Landing A Job After A Year Or More Unemployed

Guests

Kate Kobs, got a job after more than two years unemployed
Emily Yoffe, contributing writer, Slate
Tamara Keith, business reporter, NPR

More than six million people have been out of work for at least six months. Still, there are some people who find jobs after unemployment. It takes more than patience and diligence. Some were hired after networking, volunteering, working with temp agencies or taking lower paying jobs.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After several months of decline, the unemployment rate is ticking back up, and statistics show that the longer you've been out of work, the harder it gets to land a new job.

But there are success stories. Two and a half years after she lost her sales job, Kate Kobs finally got a new job this March, and she joins us now on the phone from her office in Middlebury, Connecticut. Nice to have you with us today.

KATE KOBS: Thank you.

CONAN: So how'd you do it?

KOBS: You know, it was a challenge, but what I ended up eventually doing, was going to a job fair, putting myself out in front of people and selling myself. If you can sell yourself, you can probably sell something else, too, right?

CONAN: I suspect you're right about. But what about that two-and-a-half-year gap on your resume?

KOBS: Oh, it was a challenge. I, you know, was sending out my resume to every place I could find, filling out applications online, networking, seeing what I can come up with and just, you know, getting frustrated and getting nowhere.

But, you know, what I ended up doing was just sort of, you know, to fill the gap as far as my salary was concerned, I went on a game show, and I won my way into a little bit of money.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. I understand you made $50,000 on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

KOBS: Exactly.

CONAN: And not only that, you knew to take the money and run when you got a question you couldn't answer.

KOBS: Oh, yeah, no, I wasn't going to take any chances.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And did you put that on your resume?

KOBS: I did not put that on my resume. I actually held onto that card, and I played it when they asked me what have you been up to for the past two years. And I directed them to my YouTube clip, and they could see for themselves what I had been doing.

CONAN: And I assume that made you stick out a little bit from all the other applicants.

KOBS: I'm sure. Not everybody had national TV appearances to show for their time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So do you credit your ability to know when to use the daily double as - or what do they call it now? I'm sorry, I misspoke, the - where you get to guess twice before you get the right answer.

KOBS: The double-dip.

CONAN: The double-dip. That's what it is, yes. So do you credit that for landing a job after all this time?

KOBS: I don't know if it was that specifically so much as, you know, showing that I was proactive and trying to get something done while I was out of work.

CONAN: So energetic, inventive, resourceful, all those kinds of things that employers like.

KOBS: Exactly.

CONAN: And I suppose they don't like the fact that you've got this new job, and you're in the middle of the day spending time calling a radio station.

KOBS: Oh, my boss is very understanding.

CONAN: Well, congratulations again on finding a new job, and what did you use the 50 grand for?

KOBS: I actually used it to purchase a new home.

CONAN: Well, and kick-starting the American economy. We thank you for that, too.

KOBS: Thank you.

CONAN: Kate Kobs joined us today from Middlebury, Connecticut, where she's an account executive in media advertising. She was one of the people profiled in a story that Emily Yoffe wrote at slate.com, on long-term unemployment, people out of work for more than a year who figured out how to find a job.

If that's you, tell us, how'd you do it? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, a proposal to make it more difficult and more costly to opt out of routine vaccinations. But first, the road back to work.

Last month - Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer for slate.com, and her piece, "You're Hired," was posted today. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us today.

EMILY YOFFE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And we mentioned Kate Kobs is one of the people who responded to your call for stories that you issued last month, one of the more interesting ones. And there are any number of ways that people found to get work, but most of them involved scaling down your expectations.

YOFFE: I wish there were fantastic news about how people got back to work and tripled their previous salary, but a lot of the people who found jobs, one of the secrets is to make the cut - take a pay cut.

That's not great news, but as I was reporting this story, I discovered there's a very pernicious new trend out there where employers who are looking for workers specifically say only employed people need apply, if you can believe this.

CONAN: Is that legal?

YOFFE: Well, apparently it's legal in 49 states. New Jersey has just outlawed it, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is aware of this, but there's no federal action to take.

So, you know, it used to be thought if you were out of work for a long time that there's something wrong with you. Obviously, in an economy that's not creating jobs, that's not the case. So to just reduce the number of applications, employers are sometimes saying this.

So I heard from people who took 40 percent pay cuts, 75 percent pay cuts. One guy who took the 75 percent pay cut said I've had two raises, and now at least I'm working, I've reconnected to my industry, and if I want to try to get a better job, I'm in a much better position.

CONAN: Because he's employed.

YOFFE: Exactly.

