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The test of long-term unemployment

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said this week that extending long-term unemployment benefits would be a “disservice” to the chronically unemployed because employers don’t want to hire job candidates who’ve been out of work too long.

"There was a study that came out a few months ago, and it said, if you have a worker that's been unemployed for four weeks and on unemployment insurance and one that's on 99 weeks, which would you hire?" Paul said. "Every employer said they will always hire the person who's been out of work four weeks."

Yes, and they’d also hire the taller, thinner or more attractive candidate. That doesn’t make it right.

But let’s look at the implication behind Paul’s statement. He is suggesting that an unemployed worker in his 40s or 50s would be better off taking any job to put on their résumé than being out of work when they go up for a job they’re actually suited for.

I challenge that premise.

Let’s suppose the job we’re talking about is a mid-level or senior-level position as an accountant, marketing consultant, mortgage broker, or some other white collar profession that requires a very specific skill set and years of experience.

Now go ask those employers, if you have a worker whose last job was in the same field and career level as your open position, and another whose current job is a counter guy at McDonald’s, which would you hire?

I bet the answer isn’t the guy who spent the last two years bagging Happy Meals.

My own story

I have a personal bias on this issue. For the first two decades of my adult life, I had the good fortune to be a highly paid television writer-producer, working on Saturday Night Live, Night Court, and more than a dozen other TV series. At the peak of my career I made a half-million dollars a year while wearing sneakers and T-shirts to work. I had my own office, a parking space with my name on it, and a job title many people would kill for.

But age and a string of forgettable TV credits conspired to make that career less and less viable. After a long bout of unemployment, I decided that if Hollywood was done with me, I was done with it. So I reinvented myself as a website writer-producer, creating online content for a Silicon Valley gaming company. I had to relocate and take a hefty pay cut, plus I now had to share an office, but I was happy to be working again. Then, in the recession of 2000, 80% of the company got laid off and I was back to the reinvention drawing board.

So I wrote freelance articles, learned more about web production, built up a portfolio of content, and finally reinvented myself again as an instructional designer – a fancy term for writing and designing web-based e-learning training courses – taking a job at a business ethics and legal compliance consulting firm. Because of my years of writing experience, they even gave me a manager title and had me supervise the writing staff. After 25 years of being a Hollywood comedy writer, I'd gone corporate.

Yet to my surprise (and the consternation of my Hollywood agent), I was surprisingly comfortable in the corporate world, and I began getting promotions and raises commensurate with my years of professional experience. For the first time in my life I was wearing shoes and dress pants to work and climbing the corporate ladder.

Then, five years later, at the height of the great recession, that company decided to ship our jobs to India and laid me off along with half its workforce.

After another extended job search, I was able to find work once again in the corporate world as an instructional designer, this time as a independent contractor. When that contract ended, I landed yet another long-term corporate consulting job.

And what I came to realize is, while I may work for various companies, what I really am is a self-employed salesman. But the product I sell is my writing talent. So whether I was working on a TV series, in the Silicon Valley, or in the corporate world, at heart I have always truly been an entrepreneur. I market myself to other companies, and the market for my skills is limitless.

Re-reinventing myself

But because I eventually grew restless writing dry training material for the corporate world, I have since reinvented myself yet again as a TV writing instructor with a prestigious university.

True, I don't earn what I did back in my Hollywood heydays. But my many years of television earnings and wise investments have given me what in the entertainment business is known as "F--- You Money." In fact, I am actually quite comfortable financially - maybe even rich in some people’s eyes. I've never had to take a job to make ends meet. I only take a job if it’s work that truly matches my skills, talents and interests.

Life is too short to do anything else.

Still a writer

But even in my periods of joblessness and reinvention, I have continued to be the thing I've always been: a professional writer. I never had to take a subsistence job as a cashier, cab driver or construction worker, and never will. I never had to redefine who I am or what I do.

So whether Rand Paul and Rush Limbaugh approve or not, I will continue to chart my own career path and not cede to their definition of who is a productive member of society. I'd rather have gaps in my professional résumé than gaps in my professional pride. I want my children to know their father as a professional writer, not the guy who makes keys at Lowe's.

I don’t need a salary to define who I am. And I don’t need a Kentucky senator to do it, either.

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