Episode 148: Relaunching at the State of California: Persistence Pays Off - with Letitia Shen
Letitia Shen is a Hazardous Substances Engineer at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, a role she got after a career break of over 20 years. She has been an active member of our largest private Facebook group, the iRelaunch Return to Work Forum. Letitia tells us how to navigate a state employment process, and the wide range of opportunities within state environmental agencies – including related to cannabis production, food safety, enforcement, schools, and others in addition to hazardous waste. She also discusses the resilience involved in engaging in more than 30 interviews, how she met the person who was most helpful to her job search (spoiler – it had to do with a church event), and how she was rejected for the job she has now.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today, we welcome Letitia Shen. Letitia is a hazardous substances engineer at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, a role she got after a career break of over 20 years. She has been very active in our private Facebook group, the iRelaunch Return to Work Forum, and told us a great story about how she got her job, which we'll talk about shortly. Letitia, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Letitia Shen: Thank you very much. I am very excited and I'm happy to meet you.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, it's great to meet you too, and to hear about this amazing return to work story. Can you tell us briefly how you relaunched your career and how long it took you and maybe some of the highlights of, if you wanna call it, of that process or some of the major steps?
Letitia Shen: Sure. I'd love to. So my career break was definitely over 20 years. And, my official career back then was hazardous substances engineer. And I left for family reasons and just I was able to leave and there's a child was, had special needs as well. So there are many reasons for me to just step down, but when I started looking for my job after my child went to college, I did exactly what everybody else did. I put my resume in LinkedIn, and Glassdoor, and I filled out applications. I tried doing two to five a day for six months. There's a disadvantage with doing that many. The disadvantage is that you could end up with two to three interviews and one one day, which that did happen to me. So then I had to slow it down to one or one a day or a couple a week. So when I started to get interviews, I would get lots of interviews, but no job offers. Then I started fine tuning my resume and then I figured out that 50% of my applications would end up in interviews, and I'd end up being interviewed by the same people over and over.
So they've already seen me once and they're seeing me again for another job and then and the third job, and they still weren't interested in hiring me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Letitia, let me just ask you a question. Is that because you were speaking with the same employer about different types of roles?
Letitia Shen: Yes. Or the same branch.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you just explain a little bit more about why that was. Who was the employer?
Letitia Shen: The employer was, so say, my big one was Air Resources Board. And the Air Resources Board has unit chiefs, then up to branch chiefs and then up in section chiefs and usually all three chiefs will be interviewing me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So, and is this from, is this in the public, is this from the state of California, or is who?
Letitia Shen: This is the state of California within California EPA.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. Okay.
Letitia Shen: California EPA is made up of four branches, Air Resources Board, Water Resources Board, Department of Toxic Substance Control, where I work now, and Recycling. I mainly initially focused on Air, Water and DTSC.
Carol Fishman Cohen: What is DTSC again?
Letitia Shen: Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Ah, okay, got it. And so you were finding that you were getting interviewed over and over by the same people, but you were not progressing.
Letitia Shen: And after a while I was thinking. Okay, if you didn't like me from the first two interviews, why are you interviewing me again?
Carol Fishman Cohen:
So what else? How did they. what did you think was going wrong? Like, why weren't you progressing?
Letitia Shen: I talked to a lot of people about it and hiring managers and they said, there's always gonna be someone better than you, and there's always gonna be somewhere worse than you. And they're only gonna take one out of the 20 they interview.
In one sense I had to wait my turn. That's in one sense. I also, as the way I was answering the questions, I was omitting some things that I shouldn't have admitted, like my volunteering, things that I did, creative things I've done. Like in homeschooling.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you talk about that a little more?
So are you saying that you intentionally left that out because you thought it was irrelevant or because it was a volunteer job, volunteer work, and it turned out that it was helpful in your process when you talked about it.
Letitia Shen: Yes. Yes. And you don't know what is or is not helpful. You have to go, basically, I did mention that you need a coach, you need a coach for that industry. So I work for Department of Toxics, this is control. But my coach was a gentleman from Air Resources Board and then he, we did a lot of mock interviews over the phone and it was interesting. We talked a lot. I didn't meet him for an entire year. After I got my job, eventually, I met him in person.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait, how did you get him to, like, how did he become your coach in the first place?
