Awaiting better times, white-collar workers look to blue-collar jobs

Some laid-off educated workers are turning to lower-skilled jobs to get by.

By , Staff writer

Robb Linn will walk your dog or cut your grass. He doesn’t have any professional experience in either canine care or landscaping, but he does have a master’s degree in city and regional planning.

“I had this bright idea that I would just start throwing out ads on Craigslist for landscaping, gardening, and dog walking” after being laid off from a Sonoma County, Calif., environmental planning firm earlier this year, says Mr. Linn.

As many educated and formerly well-paid workers become restless living on unemployment benefits and frustrated over fruitless job searches, some are opting for lower skilled jobs that pay less but will help cover monthly bills or simply keep them busy.

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They’ll baby sit or tutor your kids, fix up a house or tune a car, help staff trade shows that come to town, or cater parties.

“[M]ost of my friends who graduated with me are sitting at home or going to med school or trying to do something else because our sector really isn’t hiring anyone any more,” says Sher Ali Butt, who landed a $42,000 a year job at a Bay Area biotech company soon after graduating from the University of California, Davis last year. When the recession hit, he was among the first to go.

Now, he’s thinking of switching to dentistry. In the meantime, he’s trying to find work tutoring high school and college students in science and trolling Craigslist for temporary gigs working at cocktail parties or unloading produce at weekend farmer’s markets.

“I’m just trying to make ends meet with whatever can be done,” he says.

With unemployment rates up and many industries such as construction, retail, and automotive being decimated, many workers are finding they need to snag any opportunity that presents itself.

It’s especially tough for people who can’t relocate, says Wendy Enelow, author, trainer, and career consultant. “If you can’t relocate or made the decision that you don’t want to relocate, then you are going to have to broaden the type of position [you will accept] because the geography is limited.”

But while some highly skilled workers in a few select industries -- such as in the auto industry -- might be open to lower skilled jobs, most well-paid managers and executives aren’t, she says.

In banking, technology, and healthcare, “people are not willing to go down levels, and levels, and levels,” says Ms. Enelow.

Overall, though, college-educated workers are weathering this recession fairly well, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Men with a bachelor’s degree or above saw only a 1.3 percent dip in jobs, and employment among college-educated women actually climbed by about 1 percent, he says.

“The overwhelming share of all job losses” has been among blue-collar workers, says Mr. Sum. In fact, employment for men without a high school diploma fell 12 percent from November 2007 to March 2009.

However, young college graduates are finding it more difficult than ever to land jobs in their field. Only half of all college graduates under 25 are working in jobs that require a university degree.

For many young people, free online classified services such as Craigslist are facilitating the search for stopgap jobs.

In fact, the kinds of people using Craigslist in this economic downturn has broadened, says Sara Clemence, co-founder of Recessionwire, an online guide for surviving hard times.“Lots of surprising people are going to Craigslist to put out opportunities and to find opportunities. It turns out that it can be a useful resource, but just like everything else it needs to be one part of your job searching portfolio.”

Lana, who didn’t want to give her last name for this article, checks the site daily for jobs. She was laid off in December from her position as a paralegal specializing in immigration issues at a San Francisco law firm.

The one gig Lana landed through Craigslist: working a dermatologists’ convention. “I still look every day. I look three times a day,” she says.

But like many others, Lana isn’t ready to trade in her law career for another just yet. Her unemployment benefits have been extended and she’s cut her expenses by moving in with a friend. For now, she’s volunteering and planning to travel to Europe. When she returns, she hopes the job market will have improved.

Earlier this month California extended unemployment insurance benefits, giving eligible laid-off workers as much as 79 weeks of total coverage, which means that the people hit hardest by the downturn may be putting off having to make the tough decision to take a pay cut or a job for which they are overqualified.

Linn, the budding dog walker, says his benefits are set to run out in February. His plan is to pick up temporary work where he can, try to find a roommate, start attending community college classes -- and continue offering his dog-walking services.

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