Allow me to explain. I've been in the workforce since 1982, minus the four years I took off from late 2006 through 2010 to care for an elderly parent at home. That's thirty years of work experience. Like many people, I started out in restaurant and retail jobs, the kinds of work college students and other young adults do at first. But I have between 20 and 25 years of experience in administrative/clerical support, sales support, customer service, project coordination and office management. I can handle a spreadsheet like it was a lethal weapon, type correspondence and reports in clear, error-free English, and I can write, edit and proofread just about any kind of business or other document you care to mention. I've done desktop publishing, handled web content, and helped bosses and coworkers untangle their computer issues without needing to call the help desk. Hell, I've been pressed into service by IT departments when push came to shove, like the time an entire corporate computer system where I worked as a secretary fell victim to an outside attack and they needed people who could apply patches.
In short, I've got skills. Mad skills. I have a college education and more common sense than is probably good for me in a business environment. So why can't I get a decent job with a decent salary? I find it hard to believe that my skill set should only be able to command $12 to $15 per hour in this day and age, but apparently 90% of administrative-support positions are now considered entry-level, even if the hiring company specifies a preference for those with college degrees and/or loads of experience.
Let's look at the timeline here for a moment. In 1982, the US federal minimum wage was $3.35 per hour. That's how much I earned as a hostess in a restaurant, or a cashier at a department store. It was also how much I earned in 1985 doing layout and paste-up in the advertising department at my local newspaper, even though that was a job requiring skill and experience. I lived in an economically-depressed area where most jobs paid very little, so I didn't question it too much at the time, and when my hours were later cut because the paper was having financial difficulties, I changed jobs to something with more hours and went back to college. Things happen, I figured.
In 1987 I moved to a large city in another state, and the booming economy there meant a lot of those same jobs that had paid minimum wage in my hometown were going for upwards of $7 and $8 per hour in my new location. That was more than DOUBLE the minimum wage. I transitioned from restaurant and retail to office work. Over the next decade-plus, the minimum wage went up and so did my own wages.
In 1999/2000, the minimum wage was $5.15 per hour, and I was making $15 per hour -- nearly THREE TIMES the minimum -- working 40 hours a week in an office job. Granted, the cost of living had risen as well and sometimes I needed a second job to make ends meet for a while, like when I had to spend money on a car repair or replacing a vehicle, or to save up for some other big-ticket expenditure. No problem; I could wait tables or deliver pizzas or run a cash register for a few hours on the side to cover things. I figured I would soon get to where my full-time wages or salary would be high enough that I could leave the two-job two-step behind forever instead of just for a few months at a time.
Boy, was I ever dreaming. In 2006, I maxed out at $16 per hour. Minimum wage was still $5.15; it hadn't budged since 1998, although its purchasing power had slipped some. I was living in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio -- not the priciest of places, so that helped. I was married and my husband made a bit less than I did, although he picked up overtime when he could at time-and-a-half, so while things were tight they were manageable. He'd actually been forced out of a position in the mortgage industry a few years before -- we should have seen the writing on the financial wall then -- and taken a pay cut in transitioning to a different field. Between the two of us, we got by.
Then my dad fell ill, and over a period of several months it became clear that the only two choices were to have him living in a care facility or bring him home to live with us. He'd spent some time in an assisted-living home, but I really didn't like the quality of care he'd received and they'd overmedicated him to the point of stupor, so my husband said, "Enough is enough. Move him in with us, quit your job and stay home to look after him. It'll be better for everyone, and the money the facility is charging will go twice as far if he lives with family." I did, and for those four years I was a full-time homemaker. I picked up a few hours waiting tables now and then, or did some freelance editing and other things from home, but I didn't set foot in an office job until after my dad's health had declined to the point where we could no longer attend properly to his needs and he had to go into 24-hour nursing care.
Then I went back out into the job market, in December of 2010. The landscape had changed. Federal minimum wage was $7.25 as of 2009; and Ohio's minimum was $7.70 (it went up to $7.85 by 2013), meaning my most recent full-time rate was equivalent to a little over twice the local minimum. But Cleveland had lost enormous numbers of middle-income jobs like mine while I was sidelined, and in fact had seen administrative positions decline by nearly 51%. Ouch. Everyone and their cat was scrambling for the jobs that were left, and most of them didn't pay squat. Mind you, Northeast Ohio had never really recovered fully from the recession of 2001 before the next one hit in 2007 (and in fact still hadn't as of last year).
More ouch: Having managed to injure both of my legs in 2007-2008 I was no longer capable of spending long hours on my feet regularly without pain, so neither retail work and waiting tables was really much of an option even as a second job, not that they'd have paid much anyway. I went back to doing the exact same kind of administrative office work I'd done previously, working on a temp-contract basis, only now I was getting paid between $8 and $12 per hour on average because employers knew administrative and clerical folks were a dime a dozen in that market. My marriage disintegrated -- amicably -- shortly after my dad stopped living with us (frankly, it had been on the rocks even before 2006, but we'd pulled together while Dad needed us), and I had already decided I was going to get out of Cleveland's crappy economy and chilly climate as soon as I could manage it. With leaving in mind, I worked temp/contract and sent résumés out of state rather than looking for a permanent local job. I did land one really good contract at $25 per hour, but it was a one-and-done project that took only two weeks to complete. The rest of the time I limped along at $12 or less an hour and looking for a way out of town.
I moved to Annapolis, Maryland in the spring of 2014. I likely wouldn't have been able to do it if not for serendipity. Roughly a year previously, someone I'd known almost two decades earlier -- long before my marriage -- surfaced on Facebook and sent me a friend request. He was from Cleveland, but had since moved to Annapolis. We were both divorced and had a lot in common, and by early 2014 things had progressed between us to the point where he invited me to come and live with him. I did, and we've been together ever since. I arrived with what I could fit into my old Grand Cherokee and took a temp job so I could earn a paycheck while searching for something permanent.
And there's the rub. The cost of living here is about 70% higher than it was in Cleveland. The job market in the Baltimore-Washington, DC corridor (of which Annapolis is part) never suffered the kind of hit that Cleveland did, and the economy overall is more robust here. One would expect most mid-range jobs here to pay more than the same jobs would in Cleveland.
Yet here I am, getting $10 to $16 hourly as a temp and answering ads for permanent work that pays roughly the same in most cases. Maryland's minimum wage is $8 per hour, so I'm getting paid between 125% and 200% of minimum for the same damn work that used to pay me 300% of minimum fifteen or twenty years ago, and on a good day I'm making the same dollar figure I made ten years ago. The difference is that I now have a lot more experience at it and money here and now goes nowhere near as far as it did then and there, which only highlights my disgust at not making more.
You know what? I don't even LIKE administrative support and office management all that much. It was never my favorite thing; I just sort of fell into it when I was in my twenties and never really got out. I like it even less now that no one wants to actually pay much for it. I really need a better use for my time and talents, and I need it to pay me more.
I'm open to ideas, hivemind. They can't involve relocation, as my Significant Other's work is here. They can't involve spending money on more schooling until at least a year from now, and I'd need to earn more money between now and then to even make that possible. Ideally, I'd like something where I can do much of my work remotely, because SigOther's job is set up that way and given we're both in our fifties we'd like to incorporate some flexibility into our lifestyle if we can.