Should I Get a 'Survival Job' while I Look for a 'Career' Job?

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This article aims to help you make the decision to go for a ‘survival job' if the right ‘career job' doesn't materialise as fast as you would like it to. A survival job is one you take on while you're looking for a job in your own area of work. Examples would be supply teaching, short contract work (while the permanent jobholder is off sick, on maternity leave or on secondment) or working in a store or in a call centre.

In the current economic climate, finding and getting a suitable job is not that easy. Even if you see your perfect career job advertised, you still have to go through the recruitment process and beat off the competition to get it. And you may have to do that many times before you actually start work. As time goes by, it may become clear that you have to change strategy, and that could involve getting another job in the meantime to tide you over.

Is it worth it?

You'll have to decide whether it is worth your while in terms of time, finance and general wellbeing. Weigh up the pros and cons.


One of the most common sources of concern is time. It's worrying to think that a survival job will take up all your time and that you won't be able to look for a career job. A job with flexible hours or a weekend job could be the answer.

Sarah, who took redundancy rather than re-apply for her FE teaching job, says:

‘I didn't want to do supply teaching when I left my ‘big' job, so I decided to find a job in a call centre, where I could do the hours I wanted to. Call centre work is better paid and more flexible than most other jobs I looked at. If an interview comes up, I want time to complete a job application or to do something else; I can be completely honest and take the day off or change shifts. As I don't get paid if I don't work, I feel OK about it. My boss here knows that I'm between jobs so I don't have to pretend that I'm committed to a future in this organisation. She also knows that I work well when I'm here, which is important too. The work itself can be a bit grim, but as it's not for ever and it's on my own terms (within reason), it suits me for now.'


If you're claiming benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance, you need to be sure that it's worth coming off benefits. Getting back into the system again may not be possible, and will certainly be impossible if you leave a job of your own accord. You should research Tax Credits to help top up your wages if you're regularly working 16 hours or over per week on a part-time, low pay PAYE basis. It doesn't apply if you're doing irregular hours or are self-employed as the requirements for evidence are inflexible.  Applying and getting into the system takes time and effort, but may be worth it if you plan to stay in a part-time job for more than a few months, particularly if you have a family to support.

If you're not claiming benefits and your money is running out, some income has to be better than no income. Sometimes you just don't have a choice.

Chris, an out-of-work graphic designer, says:

‘I was lucky. I was asked to do a bit of painting and decorating work for a building contractor friend just as the money situation was getting desperate. I helped him out on the occasional job. He taught me a lot, I enjoyed it, took pride in it and we worked well together. His work kept coming in and I kept accepting. Now I'm good enough to take on some of his projects on my own and advise customers on design and colour schemes as well. I'm still looking for a graphic design job but I really enjoy this. The money isn't good and it's physically demanding, but we can manage. Now, I can go for weeks without scanning job adverts. I'd rather do what I'm trained to do, but this keeps the bills paid. It's OK for now.'


Searching websites, sending off for jobs, daytime TV and vacuuming will pall after a time. You can easily become isolated and lose confidence in yourself. Getting a job helps you stay connected with the world, gives your week a structure and diffuses your focus so you don't become obsessed.

Jay, who relocated for family reasons, leaving his job as a college course administrator, says:

‘I realised that jobs in my work area were hard to find - and get - where we moved to, so I got a job in a local garden centre at the weekends. I like working outside and am interested in plants. I walk to work, which is great, and I really enjoy my days there. I'm also getting involved in marketing and buying stock, so now I do an extra day per week. One of the best things about it - in contrast to my ‘proper' job - is that I can leave it all behind at the end of the day. I don't bring stress home with me.'

Approach the job with respect

If you're going to do a job, do it wholeheartedly, in good faith and with respect. It won't do you any good if you can't see any benefits in the job itself beyond the fact that it's keeping you going. If you see it as insignificant and worthless, it will just become another grind. And you may have problems getting along with your boss and your co-workers.

Pete, manager of an independent estate agency, says;

‘I've employed two temporary staff members who were both teachers in between jobs. The first was interested in the property market and said in the interview that she saw the job as a challenge as she lacked organisation and administrative skills.  She was right! But it wasn't a problem as she asked questions and was willing to learn from the other staff members, so she improved. She was good with customers, got on well with all of us and I was sorry to see her go.

So I was happy to take on someone else who applied for the vacancy, also a teacher between jobs. That was a nightmare! She came across as capable, organised and pleasant in the interview. But once she started work, she made it clear that the job was beneath her. She was bossy, she talked down to the other staff members and became defensive and difficult when they showed her what to do - and prickly when she made mistakes. Luckily we'd agreed on a four-week trial period and I could let her go. I would be very wary, now, about employing anyone else in that position. '    

Once you decide to look for a survival job, don't imagine that it's yours for the taking. There's stiff competition for any job, and you're just one of a number of applicants.

Sarah (from the example above - who now works in a call centre while she looks for other jobs) says:

‘I didn't get the first job I went for, which was a Saturday job in a jewellery and accessories shop. The interview went well, I thought, and I just assumed I'd get it. When I got the phone call telling me that, unfortunately, I hadn't, I was really taken aback! When I asked for feedback, the proprietor said that he was looking for someone younger who was keen to learn and progress in the business, who would take on more responsibility in the future and see it as a career. Of course it was obvious, but I hadn't seen it from his point of view.'

The following short exercise will help you to clarify and prioritise your needs before you make a decision.

Prioritising your needs

  1. Write down all your needs as a list on one side of a page. For example ‘income', ‘time to look for jobs', ‘meeting people', ‘learning something'. Keep going until you can't think of any more.
  2. Go through the list, numbering each point in order of importance for you. Do this quite quickly and in pencil as you'll probably change some of them at the next stage
  3. Now take your numbers 1 and  2 and ask ‘if I had to make a choice between these two, which would I choose?'
  4. Now do the same for numbers 2 and 3, 3 and 4 until you've reprioritised the list.

You will now have a set of criteria to help you decide whether to go for a survival job or not and, if you do, what to look for.

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