“Finding work in Italy is not difficult, it’s rare.”
Those were the words spoken to me in Italian as I shared a table with a local at a pizzeria in Napoli. It’s also a pretty common reaction when I explain that “Sono qui per cercare il lavoro”… “I’m here to look for work”. Other common reactions are laughter, amusement, and incredulity. Sometimes people ask, “Are you sure that you want to be here right now? The economy is really bad. People are upset.”
Fortunately, I like a good challenge, and my life is full of adventures in job searching in the face of adversity.
Example #1: The 2001 Recession. I finished graduate school in September 2001, right when the Bay Area was experiencing a dot.com bust. I began job searching in the nonprofit sector with little to no connections and very little work experience, in a time when all of the for-profit professionals were settling for non-profit jobs. My internship was ending, I had $1500 in the bank, and I just signed a one-year lease on an apartment in the heart of the city with two other friends. It was stressful and scary, but my friend were incredibly supportive and I made my employment search a full-time job.
The result: full-time employment in four months.
The learnings: Work hard. Tailor each resume and cover letter to the job description and qualifications. Take time to do daily job searches. Have a support network when things get tough. Laugh at yourself when walking to a job interview and homeless, crazy people shout out prostitution as a career option.
Example #2: The Switch to For-Profit. After a solid career in nonprofit management, I decided to jump ship to corporate philanthropy in 2007, despite harsh feedback from a corporate philanthropy professional. She looked over my resume and said, “I don’t see it happening. No corporation will hire you with zero for-profit experience. You should try to work at a private foundation instead; that’s probably the best you’ll be able to do.”
But at that point, I had established a lot of experienced, supportive contacts, and I started to reach out to them with questions and advice, and they helped expand my network. One of them sent me a job description for a junior marketing position at a place called Schwab Charitable, a nonprofit providing philanthropic solutions to investors and their financial advisors. I didn’t get the job, but they brought me on as a contractor when their hire didn’t work out.
The result: Three months later, they offered me a higher-level marketing position. I worked there for the past seven years. And that corporate philanthropy professional? She’s now the president of a corporate foundation. I have a speech all rehearsed should I ever cross paths with her again.
The learnings: Rely on your networks. Shrug off the naysayers. Focus on skills and accomplishments, not industry, and how those skills are transferable and beneficial to other sectors. Short-term employment is a great way to get your foot in the door.
So here I am, facing adversity again. I’m in Rome, where the unemployment is above 10% (over 40% for youth aged 15 to 24). I have no contacts and I don’t know the city or the language. But here’s my strategy for finding a job in Rome, and some of the results so far.
#1: Focus on American companies and international organizations. Upon doing extensive research, I learned that Rome is quite a hub for food-focused international development orgs, both UN- and non-profit based. Both World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have headquarters here. There are also a variety of American companies here, such as Google, Expedia, MasterCard, American Express, and Microsoft. With such high unemployment and basic Italian skills, I am not pursuing work with Italian companies. I just don’t know enough about how they operate and I have been warned by both Italians and Americans that they would probably rip me off financially as a result.
Results to date: Through Google searches, I found a website and a LinkedIn page with Rome-based jobs. I’ve applied for a few, but I’m seeing that the majority prefer bilingual candidates (fluency in both English and Italian). But I continue to look on a weekly basis.
However, I’ve had a few interviews for a few different jobs at World Food Programme, primarily in their partnership group. UN organizations follow a strict application process, based on skills and experience and not on who you know. So I’ve had to really focus on tailoring my applications to fit the job description. It’s working. I’m meeting the qualifications and HR has short-listed me for a few positions. Most recently, I had a phone interview for a 6-month contract position, assisting some of the senior managers with their day-to-day tasks. The interview went well, and I made it through as one of three final candidates. The next task was to submit a writing exercise (an internal and external email, as well as a powerpoint presentation), and then have an in-person interview with the managers. The in-person interview was more of a conversation, and it went really well. I don’t think I’ll get the job, as it seems that I’m overqualified, and they have internal candidates, but I am starting to make connections.
#2: Pursue employment that will utilize my marketing and development skills. I don’t know that I want to continue with marketing and development long-term, but I do like the work, due to the high level of creativity and collaboration required. Plus, I’ve built up over 10 years of experience and it is a very desired skill set worldwide.
Results to date: I’ve applied for a variety of jobs in marketing and development. Sometimes I don’t meet all of the qualifications, but if the job sounds interesting, I apply anyway. One job was for a business development director at Change.org. I’m not a candidate due to my lack of Italian language fluency, but it was enough for the director to reach out to me and ask to get together. We grabbed a coffee and had a great conversation, and turns out he has another company, assisting nonprofit organizations with their marketing and development initiatives. He wants to expand to the United States and was impressed at my skills and knowledge of the nonprofit market there. I’m not sure it’s a fit, but again, making connections and getting face time is helping.
One note here: along the way, there have been times when I have been introduced to people who are hesitant to spend the time talking to me, or have a negative response. Just like the corporate philanthropy professional, I chose not to pursue these conversations or politely thanked them for their input, but life is too short to invest time or energy in those who don’t believe in you and your cause. There will always be outliers like this. Just move on.
#3: Network, network, network. Three months before I left for Rome, I reached out to my network of professionals and friends, explained what I was doing, the type of work I was looking for, and a request to connect me to professional and personal contacts with experience in Italy or with specific companies/organizations. I received a lot of wonderful responses, and appreciate the time that everyone took to connect me to others in their network.
Results to date: I’m so grateful to my network. What an outpouring of support. There have been some wonderful email and Skype conversations, phone calls with experienced professionals, a lunch with an Italian lawyer, and a dinner with an executive of the Italy division of a global PR company. (I should probably digress here and mention that the dinner was one of the best food experiences I’ve had since arriving in Rome: a 12-course meal at a Michelin star restaurant.) I’m really enjoying learning about others’ experiences, and there are even a few job possibilities that have been discussed that I am still exploring.
#4: Learn the Market. And Don’t Settle. I have received numerous suggestions from friends that if nothing long-term turns up, I could always get a job as a barista, an English teacher, or a nanny. While I greatly appreciate the recommendations, here’s why I’m not pursuing any of these options.
1. A cafe manager is unlikely to hire an American in need of a work visa to make coffee, when there are a million unemployed Italians looking for work.
2. Teaching English does not pay well, and companies/agencies can easily hire great teachers from the UK and avoid the work visa requirements that we Americans have to go through.
3. Me? A nanny or au pair? I can’t think of a more unpleasant way to spend my time in Rome than to chase someone else’s kids around the city. C’mon, people. Do you not know me? And if you do, are you trying to kill me?!
#5: Reflect on successes. Learn from failures. I spend time at the end of each day, reflecting on what I accomplished. When I get a job rejection, I ask for feedback on why it occurred so that I can learn from it. Sometimes my learning is that it wasn’t the right fit for me or the organization.
I’m giving myself three months to find a job here in Rome. I’m one month into my search, and there’s been a lot of progress! I don’t know what the outcome will be, but a new friend recently taught me a new expression in Italian:
“La tua vita inizia dove finisce la tua zona di comfort.”
“Your life begins where your comfort zone ends.”
And that’s what I love about adversity. It forces you to leave your comfort zone, take risks, accept failure, and learn who you truly are and what you’re capable of. That’s the life that brought me here to Rome.