Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Inside the job fair -- Column of May 7, 2009


It’s one thing to hear the statistic: The United States has lost five million jobs in 15 months.

It’s something else entirely to see someone who has lost a job gulping air, trying to steel her nerves to talk to recruiters at a job fair.

The woman was among about 200 white-collar workers who swarmed around a hotel in Northern Virginia Monday, hoping for jobs. An out-placement firm sponsored the fair for its clients, and most of the job seekers were mid-career or older, blackbirds in sober suits, doing their best to exude upbeat confidence in an economy that hasn’t yet hit bottom.

She was plus-sized and stood out in her flower garden dress. I ran into her in the ladies room where she seemed to be hyperventilating. She pulled herself together and began washing her hands so vigorously it suggested she was avoiding more than flu virus. This was procrastination by hygiene.

Then she straightened her shoulders and stepped bravely into the crowd, leaving a wake of misery and cologne.

They say job fairs are no place for the faint of heart. Neither is this economy.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made news the next day when he testified before the congressional Joint Economic Committee about the loss of five million payroll jobs. He warned we haven’t seen the worst of it.

“We are likely to see further sizable job losses and increased unemployment in coming months,” Bernanke said.

As in previous recessions, unemployment has hit construction and manufacturing hardest, but almost every sector is affected. About half a million financial activities workers have lost their jobs since the peak employment in December 2006.

During the recession of the early 1980s, I was a newspaper reporter. I met many people in Pennsylvania and the industrial Midwest whose jobs had vanished. I talked to steelworkers whose industry was collapsing and autoworkers who blamed their woes on the Japanese.

So-called experts were always advising the jobless to reinvent themselves. “Retraining” was the mantra. I remember 50-somethings teary at the prospect.

In this recession, the jobless rate among college graduates has doubled over the last year, to 4.3 percent in March. That’s significant but still less than half the 9 percent jobless rate for those with just a high school diploma.

In the Washington area, college-educated workers are losing jobs as companies and associations contract. I’ve met engineers, IT and human resources professionals, lawyers, architects, even a medical doctor – all out of work due to downsizing and restructuring. They worked for non-profits and companies like Freddie Mac and Sprint.

Me? I’m among the journalists laid off as media companies shut down their Washington bureaus.

At the job fair, 17 companies set up tables. Job seekers formed long, patient lines and chatted – “networked” -- as we had been coached. A woman behind me had worked 13 years in human resources for a major company.

“It’s like a death!” she wailed.

“Don’t you think it’s like a death? You have to grieve…And they say we should reinvent ourselves. I don’t feel like reinventing myself,” she said. “What am I going to be now?”

It was the same question the steelworkers outside Pittsburgh had asked in the ‘80s.

“I’m in the doldrums,” the HR woman told a friend. “I just can’t get out of the doldrums. How about you?”

Her friend said she has been out of the job hunt for a while because her father died. Here was someone grieving an actual death. The HR woman dropped her talk about job loss as death.

A woman in a black suit checking her BlackBerry had worked 21 years in pharmaceutical sales for the same company. She wants to reinvent herself as a program manager.

A few feet away, a beefy, former university student government leader, Class of ’96, said this is the first time he hasn’t been recruited for a job.

“I can’t believe I’m in this situation!” he declared.

I introduced myself to the recruiter for a company involved in online education and told him I had experience writing and editing.

“Content? We don’t do content. We do processes,” he said. Universities and other customers buy the company’s system and provide their own content. Oh.

I wondered how the woman in the flowered dress was faring. I looked around for her, but she was gone.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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