Seeking New Jobs After the Pink Slip

Many middle-aged professionals who lost their full-time jobs during the recession still struggle to make ends meet

For 24 years, Dow Chemical Company told Cornelius O'Connell he was "family."

Then one day in early 1993, Dow decided its family circle was too big.

Mr. O'Connell, a computer system trouble-shooter at the company's headquarters in Midland, Mich., was summoned to a supervisor's office. He was informed that - along with 549 other employees - his job had been phased out because of slumps hitting Dow's traditional customers and the pressure of increased global competition.

O'Connell thought he had a lot going for him. He had helped to solve computer problems for Dow installations around the world, had won hundreds of dollars in merit awards, and had been sent to refresher courses to stay current with the fast-changing technology in his field.

Moreover, he wasn't looking for a huge salary. He had been getting along on a relatively modest $40,000 a year.

"I expected to find another job in six months," he says.

It hasn't worked out that way.

More than two years, 300 resumes, and hundreds more networking contacts later, O'Connell has had to revise his expectations. He still has found only seasonal work. And although he still would listen to a serious offer of employment in computer work, he says: "I'd be afraid of doing a lousy job for whoever hired me. I'm getting rusty."

No one knows how many American professionals who lost jobs in the recession of the early 1990s continue to fit into the same category as O'Connell.

Lesser jobs

A report in the April issue of Monthly Labor Review, a publication of the US Department of Labor, states that "about three-quarters" of the 2.8 million "long-tenured" workers who lost full-time jobs in 1991 and 1992 had found new employment by the time they were surveyed in 1994. But the report adds that "the proportion who were again employed in full-time jobs that paid equal or higher wages was less than one-third of the total."

Meanwhile, middle-aged professionals continue to flow into the ranks of the unemployed. NASA, Boeing, Lockheed/Martin, Fleet Financial Group, Raytheon, Westinghouse, and Conrail are among major employers still handing out hundreds, or thousands, of pink slips.

And the leading economic indicators, announced by the Commerce Department in early July, were down for the fourth month in a row. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has publicly hinted twice in recent weeks of the possibility of another recession.

It is not uncommon to find middle-aged professionals in job-search support programs who have lost more than one job in the '90s, says Mary Mattie, who runs one such program for the Massachusetts Department of Employment and Training.

These workers' self-esteem is particularly low, she says, "but it's not a stigma; they're not alone."

O'Connell has moments when he is not so sure of that.

"It hurts," he says, "when you see people on the streets and they won't give you the time of day."

A team of sociologists from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Kay Snyder and Thomas Nowak, studies the effects of underemployment on marriages. They say that the constantly evolving global economy is likely to make "more and more people in their 50s feel obsolete."

"They eke out a living the best way they can," Dr. Snyder says. "It's really the shattering of the American dream."

Professionals in the personnel placement industry disagree on whether skilled older workers laid off in the last recession, such as O'Connell, ought to have found comparable full-time jobs by now.

"A lot of them are, I don't want to say unemployable - but it's very difficult to place them. Many employers worry that they have too much of a one-company culture," says head-hunter Arthur Link of Link Personnel in Midland. In the meantime, he adds, "many companies have hired some very sharp people who are capable of handling much more than one task."

Greg Gostanian, a Boston-based vice president of Manchester Partners International, one of the nation's most prominent placement firms, says: "I would say to you that they're not doing something they ought to be doing. The marketplace hasn't been this good in a long time. People who are having difficulty finding employment probably have a very valid reason not related to skill level. Perhaps their salaries were inflated."

A laid-off professional, Mr. Gostanian says, should be able to complete a successful job search in 20 to 23 weeks.

But, says Dan Daly, who runs his own personnel business in Boston: "We've eliminated a whole level of management professionals. And these are people who have emptied their IRAs and their savings accounts and lost the house and maybe had a divorce. My concern is that this group is a blip that's just moving off the radar screen and we're not going to learn anything from it."

O'Connell has not been divorced or lost his house, but he is emptying his retirement account.

"We've never been big spenders," he says. "But [the pension] will be gone in about four years, and then it'll be pretty hard."

His wife works part-time as an ophthalmologist's assistant, and what she earns, he says, "is very helpful."

A son who has just graduated from high school was told "to go out and find a summer job." Two younger children earn money from a paper route, and by baby-sitting and mowing lawns.

Meanwhile, O'Connell says, he has forced himself to stay busy. Drawing on a life-long interest in outdoor recreation, he is vigorously pursuing year- round employment in the camping industry.

Last summer he supervised a camp in upstate New York. He is running another camp this summer on Lake Huron in the "thumb" of Michigan's lower peninsula.

He also has been a Boy Scout adviser for 19 years. "If I can get into the camp-director field full-time it won't bother me that I don't have a professional job anymore," he says.

Legal challenges

But his status has caused difficult challenges. He was refused unemployment compensation under a state law that denies benefits to anyone who has a pension.

O'Connell and other laid-off Dow workers are appealing the ruling while lobbying the Michigan House of Representatives to pass a rewrite of the law.

He considered starting a business servicing personal computers but abandoned the idea when he couldn't find a satisfactory customer base.

So far, he has resisted seeking low-wage jobs such as clerking in a retail store "because I have a little difficulty with that," he says. "But it may be a hump I have to get over."

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