- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Jason Sachs used to sell Internet bandwidth to large corporations but often felt frustrated with the pressured environment of the technology industry. Now he waits tables at Clyde’s of Georgetown restaurant and feels he lost little when telecommunications companies laid off him and other employees as the economy stagnated in the past two years.

“I don’t take my job home with me,” said the 27-year-old Arlington resident and former Worldcom employee.

Nevertheless, he checks Internet job postings regularly to see what other opportunities are available.

“I take it month by month,” he said.

Variations on Mr. Sachs’ career change are occurring throughout the Washington area and the nation while unemployment lingers around 6.2 percent. They are called survival jobs, which means the people who hold them are struggling to pay their bills rather than advance to the top of their professions.

Many of the corporate executives, computer analysts or lawyers who rose to the top of the last economic boom are just as likely to be working in retail stores or doing temp work while waiting for an economic rebound.

“It’s very sad for people’s hopes and dreams when they come out of high-level degrees to get stuck in low-end jobs,” said Jim Halyard, an account manager for the Washington office of Career Blazers, an administrative temporary help agency. “I have a number of MBAs who are receptionists right now.”

The survivalist employees also represent a dilemma for employers. Some employers like them for their work ethic.

“That’s the good thing about those guys; they’re used to putting in long hours,” said Christian Guidi, manager of Clyde’s of Georgetown.

Other employers question their loyalty.

“Professional people don’t work for us very well,” said Manuel Iguina, general manager of the downtown Cafe Atlantico.

Typically, they submit excellent resumes with their job applications. However, “then you have to wonder how long we’re going to keep them.”

Nevertheless, there are plenty of survivalists looking for work.

Since early 2001, the economy has shed about 2.7 million jobs, stranding workers from the information technology and telecommunications sectors and from the broad ranks of middle management thinned by corporate cost-cutting.

In the 1990s, those jobs were the prizes of the New Economy, offering substantial paychecks, stock options and generous benefits, along with the promise of hopscotching to something even better.

But that’s all a memory, and many displaced white-collar workers driven by frustration and money worries are settling for work as food servers, security guards and retail clerks.

Terri Thomas, branch manager of the Manpower temporary-help agency in Washington, said she often has to tell laid-off managers and technical workers the new realities of the job market.

The bad news, she tells them, is, “You might think about taking a little less salary because you’re not going to find the big salaries you found a couple of years ago.”

The good news, Mrs. Thomas says, is “40 percent of Manpower employees get full-time offers. This is a way of getting their foot in the door.”

One of them was a marketing manager who made $65,000 to $70,000 per year in New York. She took a much lower-paying job as an administrative assistant through Manpower, was hired by the government contractor and now works as a project manager making about as much money as she did in New York.

Survivalists tend to be motivated by a lack of better alternatives.

They get a paycheck to cover bills and, in the best cases, employer-subsidized health insurance. Others say it’s also about the need to do something, anything, to rejoin the working world.

It’s hard to know just how many workers have taken survival jobs. Because they’re working again, they’re not reflected in the unemployment rate. Nevertheless, their ranks are swelling.

The shift is hinted at in figures tallied by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 4.7 million people who want to work full-time have settled for part-time jobs because of economic conditions, nearly a 50 percent increase from three years ago.

The willingness to settle reflects the difficulty of finding equivalent jobs. The time the average jobless worker remains unemployed has stretched to more than 19 weeks, up from about 12 weeks in early 2001. More than one in five jobless workers — about 2 million people — have been out of work longer than half a year.

Some survivalists see a silver lining to their job change.

Andy Massa was making $130,000 a year when he was cut from an executive job with a software subsidiary of Group Bull in late 2001. Since then, he’s sold jewelry in a department store and worked as a cashier at a ski slope, both at $8 an hour. An avid golfer, he has moved on to jobs related to his hobby — one helping run the pro shop at a local golf course, another selling golf equipment in a mall sports shop.

“It’s a lot simpler and less challenging than it used to be, but I’ve learned to be humble,” says Mr. Massa, of Hudson, Mass.

“I see guys coming onto the golf course wound pretty tight. They’re guys who come in and are late for their tee times and they expect me to do something,” he says. “I enjoy dealing with people who remind me what I used to be like.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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