When Allison Manderino graduated in 2008 with a degree in lab-based animal sciences and a specialization in biotechnology she was chock-full of hope. She had a college degree, in the sciences no less. She would be an in-demand property, riding through the recession on her stellar credentials.
But after Manderino got married, becoming the young wife of an active duty soldier, she was shut down at every turn. Companies are often cautious to hire a military spouse, since he or she could end up moving at a moment's notice. "Not getting a job was OK," she says. "Other military wives were in the same position."
But when her husband left the military for medical reasons, the job hunt became urgent. Manderino sent out applications to everything she could find that was related to her degree, mostly pharmaceutical and animal research labs.
She started looking for low-wage cage cleaning jobs, thinking she could work her way up with some skill and spunk. But again, nothing.
One day, she saw an ad online for a job at DoodyCalls, a Fairfax, Va.-based pet waste removal service. She laughed. Then she stopped laughing. Then she called her mom.
"I paid how much for your education and you're going to do what?" her mother asked.
"So that was a fun conversation," Manderino shrugs.
She applied, and got the job.
"They always said if you can't find a dream job, at least find a job in your field," Manderino says. "This is the back end of the animal field."
It was a struggle at first. Making her house calls, Manderino had to drive around in her company's blindingly lime green truck, designed to attract stares. "I'm putting myself out there for comments and laughs and jokes," Manderino realized. And because the natural reaction of casual passersby tends to be "Eww, that's gross," Manderino felt the need to always look very not-gross, grooming with exquisite care.
"It is a little strange to see a young girl like myself," she says. "People would think I work in a mall at a boutique, not out in the yard, scooping dog waste."
And sometimes scooping is a struggle. DoodyCalls is on-call rain or shine, through baking 115-degree Augusts and bitter subzero Februarys. The only time they won't be at your service is during thunder and lightening. (It's dangerous with their metal scooping tools.)
"It's not what I was expecting when I was a freshman in college, when I thought I was going to take on the world," she says. "When you see unemployment, you think: 'That's never going to happen to me. I'm a college student, I'm smarter, I'm better.' Getting in the job market when I did was a big, eye-opening experience. I'm not immune to this. I'm not immune to struggling. I'm not immune to taking a job that's not my dream."
But at least Manderino's job appears secure. "No matter what the economy's like," she says, "animals will still poop."
And over time, Manderino found unexpected meaning in her work. Certain dogs will start barking giddily whenever her truck drives up, smothering her with dog kisses and attention and love. As an animal lover -- Manderino owns five dogs herself -- she can't help but bask in that warm feeling.
She helps the elderly, who struggle to pick up the dog waste scattered through their yards, and families, who want to spend more time together. "I think it really adds something to a community," she says. "I'm not saving lives. I'm not a firefighter or a doctor. I'm a pooper scooper."
And there's an element of joy and whimsy in the job. One of DootyCalls advertising strategies is "The Ambush." Manderino will drive by and see a stranger on the sidewalk, scooping up their dog's dump. Manderino pulls over, jumps out, and asks to trade the steaming bag for a DoodyCalls T-shirt or card. People are often terrified. "You... you... want my poo bag???" they ask.
"I was afraid to do it at first. What if they attack me or mace me?" she says. But at the end of the day, the joyful power of the blindingly green truck wins out. "You can't see the DoodyCalls truck and not be in a good mood.
"You never have dull days," she adds. "There's always a story."
Manderino is now considering buying her own franchise of DoodyCalls.
"It's a little quirky. A little silly. People chuckle. But numbers don't lie," she says. DoodyCalls opened in 2000, and now has over 40 franchises in 23 states. Four new outlets opened the week we spoke.
She's glad she started at the bottom, learning the ins and outs (and poop-scooping involves lots of ins and outs), before climbing up, she hopes, to a management position.
"Telling the mother-in-law that you're a pet waste removal technician isn't great," Manderino says. But in these few humbling years since college, she has a new, easygoing attitude. "I'm doing something that I like. I'm not going to be ashamed of it."
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