CONAN: But there are - you talk about employers being overwhelmed with applications. There was somebody who - in your story who applied to become a receptionist, and she didn't get it because she was one of 400 who applied for the job.

YOFFE: Oh, that's nothing unusual, I don't think, and I heard from many people who, in their year or two of unemployment, literally sent out thousands - thousands of job applications and have heard back from no one.

So actually one person who got a job - because a lot of people are using these monster.com, indeed.com, job sites...

CONAN: Because you can blast out your resume, as well.

YOFFE: Right, you've got to keep on top of it because you don't want to be in the second batch of 400, because some employers are going to arbitrarily say we're not looking at more than 200 applications.

CONAN: So you've got to figure out a way to make sure yours goes to the top. One of the people you're talking about figured out how to tweak his resume so that the keywords the employer was interested in for that particular job might move his to the top.

YOFFE: Right. He was applying - he was in public relations. So he's applying in different industries. So he figured out what probably the keywords that the algorithm would look for before it sent his resume on. So he had five different versions of his resume.

And also a couple of people mentioned trying to do an end-run around the search engines. A lot of employers blind themselves, so you don't know where you're applying, but there can be kind of clues where the job is, and...

CONAN: Right, need automotive engineers, Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOFFE: So several people said they kind of figured out who the employer really was and sent their resume directly - went to the website of the company, found who the hiring person was and sent a resume directly and got around the algorithm.

CONAN: There's also some creative initiative going on, as well. There was a former - I think it was an advertising writer who then got retrained to work as a medical editor and was working as a freelancer and then submitted articles for any number of things but then, well, sort of rewrote the resume to make it look as if he was making a living as a freelancer for all these other places.

YOFFE: I heard from several people - and this is another key thing. You know, recognize if your industry is not coming back. I heard from several advertising copy writers who are now still writers but are writers in the medical industry. So they're working for large health institutions, you know, which have publications, et cetera. One took a weekend course in medical editing and then could re-top his resume with his new skills and his freelance jobs.

CONAN: So if you've been in the buggy whip industry, it's time to retrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOFFE: Who knows? Maybe that's coming back, Neal.

CONAN: Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR business reporter Tamara Keith. She's been doing a year-long series, following six people in the St. Louis area who began the year out of work, looking for a job, many of them for quite some time. Nice to have you back on the program.

TAMARA KEITH: Glad to be back.

CONAN: And all those people you've been following found some kind of work.

KEITH: Yes, everyone is currently employed. However, they're - I wouldn't say they're fully employed. One person who had been a manager in the auto industry is now driving a forklift in a factory. But it's a seasonal job, basically intended for college kids coming back. But he's just happy to have 40 hours a week to put in.

His wife is in a contingent position. So after six months, she'll find out if she really got the job. Basically just a bunch of temp positions and significantly lower paying jobs.

One person, Randy Howland, he had been in the - he had been in the telecom industry. He had been making triple - he'd been making more than $100,000 a year. He comes back, and he's making $10 an hour.

CONAN: We're going to hear more from him in a bit.

KEITH: A little bit later. But, I mean, some of the reductions in wages are just dramatic.

CONAN: And similar to the stories that Emily Yoffe is hearing: temp jobs, volunteer jobs that turn into real jobs, all kinds of things like that.

KEITH: Exactly, and looking at the data from the most recent jobs report and over the last two years since the recovery began, you want to talk about temp jobs, more than 500,000 temp jobs have been added in the last two years, or nearly 500,000 temp jobs have been added in the last two years.

That is one of the biggest areas of growth in the entire economy, and those are not permanent jobs.

CONAN: We're talking about how people long out of work manage to find some kind of work. If that's you, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's go to David(ph). David's on the line with us from Pensacola.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

DAVID: Yeah, well, I was in the computer industry, in computer networking. I sort of dropped out, quit my day job to become a musician. Years later, I'm trying to get back in it, retrain, and it wasn't - the jobs just weren't there. So I've sort of turned to my musician side and started a singing telegram business here in Pensacola, and...

CONAN: Singing telegrams. I have not heard of a singing telegram for decades.

DAVID: Yeah, well, it's been revived, you know, all around the country, but just a small market. And I have a lot of fun with it. I work fewer hours, and it's pretty unique.

CONAN: And how much do you charge per singing telegram?

DAVID: Okay, well, they run - they go from 66 to $99, and that includes balloons and a card and three songs.

CONAN: And so you knock on someone's door with a balloon and cards and say singing telegram?

DAVID: Sort of like that, yeah, basically. More often, I'm busting into people's office, and there are crowds around, a lot of birthdays and anniversaries - or restaurants.

