For months now, I wanted to share my efforts to leave behind higher education in search of a better paying position. Seeing my career stagnate over the years, I grew frustrated watching others step into their dream careers. My joy for their success has always been genuine as there is space in this world for all of us to succeed, but I started to struggle with seeing my dreams fall apart. Investing the effort to obtain two undergraduate degrees and two graduate degrees felt like a waste while I watched the pandemic start to unfold for us here in the United States in early 2020. All the unsettled feelings I had when I transitioned from the Marine Corps in 2007 and was kicked by the Great Recession in 2008 crept in over and over again.
Leaving a reasonably well paying job in 2007 was risky. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that leaving the workforce to enter college pays off right away. For some, it does. For me, it didn’t. I endured multiple periods of unemployment for my decision to step away from the Marine Corps at the time that I did. The first one in 2007 was four months long, the next (post-college 2012) lasted from graduation in May until February 2013 and from late July 2013 until Arizona State University hired me in late October that year. The amount of stress I carry regarding job hunting is deeply rooted in my past experiences. Each ding to my finances was a reminder I could try my damndest to succeed, but I was not the master of my journey. I am just a small fish learning to swim in new waters.
I was not prepared for how deep the water would be when I jumped into planning my career choices. Wanting something and preparing for its eventual arrival was not enough. I only knew the route to get there, but I did not understand how complicated our society is and how it trickles down into job environments. My goal to serve in the federal government was short-sighted because I did not look at the overall vision of my life and I originally underestimated how complicated the hiring process can be, especially at the federal level. Reflecting back, I should have been more confident that the hardship we endured at the earliest part of our marriage, delivered through two back-to-back deployments, was a lesson we could survive a second, albeit smaller, separation if my career choice necessitated a nationwide job search.
Instead, I was incredibly skittish to make that leap and so I took a very narrow view of where I would job hunt. Restricting my job hunt also limited my chances of federal employment, and Arizona, being attractive to a lot of other veterans, upped my competition. With everything taking too long to come to fruition, I first on boarded with a county level government and when that was not a proper fit, I navigated into higher education to find myself again. Ahead of the pandemic, I knew I no longer wanted to stay within the confines of higher education. To see again that I was giving myself a limited environment in which to see professional growth matched with limited financial growth, I made a pretty big career decision.
I relinquished a lot of control and opted to let recruiters find my resume on USAJobs.gov. This decision meant giving up my idea of sticking with serving veterans as my longterm career choice. I was open to almost any agency. The few I was not onboard with are based on my values conflicting with how those organizational units are run today and the ones I was most on board with had to have a criminal justice and/or social justice component to the day-to-day responsibilities of the position I would accept. I was unwilling to accept a position that would grossly underpay me. I accepted that my hard work to obtain two Master’s degrees meant I would no longer explore something that would serve only as a lateral move. I made one lateral move from Arizona State University to Grand Canyon University, one that I ultimately disliked, and I would not put myself through that experience a second time.
To better highlight my career challenges, I felt it was best to show it from a financial standpoint. I wanted to share one of my highest earning months in the Marine Corps against the rate I received for my ending hourly salaries at ASU and GCU. Can you see now why it felt for a while my graduate degrees (and hell, the undergrad ones, too) felt like a waste of time?!
The emotional frustration I experienced while waiting for my salary to match my educational efforts was significantly lifted last year when I was offered my current position. My new position has aspects meeting both my desire to have a criminal justice/social justice serving purpose and I received a 5-figure pay increase. I am surrounded by a pretty great team that has provided me a wealth of formal and informal tools to understand the nature of what I am getting into and we get along well even when we are talking shop. The commute is reasonable so I don’t lose an excess amount of family time and I’ll still have some WFH time in my new position. After all these years, I feel like I am back on track with my career objective.
Feeling this way, I thought it would be good to talk about employment as a large umbrella of benefits. There is a lot of negative talk about people shifting jobs during the pandemic and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. For individuals to leave jobs they’ve outgrown, where they are underpaid or under appreciated is a good thing. It forces HR to revisit job announcements to ensure things accurately reflect today’s job responsibilities. Employers are also in a position where they finally have to own up to the fact they are underpaying people and demanding more from their workforce. Just today, I saw that the restaurant we visited, Five Guys, is hiring for $18.50 an hour. Over our Christmas holiday in San Francisco, an In-and-Out restaurant’s sign read they were hiring for $20 an hour. I think Taco Bell is even hiring at $15 an hour. As we see living wages coming into existence, there is an opportunity to reduce economic disparity. I don’t know how much impact we’ll have at higher education institutions based on the fact they also offer a tuition waiver/reimbursement depending on their policies. When I last looked, ASU was offering $40,000 for the position I left. Back when I was hired in 2013, my annual rate was just over $32,500. By comparison, I was hired at $38,000 (the high starting rate) with GCU and their posting late last year was still $38,000.
With my employment struggles, I think another thing job seekers need to consider is what their employer is willing to match for retirement contributions and when the employee is fully vested. Currently, ASU and employees under the Arizona State Retirement System equally contribute 12.41% to an employee’s retirement. I left under the 5-year window needed to be fully vested with ASU’s contributions so all those were taken away from me when I left the employer. GCU’s contributions were significantly less. From my 2020 data, I received $0.40 employer contributions based on 3% of eligible employee contributions. This is why I have more funds from my ASU contributions for a shorter period of work than what I walked away with from my GCU position. Rolling into my new job, the federal agency automatically contributes 1%, I contribute 5%, and the agency matches another 4%. I have more to explore about how I want to add additional funds to my retirement contributions, but I’ve already made the decision to pull my other funds to rollover to my new retirement account. I feel more comfortable having everything all located together.
The last thing I think it’s worth discussing today is what a future employer’s leave and sick time is available along with their holiday schedule (or if the organization offers another benefit of interest like support for artificial reproductive technology, adoption, or pet health insurance). One of the biggest disappointments for me moving from ASU to GCU is that GCU does not honor Veterans Day with a day off for employees. I always took a PTO day so I could be with my family and while the school took that day away to celebrate other moments in line with their Christian values, it has never set well with me they took this liberty. Along with the leave and sick time available, it is valuable for employees and prospective employees to know the maximum amount they can carry over into the next fiscal year. The last thing you want to experience is losing time you’ve earned. I’ve been there. It’s a bit part of why I used up as much leave time as I could before switching jobs. Not all employers are required to pay out unused leave based on their individual State laws, so do your research. Your job is not the most important part of your identity and your labor isn’t free. Get what you deserve so you can take care of who you are today and the person you’ll be in retirement.
Wishing you all the best.