Letitia Shen: A friend met him at my church, and then after that we got together the Bible study and she said to me, you won't believe who I talk to and it has to do with interviewing for the State of California. And she told me he worked for Air Resources Board , had his information and I kind of hesitated on calling him, which is a mistake. You get a lead of any kind you call. . So I eventually called him and we came up with a time to talk and gave me a lot of advice. And one of the big things I also did was with all those interviews, after the first 20, I decided that I didn't want to interview in certain locations.
I wanted to interview in locations where parking was. So that it was just a nightmare for me to get in and out of the parking and then to the building. And after a while I said, you know what? I don't wanna work for Food and Ag because parking is 20 minutes walk away from the building, and I don't wanna work in this building.
Or another situation was I ran into, of which, as being interviewed, I was the least dressed person in that room. I had hair and nails done and I had a beautiful suit from White House, Black Market. I was the least dressed per, I couldn't believe it. And at that point I was thinking, I don't wanna work there either.
And eventually I started interviewing at just the regional offices of the people interviewing me were wearing jeans. , I was like, you know, I could deal with this so much better.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Let's just talk about that for a minute, because you're hitting on two important pieces when, as a relauncher you're thinking about what is my right?
What is the right fit? And it's, first of all, you need to figure out your skills and what kind of role you want, but then you also have to think about some of these other, Parts of the, of the work environment, like culture and commute. So how long your commute is, and that includes where you park and how long it takes you to walk to the building, an additional 20 minutes in the, in your example, and the culture, which could include do you have to be like super dressed up all the time or is it more casual?
And what environment do you feel more comfortable in and where you do your best work. So these are important, considerations.
Letitia Shen: Yes. And it, it definitely is. and I had to remember the first time I worked for DTSC, it was at headquarters, and they told me there was a dress code of which we had to dress up.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait. let's tell the audience a little bit about that. So you're saying your work history before your career break, you were work, were you working there, like years ago? Okay, so ta take us back there. How you started right outta college or grad school, your career, in, hazardous.
Letitia Shen: I got outta college with a degree in chemical engineering. I worked private consulting in environmental. Okay. And I did gasoline station tank poles. They were changing out single walled steel tanks and putting in double walled fiber glass tanks. And there, that's the process. I did private construction, private environmental consulting with that for a few years.
Then I got a job with Department of Toxic Substances Control, and I basically did the flip side of that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's was with the state of California? Yes. Okay.
Letitia Shen: And I worked there for a couple years and then I took my career break.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So when you were going back, you, it sounds like you were very focused on working for the state of California again.
How come you focused your job search on getting a job within the state of California and did you look anywhere else?
Letitia Shen: First of all, I knew how to apply to them. There's a gentleman in my area, I never contacted him. You pay him a thousand dollars, he'll help you get a job at the state. And I know people who did that, and they were saying, why don't you contact him?
And my answer is, I don't need to, I know how to apply to the state and get to the, get a job at the state. I need to talk to someone. I need a coach closer to my job, . okay, that I'm looking for. I need to talk to the hiring managers, not this gentleman that can get anybody a job. Actually the secret is go for office technician, the lowest, and then you build your way back up. And I said, no, I'm not going for OT, I'm going for engineering. That's kind of ridiculous for me to hire someone for a thousand dollars to tell me something I already know,
Carol Fishman Cohen: So how'd you meet the hiring managers?
Letitia Shen: Like I said, my friend met him. And he told her what I was doing wrong and he knew immediately what I was doing wrong, and he was right. And I had to just, I got his business card and I hemmed and hod and after a few weeks I finally called him.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then he did mock interviews with you and that's when you found out you had to be talking more about your volunteer work and some other.
Letitia Shen: Well, you kind of twist it, okay. You don't, you use certain key words. So my daughter was in marching band and I was uniform coordinator. Apparently it's, I think it's uniform director or I was the director. It's a actual position cause it's so essential. So I said I was a director and I managed and operated the uniforms and I kept up with basically 120 students.
So, say it like that, it's better than saying, oh, as a chair, uniform chair. Instead of saying, I dressed 130 kids and chased them around for six months. .
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. You quantified. You talked about it more in terms of management and leadership.
Letitia Shen: And the numbers. Numbers are important. For example one year I wrote enough grants to bring in $30,000 for a music program.
When you start putting numbers to things, then they can see what you've done.
Carol Fishman Cohen: What about on the technical side? Did they quiz you like, did they test you? what about that side of it?
