What Spacemen Can Teach Us About Starting a Career

Recession Has Bottlenecked the Job Market, but Those Who Get Through Will Have Upper Hand

By Published on .

Kelly Eidson Kelly Eidson
Forty years ago this week, we put a man on the moon. Young people everywhere watched in amazement as Apollo 11 landed and imagined that they, too, could build rockets and explore the depths of space. Some grew up and went to college to study aerospace engineering. Too bad for them, they graduated in the mid-'70s. The Space Race was over, a recession had cut NASA's funding to less than half its budget in 1969 and manned space missions had come to a screeching halt because America was, well, over it.

An economic hand choked the industry and formed a bottleneck, shrinking its size and leaving the recent grads hanging out to dry. Though they had worked hard and were qualified, this generation simply couldn't get around the fact that there were too many spacemen and not enough rockets. Their degrees weren't worth the paper they were printed on.

But there was this guy who was making a movie about space and wanted it to look good, so he hired a few of those unemployed aerospace engineers to do special effects. They were on a shoestring budget and were trying to do things that had never been done in film before. They spent their days jury-rigging camera setups with duct tape and building alien puppets out of scrap rubber, making things up as they went along.

It wasn't glamorous, but they made "Star Wars." It simultaneously captured the fantasy of space and the hearts of America and sparked the special-effects industry as we know it today. They couldn't go to space, so they took it to the screen.

There's a recession bottlenecking ad agencies, too. There are thousands of recent grads (like me) trying to get in, just as thousands of agency pros are getting kicked out. Some of us will catch a break and squeeze through the neck of the bottle; many will not.

Whether we do or not, things will be OK.

For starters, some of the people who get in now will quit because the job is getting much, much harder. With agencies as understaffed as they are, the hours will be longer, the pay will be lower and there won't be much cushy travel to Cannes to make it all worth it.

There will be a handful who can hold on and push through the dip, and those who do will be in prime position to own the future. When business picks back up, there will be a talent crisis: plenty of demand, but only that handful to meet it. Those lucky few will have their pick of job opportunities and the upper hand in salary negotiations. Don't believe me? Just look at the job boards. The most common word in the listings isn't "digital" ... it's "senior." That's because the dot-com bust also bottlenecked the industry, and only a small pool of grads got hired. Eight years later, agencies are panicking because even in this recession, there's not enough of them to lead the troops. They're making more and getting calls from headhunters once a week. I know holding out for delayed gratification isn't our strong suit, but doesn't that kind of future sound nice?

If you don't get in now, you can pick up a job left open by one of the quitters, or you can try something else. You could freelance or, if you prefer, you could work for George Lucas (seriously, Industrial Light & Magic is hiring). You could follow Alex's advice and document the temp job you take to pay the rent, or start a blog. Even better, you could write your own job description and build an industry out of sticks and spit the way the aerospace guys did. Just don't sit on your hands.

In my opinion, bottlenecks can only help us. If we stay on this path and are willing to grunt through the toughest years, things will turn up, and we'll have the war stories to sell. If we choose otherwise, we get a blank slate -- a chance to start fresh. It'll be stressful now, but hey ... at least it'll be easier than trying to go to space.

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