CONAN: So what songs, other than "Happy Birthday," do you sing?

DAVID: You know, it depends on the character. Elvis, the Elvis character, do "A Chunk, A Chunk of Birthday Love." I do "It's Now or Never." I do some opera songs. It depends on the character. I've got 12 of them.

CONAN: You've got 12 characters. So you go in costume?

DAVID: Yeah, yeah, always. It's a lot of fun. People remember it for - hopefully forever.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, David, that's good enterprise. Good luck to you.

DAVID: Thank you so much.

(BREAK)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The government defines long-term unemployment as six months or more, a definition that includes more than six million Americans by the Labor Department's count. Randy Howland was one of them. He applied for more than 600 jobs before he landed one in customer service.

After taxes, he's now earning less than he was making on unemployment.

RANDY HOWLAND: This is Randy, and it's June 4th, and this is an anniversary date, at my $10-an-hour job now for four months. I still have to borrow a lot of money from my mother-in-law, at least every other month. I'm about to go to the bank now to dispute an $8.95 charge.

(Singing) Money, money, money, money, money.

CONAN: Randy Howland, talking into the audio recorder that NPR business reporter Tamara Keith gave him so she could continue to follow his story for her series "The Road Back To Work," six people in the St. Louis area who began the year without a job, keeping audio diaries. You can hear some of those stories at npr.org.

We're talking today with some people who beat the odds and found work after a year or more without a job. If that's you, how did you do it? 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Tamara Keith, our business reporter; and Emily Yoffe, a contributing writer at slate.com. Her piece "You're Hired" posted on slate.com today. There's a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we seem to be having a theme going. Singing seems to get you work here, but at $10 an hour, Tamara, that's considerably below what he was making before.

KEITH: Yes, he back in the day worked for WorldCom and made more than $100,000 a year.

CONAN: WorldCom, there's a blast from the past.

KEITH: And then it blew up, and things sort of spiraled down from there. And what he - what that tape really makes me think about is that getting the job isn't where it ends because these folks have been out of work for a year, two years. They've created giant holes for themselves financially and emotionally.

And now once you do get the job, then you have to build your way back out of it, and it can take a very long time.

YOFFE: Yeah, there are some studies that show long-term unemployment, it can take 20 years, which could be your working lifetime, to try to get back where you were. I did hear from people - I heard from one man in his 40s who did land a job and said in the time he was unemployed, he burned through everything he had accumulated in the past two decades, and now he's earning what he did when he was 23.

So that's the downside of getting these jobs, but I think, Neal, you touch on a good point in the clip from the man you've been interviewing: It's crucial not to let this despair overwhelm you because so many people just give up, and I'm sure, Tamara, you heard and the people I heard from, one of the keys was forcing yourself to go to coffees with friends - and friends who are employed, pick up the tab for the coffee or lunch - staying in touch.

I think one lawyer who's been laid off five times had a very graceful way of staying in touch. She would send weekly emails to people who still had jobs in her industry and would say: I'm doing my weekly check-in. Is there anything at your office? Have you heard of anything? I will take your silence as a no.

So you don't become a pest, but you do stay at the top of people's minds.

CONAN: Here's an email to the point you were just talking about from Jeff(ph) in Kansas City. I was unemployed for two years after working my way up the ladder into high visibility and impact corporate roles. I'm now moving upward again in an entirely new career, from telecommunications decision-maker to clinical nurse, $80K a year to 11 hours. I made it on savings, unemployment and financial aid. In the process, my family has lost its home and its most valued possessions, but I'm employed, and we're moving on and up.

YOFFE: Yeah, and one other thing to remember is that we talked about all of these job search engines, and they're great, but most people don't get a job through monster.com or indeed.com. They get a job by having coffee with those friends, even though it's kind of depressing to do it.

They get a job through connections, by having someone who can put that resume on the top of the pile.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kyle(ph), Kyle with us from Athens, Ohio.

KYLE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today, Neal?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

KYLE: Yeah, I - I told the lady that answered the phone, I was in the Marine Corps as an infantryman and got out. And, you know, there's not that many jobs for an infantryman outside in the regular United States. I was actually very luckily given a job by my uncle, who works for CSX, the train company.

I worked as a train conductor right out of the military, great job. Unfortunately, I was laid off after about a year. You know, I'd become accustomed to the lifestyle that I'd had, waited for the phone call for around a year and a half to two years; it never came, was on unemployment, decided to finally do something that I wanted to do all my life.

And I used my GI Bill and actually went and became a civilian helicopter pilot, which is where I'm working at today.