Letitia Shen: Well, there's the interview and there's a writing portion with my, with the scientist positions, which I interviewed for and for the engineering positions, there's always a writing section. They wanna make sure you can write because writing is a huge portion of every environmental engineer on consulting, and consulting side and the regulatory side. Kids coming outta college have no idea how important the writing is.
It's hugely important and I'm almost, one, one of my consultants is, I don't know who's writing these reports, a middle school person or someone with a college degree because there's so many things missing out of these reports that I have to say, and you need this and you need that, and you need this.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Were there acronyms or new technologies that you had to be familiar with that environmental engineers are using now that were part of?
Letitia Shen: Well, you know what, okay, the amazing thing today is that we have the internet. So I work for schools unit that was part of Santa Susanna laboratories.
And so I, I researched Santa Susanna and schools unit and I learned everything about it that I could. And then what was in those websites, I took on those acronyms and that those vernaculars. It would take me a good two days to research before each interview.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. Can you tell the audience the significance of Santa Susanna?
Letitia Shen: Santa Susanna Field Laboratories is a huge, huge, it's like county size piece of property in Southern California that basically has a lot of problems because a lot of government research has gone down there. It's pretty much a mess. And then schools unit, now, this is the weird part, schools unit handles schools that new schools that are being built and schools that are being modernized, like new buildings coming in an existing school for northern California. So it was between Bakersfield and Oregon border, and then between the Ocean and Nevada. That's my jurisdiction. . So I had to ask someone, I don't understand why a school's unit has to do with Santa Susanna labs. And then someone within it explained to me, well, they had to put schools units somewhere and it's in, it just happens to be in a Santa Susanna branch. But if school's unit is hiring you for school's unit, just look up the website for schools unit.
I'm like, ah, you tell me this after two days of researching things at Santa Susanna. But that's it. . So in the course of let, about 20 of the interviews were with the state of California, I know a lot about what's going on with California EPA, between air, water, and DTOC, lemme tell you, I just do. So in one sense, I just learned a lot about what CalEPA was up to, and I just, you have to walk the talk and talk the walk and use their words.
Carol Fishman Cohen: But you learned those by literally going on the internet and doing this research and coming across these acronyms and these words and this language and just looking everything up and using it.
Letitia Shen: So one of 'em is, say ArcGIS. Okay, ArcGIS is a software, a spatial mapping software of which someone said, you need to look that up and play with it. So I looked it up and played with it a little bit and right now I'm taking a cartography course with my unit online to go in more depth with ArcGIS.
But one of my points was in my interview is that I can learn any software fairly quickly and, I'm not afraid of doing that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And can you talk about what you had taught, learned on your own, or you had taken what courses you had taken in order to demonstrate that you could use learn software quickly?
Letitia Shen: Yes. For example, I, on my own, I learned something called HTML, so that in that was the beginning of websites, that was before, that's when we had dial up, okay, with the telephone. And so there were no classes at that point, so I learned it on my own. And I just coded up my own websites and then eventually something called Dream Weaver came in from Adobe. I think Adobe makes it. And I was kind of dumbfounded at that point. And I had to take a class. So I took a class on that. I took a class on Flash and I was just basically saying that I'm willing to learn to do whatever it takes, 'cause when I was doing websites, I had a business. And at that point there was no hiring anybody to do this.
It was just in the beginning you had to have your own web designers in house. So I just said, okay, gotta learn how to do this. And I did. And then it just, whatever I needed to learn, I just did. And that was before YouTube.
Carol Fishman Cohen: But that's a really important quality for relaunchers to demonstrate it. We call it fearless learning, that even if you don't know something, you're fearless about diving in and learning it. So obviously you are a fearless learner and you've demonstrated that over and over. I'm interested in hearing a little bit more about your process because I remember you, you commented to the iRelaunch Return to Work forum that you, you said, "I received a really nice rejection letter," and I wanted you to tell the audience a little bit about what happened when, as to how you got this job after being rejected for it.
Letitia Shen: Yeah. So what happens is, and I see what happened with the, how this can happen a lot. If you apply to say two to five jobs a day as they come out, then you'll end up with, you can end up with three interviews in one day, which did happen to me, or five interviews in a week. I had 15 interviews in a month, and so you could end up with two or three job offers at once, especially if you, if, especially if you haven't had a break in your career. So that's what happened. This gentleman had two or three offers at once. He accepted one and then accepted another, and then accepted a third, and then forgot to tell the first one he wasn't gonna show up. So when they did it, when that, when that first person didn't show up, apparently I was next on the list.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So you're talking about someone else who you were up against in competing for this role who didn't take a career break, who, I guess got more than one job offer and forgot to say no to this. And so then all of a sudden they, they thought, they say he was gonna show up and he didn't.
