Elmer Smith has been working as a programmer analyst for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield for the past eight years. However, the transition to his current job was anything but simple. At one time Elmer was among the long-term unemployed and struggling to get back into the workforce. Read the following interview to learn how he succeeded.
Question: I met you in 2004 sometime after you had been laid off from your job at Genencor. What was your role at Genencor?
Elmer Smith: My role when I was laid off from Genencor was officially a senior applications analyst. Basically I was a software applications developer, mostly in the area of Lotus Notes. I was involved in a few other things as well, including doing some modeling for manufacturing plants.
Q: How long had you worked there?
ES: Genencor was a merger of pieces of several different companies, including Eastman Kodak. I had worked for either Kodak or Genencor for 28-1/2 years. Software was not my original field. I was originally a chemical engineer.
Q: Was this your first time being laid off?
ES: Yes, I had been continuously employed ever since I graduated from college.
Q: How did you feel at the time, and what was your initial expectation for getting back to work?
ES: I was very discouraged when I found out about my layoff because after more than 25 years with one employer, I thought that I would probably retire from there. My initial expectation was probably that it would take me 2 or 3 months to get back to work. I am really a dually qualified person (chemical engineer and applications developer). My perception was that there were positions in both areas in Rochester, NY.
Q: How long did it take you to land your current job, and what was difficult about your job search?
ES: It took about 16 months to land my current position with a couple of short temporary or contract positions in between. What was very difficult about it was that people didn’t really know how to classify me. Software people would tell me, “You’re a chemical engineer.” And engineering people would tell me, “You’re a software person.”
Q: One thing that I recall that has made you stand out is that you really embraced the idea of networking. For example, you started sending out a quarterly e-mail update to your networking contacts, which you still send out periodically. Was networking difficult for you, and if so, how did you push yourself to do it?
ES: Yes, networking was difficult. It’s not something that I had historically done very much. But nothing else seemed to be working. It helped that I had a few networking groups that I met with regularly.
Q: How did you make the transition from working for a manufacturing company to working in a similar role for a health insurance provider?
ES: I took advantage of a bit of good luck. I went to a job fair in the mall, and I was originally not going to meet with Excellus at all. My focus was on manufacturing companies, as well as a major utility company.
But I happened to engage in a casual conversation with someone at the Excellus table, and when she found out that I had worked with Lotus Notes, it resulted in a series of interviews, which led to a job offer. Looking back, it was not such a drastic change. In manufacturing I was transforming matter and energy into a product. In health care I transform data into information.
And it’s almost as though you need to have a critical mass of activity in your job search before it can amount to something. Around the same time that I was being considered for the Excellus position, other opportunities started to emerge.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to the many long-term unemployed individuals still looking for work, what would it be?
ES: Many employers are looking for someone who did the exact same job last week. You have to somehow get beyond that. You may have to find a company that is looking for skills and talents rather than specific, recent experience. It seems that employers are finally moving back toward that.