CONAN: Oh, congratulations. You always wanted to be a - you know, the military would have trained you for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KYLE: Yeah, well, that was one of those things that when you're 18 and want to do something, no one's going to tell you different.

CONAN: And is that a growth industry? Are you working now, employed?

KYLE: I am employed, and as your speaker was saying that the actual way I got this job was not by any sort of Internet search engine or anything like that. A good friend of mine who was also the pilot took me out to meet his boss, which is also the owner, out to dinner, and we had a good talk and everything. And at the end of the night, I ended up picking up the tab.

The next day, the owner called me, and he said - asked me if I wanted a job. And I asked him if I had to do any sort of resume or interview process, and he said no, the reason I hired you is because I'm a multi-millionaire, and you still picked up the tab for me. So that right there says a lot about you, and I'm offering you a position on that.

CONAN: Well, Kyle, congratulations. That's a great story.

KYLE: Why, I appreciate it, thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. That's interesting. A lot of people in your story, Emily Yoffe, were describing shifts of profession, not necessarily to helicopter pilot, a lot of people moving into the medical field.

YOFFE: Right, well, I think Kyle makes a really good point. Now, not everyone is going to learn to fly a helicopter, but a lot of people who got jobs realized my skills had gotten a little stagnant where I was, and without going back to college, people took literally weekend online courses, other online courses, improved - learned how to do Web design, enter the digital world.

Advertising people directed their own commercials, created their own websites, put it on there. You know, your library might offer classes. So there're a lot of things you could do that re-top your resume with current skills so you - it looks less stale.

KEITH: Another thing along those lines is the volunteer work. Some of the people in the series, one of them volunteered at the Better Business Bureau. Other people did volunteer work in the community. And those are job skills.

You know, just taking a shower every morning and going somewhere is a very valuable thing to do, and...

CONAN: Because somebody's going to say: What have you been doing the last couple of years?

KEITH: Right, and it's good to have an answer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Frankie(ph), Frankie with us from Charlotte.

FRANKIE (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

FRANKIE: Thank you. I just walked in Best Buy here to buy a cartridge for my printer that I can't afford. I just wanted to say I don't fit the description, I guess, of your callers because I'm not re-employed. But it's kind of depressing to listen to all this, especially some of the stuff that was - the lady just said about starting over and taking 20 years to get back where you were.

I was - you know, I was over 100,000 by '97. I'm in sales, graduated from a good liberal arts school in the Southeast and was rolling. I got brought back into that company in '08 that I was with for 13 years. The job lasted about four months, and when the bottom fell out in '08, they cut the position because it was the newest position.

And I haven't been able to find anything since. I think Monster and some of those things are really just a complete waste of time. And so I do agree with your expert there that you've got to, you know, connect with people you know.

But, you know, I'm using IRA, paying 10 percent every time I make a withdrawal.

CONAN: Oh, you're dipping into your retirement fund.

FRANKIE: I don't have anything left. I sold, you know, some stock and things I had. And the only thing I had left was IRA, which I had rolled my 401(k) over into an IRA. And so I've been using it for the past about 14 months or so.

CONAN: Frankie, I understand that your hearing these things is depressing. One of the things we wanted to do this - we've done this show with a lot of people like you, who can't find work. It was refreshing for us to do a show about people who were finding work. That's why Emily Yoffe's story appealed so much and why Tamara's series has been so successful.

I don't mean to cut you off, but...

FRANKIE: No, it is refreshing to know that - suppose there's hope. I'll just say this, that if I knew then what I know now, I would have gone probably the route of taking less money because a couple of years ago I turned down a couple of positions because they were less than half of what I was used to making.

CONAN: Yeah.

FRANKIE: And I've called those people back and they won't even talk to me, so I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: Well, Frankie, good luck.

FRANKIE: Thank you.

YOFFE: I - actually, that is a really interesting point of information because I did hear from people who - you know, you can get quite a bit of unemployment. So the question is, well, gee, do I take a job that's less than I'm getting on unemployment? Surely, there's something better. And I, you know, it was interesting to hear a real-life experience saying, yeah, it may be better to take that job and have a job because given the economy, when your unemployment runs out, there might not be the better offer. Did you find that, Tamara?

KEITH: Yeah. I will say that a couple of the people in my series took jobs that arguably were not better than being on unemployment. But they felt better. Their wives both told me that they were carrying themselves better. They were standing tall. They felt like they were contributing. And they also no longer had a hole in their resume.

CONAN: Let's go next to Barry, and Barry is with us from Nashville.

BARRY (Caller): Yeah. Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: OK.

