A Lesson Earned

By Robert Gershon

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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During the heady days of the 1990s’ Internet boom, on the spot hiring and job-hopping for higher salaries was the norm. It wasn’t unusual for people to leave fulfilling, well-paying jobs for “greener pastures.” Jobs were often offered as applicants left their first, brief interview.

That all came to end in 2000, when the information-technology bubble burst. Thousands of information-technology professionals were laid off.

At the time, I was working as the information-systems manager for General Binding Corporation, an international, publicly traded company. I had recently been promoted, and was confident that the deteriorating economic conditions would not affect me.

At my employers’ holiday party at the end of 2001, the CEO publicly recognized my contributions to the company. I had just completed the implementation of a manufacturing execution system. The system’s integration to scheduling, planning and accounting had positioned the company to provide unprecedented manufacturing effectiveness and outstanding customer service. Projected annual labor efficiencies and production improvements amounted to $260,000.

One month later, I was laid off without warning.

I spent the following six months tirelessly performing the standard activities of a job search. I contacted more than 70 search firms, joined four networking groups, listed myself on more than 10 job-search engines on the Internet, went to a minimum of five networking meetings a week, had over 20 interviews and met literally hundreds of people — all to no avail.

Then came the September 11 terrorist attacks, after which the economy went further into tailspin. My job search in the information-technology industry was over.

For financial reasons, I took a low-paying job at Home Depot. It was dull, physically demanding and, worst of all, not gratifying. After 18 months of working as a cashier, I left the job and once again went through the motions of the job-search ritual.

While looking for a job, a friend suggested I try substitute teaching while searching. All my home state of Illinois requires to be a substitute teacher, I found out, is a college degree, a background check and a tuberculosis test.

I obtained a license and enrolled in an affluent and an economically challenged school district. The day after being accepted by both school districts, I was called in to substitute teach a business courses.

My first day in class was exhilarating, challenging, terrifying and more gratifying than any of the information-technology positions I had ever held. It was the first time since being laid off that I had felt that I could contribute to a higher cause than the bottom line.

Being a substitute teacher, though, is analogous to entering a movie in progress and leaving before the credits roll. I wanted to learn techniques that would help me teach and motivate students and parents. I wanted the in-depth exposure that can only be found at a teaching institution. Most of all, I knew I wanted to be a professional math and business teacher.

An Illinois teaching certificate requires passing a five-hour-long basic skills test, a college degree, six graduate courses, one semester of student teaching and 30 college hours in math. I met the math requirements by virtue of my degree in engineering and my MBA. I have taken the skills test and am in the process of applying to a university with a nine-month certification program.

In the meantime, to make ends meet I have taken a job at an inbound call center for an outsourcing company. It affords me a flexible schedule.

As an information-technology professional for more than a quarter-century, I held technical and managerial positions for a number of manufacturing and distribution companies. In addition, I operated an information-technology firm serving mid-sized companies, and participated as an expert witness for information technology matters.

Two years ago, I would never have imagined that I’d be dragging my 62-year-old body back to school, learning so that I could, of all things, go right back into the classroom. A lesson learned, so it seems, is a lesson earned.

Robert Gershon is pursing his Illinois certification as a mathematics educator and is planning to teach at a suburban Chicago secondary school in 2004.

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