Part of her most recent job was helping people access government services like food assistance and Medicaid so they could “pull their lives together.” She sighed when I told her about my morning, having flashbacks of conversations with clients:

“Have to get to the food stamp office to renew? Better just plan for your whole morning to be taken up. Have to take your kid to the county health office for free vaccinations? Yep, that’s going to be your entire day. Need to sign up for section 8 housing? Just take a week off work.”

She routinely told clients applying for services like disability through social security that they should expect to be denied the first time and to bring in the rejection letter for her to go over and assist with advising a follow-up protocol. “Basically, everyone is denied on their first application. It’s such a time waster.”

Because she knows all the details of my life and much of my day-to-day goings on, I’ve expressed my “WHY CAN’T THIS BE ON MY RESUME?” anger pretty regularly over the years. She shares my frustration and has told me more than once that she would have “absolutely hired” some of her clients for their multi-tasking ability and other skills learned from the “full time job of living in poverty, often with dependents.” But we both know her boss wouldn’t have even called someone with her clients’ resumes in for interviews: not enough “professional work” in their “previous jobs” section.

All of this is an outgrowth of poverty shaming. It doesn’t even matter that I have two degrees (bachelor’s of science in English and Biology), management experience, and plenty of skills beyond critical thinking, time management, and composition. When prospective employers scan my resume and see “self-employed,” they seem to immediately disgregard my past couple of years— as though working for yourself is all late mornings and afternoons off.

Instead, they zero in on the bar-tending and dog walking gigs, with no credit given for being with the same companies for years in both categories despite the high turnover in service gigs. Employers don’t care that I became adept at managing money. None of my bar-tending jobs, for example, included computers; they all used the old “banger” cash registers that meant I was in charge of “the ring” for myself and all the servers. Employers don’t care that I had to organize, prioritize, and self-supervise, since dog walking means no one looking over your shoulder. They also don’t care that I made way more dog walking than I ever did in an office: $40,000 before taxes my best year, since I was reliable and highly motivated by wanting to eat and pay off the debt from my first ten years in poverty.

That I could make more money dog-walking is why I “opted out” of the professional sector. It was hardly a career move; it was about math. And a lot of people are doing that same math these days. According to everyone from the United States Department of Labor to the The Coalition of Services Industries (CSI), the service industry is growing at an unprecedented rate. However you feel about this sector of the economy or capitalism in general, that is where the majority of us are currently employed. In fact, CSI says that in 49 out of 50 states, services jobs provide 70 percent or more of overall employment. In Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York, the service sector provides more than 80 percent of the jobs.

People end up in the service industry — retail, restaurants, delivery, etc. — for multiple reasons. If the idea that these jobs were “unskilled,” and even perhaps evidence of some character flaw, was laughable before, it’s ludicrous now. When we don’t encourage people to list all their skills on a resume, no matter where or how they developed them, we are sentencing them to low wages the rest of their lives.

We have to do something about this.

What if we reduced poverty shaming to such a degree that we could list life skills on resumes? What if “self-starter” was a word we were allowed to apply to people who have dealt with minimizing budgets and logistics while juggling dependents’ needs, instead of to privileged people who floated through college and got a piece of paper to prove their worth before qualifying for a start-up loan thanks to their parents’ credit rating? What if we didn’t use the phrase “street smart” to other people without the proper pedigree, and we instead simply called such people “smart,” because that’s what they are?

After all, how are we supposed to “better ourselves” or make use of our bootstraps if our life experiences don’t equate to job qualifications? My life experiences are my bootstraps. The 49 million Americans who are food insecure like me can’t all be completely without something to offer an employer and society. It’s long past time we found a way to incorporate personal experience into our job qualifications and for potential employers to stop punishing those who have been out of the job market or in the wrong sort of job while trying to keep our heads above water.

My life experiences are my bootstraps.

Like my cousin, I would prefer to hire someone adaptable and good at the skills that are harder to teach with a basic mentorship program in place for learning the information and specifics of a new work environment. While we’re asking more from our work culture like a living wage, equal pay, and appropriate accommodations like flex time and work from home options, let’s tack “including life skills on resumes” on to the list of demands. The benefit to the poor, the disabled, the chronically ill, and other marginalized groups would be immeasurable.

Katie Klabusich is a contributing writer for The Establishment and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio. Her work can also be found at Rolling Stone, Truthout, The Toast, RH Reality Check, and Bitch Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @Katie_Speak.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.