BARRY: Yes. So my story is I ended up two and a half years unemployed. I'd been a - I had moved far up in the auto rental industry before that company got bought out and they had duplication. I ended up about a month ago taking a temporary job that was barely worth the gas to drive to that location and have since in the last - just last week was actually promoted to a customer service manager. What has not been mentioned is, prior to that, I was actually passed over for two jobs in the insurance industry because of the fact that in that time period, two and half years, my credit had gotten destroyed. And I had passed everything and they got to the point and was told on both occasions that, you know, with your credit score, we just cannot accept you.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that, Barry, but congratulations on the new job and on moving ahead.

BARRY: Well, thank you.

YOFFE: That's another pernicious trend, using credit scores to keep people from the job. I mean, you know, it's one thing if you're going to be hired as the chief financial officer. But in most jobs, what difference does it make what your personal credit is, and especially if you've been unemployed for a long time.

CONAN: And Barry illustrates another point: Take the temporary job. Sometimes it turns into a real job.

KEITH: Absolutely. And one of the people who I've been following over the past year started out with a $10 an hour overnight temp job. He is now working during the day and making $16 an hour. I'm like, wow, you've gotten a 50 percent raise in just a few months.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. And we're talking about the long-term unemployed who've figured out one way or another to land a job. Our guests are: Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to slate.com. And again, there's a link to her "You're Hired!" post at slate.com, which was posted today at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tamara Keith is also with us, NPR business reporter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is an email from Martha from Felton, California: I'm a success story because I'm now working after two to three years of not working or hardly working. My secret: I lowered my expectations and tried something new. After working in sales and admin most of my life, I enrolled as an in-home support services IHSS worker through my local county office. I now assist elderly people and cancer patients in their homes, nothing that requires special training, just everyday tasks such as housework, cooking, shopping, providing rides to the doctors and chemotherapy, et cetera. I have two to three main clients. We have bonded and enjoy our time together. I find my new job to be extremely rewarding. It leaves me with a glow when I go home, realizing I have made a difference in someone's life. Sure, I'm not making a tremendous amount of money, but it's enough to help compensate for the cutbacks in my husband's wages as a public employee. My advice: Try exploring some work outside of your comfort zone, take a risk, you may just find the perfect fit.

YOFFE: And, yeah, just in the last six months, the health care industry, which she's now working in, has added more than 120,000 jobs. This is a huge growth area in the economy.

CONAN: Let's go next to Andy, Andy with us from Tulsa.

ANDY (Caller): Hi. I'm a big fan. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

ANDY: I'm a mechanical engineer and I work in the Detroit auto industry. I was laid off in 2002. And - as a mechanical engineer, and I changed careers, you know, and started working in program management in 2004. And I got laid off there in 2007. And I found work in California in mechanical engineering again. And it was a change of careers each time. And when I got laid off in 2009, I decided that I was gonna go to India. I'm originally from India, but I'm a U.S. citizen. I decided to go India and started working there; I was working as a VP of operations. So it was very nice position that I got there. I worked for two years and got a project management certification. And with the higher responsibilities on my resume, I got a call from Tulsa three weeks ago. I started a new job with a 50 percent pay hike. And the cost of living in Tulsa is about 50 percent that of California. And every one of the jobs that I've got have been though Monster or CareerBuilder or online sites.

CONAN: Well, you're the exception that proves the rule. Congratulations, Andy. And - so you're - three weeks ago, you got this job?

ANDY: Yup, and started four days after they made the offer.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Andy. That's great news.

ANDY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And again, going back to polish the resume, freshening it up?

YOFFE: Right. And I'm sure his resume had all the keywords that this organization was looking for. So that's really important when you're looking at these job sites. Be willing to change your resume so you increase the chances that the filterer will send your resume through.

CONAN: Here's an email from Matt in Overland Park in Kansas: I got back to work by not burning bridges. I stayed in touch on good terms with the company that laid me off in a head-count reduction. Four years later, they hired me out of career change training to replace somebody who was retiring. Don't burn bridges no matter how satisfying it might be on your last day.

Tamara, keep in touch with these people. Who knows? They may want you back.

KEITH: Absolutely. Stay in touch, have coffee, ask about how kids - people's kids are doing, and someday it may just turn into a job again.

CONAN: Tamara is buying our coffee after the show. So...

KEITH: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...Emily Yoffe, stay with us. Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to slate.com. And again, "You're Hired!" - her post that was on the site today - there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Tamara Keith, well, hangs right here at NPR, where she's a business reporter. Thanks very much to you both. Appreciate it.

KEITH: Thanks.

YOFFE: Thank you, Neal.

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