So then, so they had already rejected you and then, and what happened? Did they call you?
Letitia Shen: They called me and I said, are you available? And I said, Yes. And that was it. That's all that needed to happen. So let me explain a little bit why I didn't have a second interview. The state of California, when they're given, when a unit is given the okay to hire people, that unit only has so much time to do this.
I don't know what it is exactly, but they were coming up against the clock and I had to start by a certain day otherwise, the job goes away and they would have to start all over. I'm like, okay, I'll start then.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I see. Interesting. You know, it is interesting, first of all to be discussing this in the middle of a time when there is such tremendous now unemployment 'cause there's been such a 180, as we all know over the last couple of months, with Covid.
But even putting that aside, sometimes people get penalized for applying to too many jobs at a particular employer, but it sounds like in the state of California, for at least in the area where you are applying, you don't get penalized for applying to a higher volume of roles.
Letitia Shen: No, you don't. There's no way. You don't. The only problem is trying to get off of your work to go interviewing without your existing employer knowing what you're doing.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, you know, if you're on career break, then that's not as much of an issue.
Letitia Shen: But, oh. But I was working part-time as a tutor at that point, and people who have engineering degrees have taken a break and I need some extra money, that's a good way to go because I know I could put myself out for $80 bucks an hour and people jump. I hide. I seriously hide.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So tell me what you were tutoring?
Letitia Shen: Chemistry, math and physics.
Carol Fishman Cohen: For high school students or college?
Letitia Shen: Yeah, elementary. Yeah. I did college too, college physics. .
Carol Fishman Cohen: So elementary school all the way up to college. Now, this is a very good point because tutoring is something that's flexible and you have control over your schedule, and it's the kind of job that if you're doing it on a part-time basis, it wouldn't disqualify you necessarily for formal return to work programs if you were applying to one. It's one, it's like a side job, but it's still a job where you have a lot of control and can make some good money.
So I love that was what you were doing on a part-time basis. And it also not only were you getting income, I'm guessing some of your skills, not necessarily that high school chemistry or physics, was that relevant to your job, but you were keeping your mind engaged in subject matter that was related.
Letitia Shen: Well actually, it is kind of related, chemistry, understanding basics of chemistry, physics, and math is part of my job because I have to make sure that the chemicals like arsenic and lead aren't in the ground in bug killing concentrations still for the schools to put themselves.
And I need to understand, units of parts per million things like that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So it was actually quite relevant, you're saying?
Letitia Shen: It is.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So that's also super interesting for our audience. I thank you that, that's really great information.
Letitia Shen: Yeah. For example, we ran into hexavalent chromium versus trivalent chromium. And so hexavalent chromium was in a movie.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Really?
Letitia Shen: Yes, it was with, you know what? I am so bad with these .
Carol Fishman Cohen: It's ok. We don't have to know what movie it was.
Letitia Shen: And it was, you have to understand that the difference between the ion of hexavalent chromium versus trivalent trivalent chromium is not a big deal.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And you're saying this is something you might have discussed with a high school student?
Letitia Shen: Yes.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So that is so interesting. Letitia, I wanna know if you can talk to us a little bit about level and, what level you came in at after you had a very long career break over 20 years. What level did you relaunch at and did you, feel any hesitation or have any conversations around that level? Was it lower or higher than what you expected would happen? Give us a little background on that.
Letitia Shen: It, I actually came in higher. The levels, I think in the state of California for the engineering goes A, B, C, and D. A is straight outta college, B is some experience, C is more experience, and D is when you have your professional engineering license. So I left the state of California at Level B. . And then I returned to state of California as a level C. So I'm not sure where the levels come and go even now, I'm not entirely sure. There's a description of A, B, C, and D, but I'm just not sure time wise where the levels, I was just tickled pink to be coming as a level C.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then in terms of what your job entails? Does it, do you remember what a level B felt like and did you have to stretch to be doing this job, or did it come back pretty naturally?
Letitia Shen: No, a lot of it came back. It's kinda like riding a bicycle. You're wobbly at first, but then it's no big deal.
