This news story lays it all out there about what the “Occupy Wall Street” thing is all about. I don’t want to get too political here. My politics are my business and this is not a political blog. What is clear regardless of political affiliation is that our economy is a wreck right now. As the aforementioned story says A record percentage of unemployed people have been unemployed for longer than 6 months. The accompanying graph shows a peak in the early 1980s of about 25% and a peak in 2010 of about 45%. in-freaking-sane. The data doesn’t lie: this… is… a… mess.

The other day I was listening to NPR and heard some interviews with some “Occupy Wall Street” protesters. One of the people they were talking to was talking about how long they’d been unemployed. This person had been unemployed something like 9 months and she said she’s spending every day on the Internet looking for jobs and couldn’t find one. Part of me empathized strongly. Part of me didn’t.

The Karl Groves story

In the late 1990’s, I worked in the music industry as a talent agent and promoter. I put on shows in the MD/ DC/ VA area and also had a roster of bands I booked. Truth is, I didn’t make a lot of money in that line of work. The money was inconsistent at best, and I needed some supplemental income to get by, so I took a job at the parts counter at a Harley Davidson dealership. Several months later I heard about a sales position at another Harley Davidson dealership. It was a fateful decision. Switching to the new dealership meant many rapid and positive changes for me. Namely, I met my wife because of that move. In addition, the switch meant a lot more money for me.

To say I thrived would be an understatement. I was great at selling Harleys. My customers loved me. I sold more motorcycles than all the other salesmen combined. I was awesome at selling extended warranties and additional parts, services, and everything else that really makes dealers extra money. Unfortunately, my overactive ego got the better of me as I left to find an employer that would “appreciate me”.

The whole saga of the following 9 months would take too long to tell in this blog post. Between January 2001 and November 2001 I moved from Northern VA to Baltimore, to Ft. Lauderdale Florida, and back to Baltimore switching from job to job. In November 2001 I got a job at a Harley Dealership in Baltimore. As had been case so many times before, I thought I was too good for the place and quit. This time I decided I’d go back into the music business. The music thing didn’t work out, to put it lightly, and I was jobless. Thus began the worst 18 months of my life.

The dot-com bubble blows up in my face

Since the late 90s I had played around here and there with web sites. I had been an early adopter of the internet in general, going all the way back to using Gopher and Archie at college to do class research. When I started running my own booking agency I had a friend-at-the-time make a website for me and started learning by imitating what I had seen him do until eventually I was making my own sites and websites for friends. So, when the music thing took a turn for the worse, I decided I’d get into web development full time. This was mid 2002. With no portfolio and no professional experience, I was competing in a job market that was flush with professionals with real track records. Entry level jobs were getting snatched up by victims of the dot-com bubble bursting who were far more qualified than myself. In the meantime, my ego was still running rampant as I steadfastly ignored my wife’s pleas to just get a job – any job – to prevent us from financial failure. I was convinced I was going to get a job “any day now”. Months and months passed.

The #1 thing I did wrong was to not pick up the newspaper and call on every ad I could, even if I was “too good” for that kind of job. Now things are different. If I got fired today, I’d spend the first day making calls to my professional contacts. The 2nd day I’d pick up a mop & bucket and find a job as a janitor. There’s no work beneath me when the choice is whether or not to feed my family. My ego prevented me from understanding that at the time.

What I did right

To be frank, I had zero skills prior to 2001 other than how to sell Harleys. That’s not a skill. I don’t mean to insult all the Harley salesmen out there, but let’s be honest: Give anyone off the street a sales brochure and a week of mentoring and you have a Harley salesman. That’s not a career, its a job, which is fine but won’t ensure your future like having real skills.

What I did right in this time period was to spend every minute I could learning. I spent tons of time reading books on web development and reading Usenet newsgroups like alt.www.webmaster interacting with people more knowledgeable than myself. When I decided to learn PHP, I annoyed the hell out of my friend Randy Goldstein with my incessant questions.

I will never find myself in that situation again.

I managed to get consistent full time employment in 2003, but I have not stopped studying. I am constantly shoving buckets full of information into my brain on an array of web development topics. I have shelves full of books I’ve read and reread on HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP,, Java, C++, jQuery, usability, accessibility, and project management. I practice my craft by doing side work or working on my own sites. I read scores of links on the web that I discover through Twitter. I will never find myself in that situation again where I don’t know how I’ll be able to pay my bills because I’m making sure I have skills which I can put to use in some way if I end up jobless again. As I’ve said to my friends, I have back-up plans for my back-up plans, all with the goal of avoiding a repeat of what happened in 2002.

My advice to those who are unemployed right now

Back to the beginning of this post and to the discussion of the long term unemployed, nobody understands your pain like I do. But spending all day online looking for jobs is the wrong thing to do. Find a trade. Find a skill. Find a field of study and own it. It doesn’t have to be programming or web development. Get an apprenticeship in the IBEW or Ironworkers. Take the first step toward something right now – today – that will place you in a position where you have a skill that pays well and remains in demand. Don’t complain about a lack of opportunities. Make your opportunities.

P.S. If you’d like to get into programming:

In addition to the countless books and resources available on the web that you can find by a careful Google search, I’d recommend the following sources for quality instruction. I have memberships to both of these: