Growing Ranks of the White Collar Jobless
For Growing Ranks of the White-Collar Jobless, Support With a Touch of the Spur
By MICHAEL LUO
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. The meeting could have been at any number of corporations across the country. Everyone present sat at tables around an LCD projector with their laptops open. But the setting was a church conference room, not a board room, and the spreadsheets under discussion focused not on work but the lack of it. They documented how many hours each person had devoted the previous week to looking for a job.
Total hours I spent last week was 68, said Bob Roeder, 51, one of the groups co-leaders, going over his report on a recent Monday. Number of letters sent out was four. Total number of network contacts was 12.
This was the weekly meeting of a job search accountability group, organized by the Executive Network Group of Greater Chicago, an organization for executives in transition.
Membership in various networking organizations across the country for unemployed executives and other professionals has ballooned in recent months, leaders of several say, as the recession has continued its march, sparing not even the highly educated and skilled.
And job search support groups like this one have become quasi families for people like Mr. Roeder, who was laid off nearly two years ago from his job earning almost six figures as an area sales manager for Electronic Data Systems.
Providing a spur as well as solace, the groups offer glimpses in miniature at the travails of a swath of individuals in this recession whose lives had once seemed, if not charmed, at least quite comfortable as they carved out places in the middle and upper-middle class.
A job loss in America is, psychologically, a real big hit, said Cathy-Ann Romero, 53, another co-leader, who lost her job as a human resources manager 10 months ago.
Ms. Romero, who holds two masters degrees, recently applied for a part-time job as a packer on the overnight shift at an online grocery store to help make ends meet.
The Monday morning meetings at a church in this Chicago suburb, she said, help the members realize, Were not in it alone.
Indeed, white-collar unemployment rose to 4.6 percent in December, up from 3 percent the year before. The figures still pale in comparison to the 11.3 percent unemployment rate for blue-collar workers. But Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said white-collar unemployment rose faster in the past year than in any other recession dating to at least the 1970s, even the devastating downturn of the early 1980s.
Moreover, white-collar workers also tend to form a disproportionate share of the long-term unemployed those who have been out of work six months or longer.
In the Chicago group, which has been meeting since April 2008, seven of nine members have been out of steady work for six months or longer; the other two are approaching the six-month mark.
Several in the group are now considering part-time survival jobs. Many are wrestling with whether, or how much, to draw down on their retirement accounts. Holding onto health insurance, with its high cost without an employer, has been a constant worry.
Mr. Roeder, who has two young children, took a part-time job this winter plowing snow for his township to pay the bills. He was initially depressed at what he considered the indignity, but then he discovered that several others in his crew were unemployed professionals just like him.
He jumped actively into his job search last February but said he had gotten fewer than 10 interviews in two years, despite averaging nearly 40 hours a week looking for work.
Im not getting any face time, and that is extremely frustrating, Mr. Roeder said.
With his familys savings rapidly dwindling, he drove seven hours to Troy, Mich., last weekend in a snowstorm for a job fair organized by BAE Systems, a military contractor, standing in line for two-and-a-half hours to get an interview. You can never turn down a job possibility in this economy, he said.
Gregarious by nature, Mr. Roeder enjoys leading the group through its paces, enabling him to function, albeit briefly, in a corporate environment again. And he said he took special pleasure in compiling the members weekly reports, which are due to him every Sunday. I feel like Im working again, he said.
Jim Moorman, who arranged for the group to meet at his church, lost his job 16 months ago as a senior engineer at Motorola, where he was making more than $100,000 a year, after working there for 33 years. After months of scrambling, Mr. Moorman missed his first mortgage payment last month.
I have some alternatives, said Mr. Moorman, who is also fretting about how to pay for a daughter going to college next year. But theyre not ideal ones.
He said he had struggled to get interviews and wondered at the recent meeting whether he was spending too much time applying to jobs online.
Im not doing something right yet, he said later.
Nevertheless, the groups sessions are intentionally businesslike and upbeat. Griping and self-pity are discouraged. Meetings begin with members reporting two highlights from their job search even if they are hard to name as well as two activities they did besides looking for work.
Mr. Roeder said he plowed snow for 15 hours on Saturday and slept afterwards. Tom Nolan, 54, who lost his job earning six figures as a chief financial officer of a midsize manufacturing company six months ago, reported seeing the movie Slumdog Millionaire with his wife.
But the urgency of their situations inevitably intrudes. Ms. Romero told others in the group that reality is checking in and that she needed cash, so she had applied for the part-time work.
The problem, she said, is that she was one of some 300 people applying for 15 jobs on the graveyard shift. So group members brainstormed ways she could gain some advantage.
The group meets on Mondays to provide structure for the week. Members days are filled with a revolving door of networking meetings, applications and chasing down the all-important but elusive hiring decision-maker at their target companies. The stress has taken its toll on not just the members but also their families. Ms. Romeros husband, Joseph, who is retired from his job as a public works supervisor, began seeing a psychiatrist for depression.
In an unheated workshop in the couples basement, Mr. Romero has been lighting candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe, in front of a crucifix draped over one of his sons amplifiers.
I heard she does miracles to a lot of people, he said. I figure she can give us the miracle of Cathy finding a job.
For Jack Elliott, 58, who was laid off nine months ago from a six-figure job as director of franchise operations for Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops, a Chicago-area automotive maintenance chain, this is his third job search.
Nowadays, you work someplace, you work there three years, Mr. Elliott said. Not only is this my third time, there will be a fourth time, more than likely.
Many in the group are dialing back their expectations, conceding they will most likely have to take a pay cut, or accept a step down in responsibilities. But Matt Zimmerman, 28, who was laid off five months ago as director of new business development for a home dcor company and is the groups most aggressive networker, assured a new member at the meeting that this group was beating the odds.
Two former members of the group found jobs over the summer. And some have had success getting interviews. But it is not lost on members that no one in the group has landed a job since Lehman BrothersÂ collapsed in September. Promising leads suddenly dried up. And their lives remain stuck.