I had to learn a slightly different terminology. So my first time at DTSC I was in permitting side, so I permitted facilities, whereas now I'm in site mitigation side, with schools. So the vernacular is slightly different. We use things slightly differently, and the process is very different.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And how does it feel to be back, and to be in a conventional full-time job now?
Letitia Shen: It was very, I am very happy right now. And one of the things I needed to do when I was looking for a job that made me relax is that part of it is kind of to enjoy the journey. The journey is very important. I don't think I'd be as happy working downtown or in some of the other buildings.
I think I would've, it would've been okay, but I prefer being able to wear jeans to work.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how long did it take you to get hired from when you started seriously thinking that it was time to relaunch?
Letitia Shen: A year and a half.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And during that time, did you ever feel like it wasn't gonna happen?
Letitia Shen: Oh yeah, it definitely felt like I wasn't going to happen and I had to keep talking to some of my friends, not the coach, some my other friends in Cal State of Cal in Cal UPA and they all said, it takes a while. It does take a year. This is normal. Someone coming outta college, it'll take a year.
The only ones that take less than a year is that you're currently working in a job and you're sliding sideways. . .
Carol Fishman Cohen: So you knew some people in the EPA who could give you a little bit of like, normalize it a little bit and say this isn't such an unusual experience. And here you had the long career break too, they're saying be patient.
Letitia Shen: Yes.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Letitia, can you comment on how the iRelaunch Return to Work Forum, private Facebook group was helpful to you during this year and a half period. and I notice you, you've participated in it during, while you were in that period looking and you're still in it now and talking and encouraging other people who are in the position that you were in when you were looking.
Can you talk a little about being on both sides of it?
Letitia Shen: Yes, because during, before I had my job, iRelaunch, it was just good to see other people with huge career breaks that were able to launch back into a career and see their success story, to see the, see how they've done. And then I was happy to give back and say, yes, it is possible.
It, the only problem is that it takes a long time. But try to learn, like I was saying before, when I was researching all the different branches of, of Cal EPA, I learned quite a bit. So I was able to understand the way things work or what's going on. And so learning is never wasted.
I have a friend who got a teacher's credential and then after one week, decided not to do that, and she was so upset. She felt like she wasted it. I said, learning is never wasteful. I know a friend after three years got a broker's license and decided, after a year, she didn't wanna do it anymore. Did she waste it? I said, No, learning is never wasted. Never.
Carol Fishman Cohen: These are, this is a really good point. There's so much instruction here that you found someone who acted as a coach, who did a lot of mock interviews with you and helped you get better so you didn't keep getting stuck after having those initial interviews. The idea that this took a year and a half for you to do this relaunch, and then you found out through people who you knew in the field that it actually, it just sometimes takes that long. And also that you were rejected for this job and then they came around later and hired you. So and this is not the first time that we've heard a rejection does not necessarily mean No.
So I, we're finishing up now, we're running out of time. Letitia, I wanna ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?
Letitia Shen: I kind of have two. One is really understand the industry that you're applying for. Because applying for the state of California is different from applying to a county and to a city. And then it's different from applying to a public center, even though it's all environmental, so to speak.
The other thing is try to enjoy the journey. Once I decided to enjoy the journey, the last six months was so much more enjoyable because I applied to this in position that I have in January and I then I started in August. ] That's like seven, eight months. . And during that time I was, I had a huge attitude shift that made a huge difference.
So I was, for a while, I was just getting cynical and negative and that's just not helpful. It transmits to your interview. And, you know, just relax. Enjoy the journey. Otherwise you just become very bitter. Do you see what I'm saying? .
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. This is really important because it's so hard sometimes to maintain that more positive attitude when you're, you feel like you've been rejected a lot and you feel negative, so it's a really big challenge.
We actually have some podcasts on that deal directly with this topic, so I'm glad you brought it up. It's reality.
Letitia Shen: And there's, and there's people around you that are rooting for you and they're networking. I, seriously, I had to tell other people what I was doing in order for one of my friends to, to hook me up with my coach.
Carol Fishman Cohen: .
And that was through your church. And again, sometimes these networking opportunities happen in places where you least expect it. So that's another lesson from here. And also the whole idea that you did all this research within the state, research in the state of California and this public sector roles, and not looking in the private sector and these very specific areas, and then going to the regional offices. So that was a process and I think instructive it for us. So Letitia, thank you so much for joining us today.
Letitia Shen: Well, thank you so much for inviting me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host.
For more information on iRelaunch, go to iRelaunch.Com. And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on iTunes and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Thanks for joining us.