WHITE-COLLAR layoffs tripled in Maryland in the last fiscal year, putting thousands of professional, technical and managerial workers out of work during an economic recession that has rapidly become a nightmare for many once-comfortable families.
In the year that ended June 30, at least 18,000 white-collar workers lost their jobs, compared with about 6,000 the previous year, according to the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development.
The department says that struggling businesses have cut loose an increasing number of higher-skilled -- and higher-paid -- employees, many with incomes of $50,000 or more.
"This is our first white-collar recession," says Charles Middlebrooks, an official with the department. "Companies are restructuring. They are getting lean and mean, and they are taking the fat off the middle."
In Columbia, nearly half of those filing for jobless benefits are laid-off professional workers. At state employment offices in Towson and Annapolis, four in 10 new claimants are white-collar workers, many with college degrees.
In Baltimore County, at least 2,596 white-collar jobs were lost in the year that ended Oct. 31, compared with 2,407 blue-collar positions. Officials said it was the first time that white-collar layoffs had exceeded the other category.
Nationally, the number of unemployed white-collar workers has jumped by nearly 500,000, to 2.8 million, in the past year.
Counselors and others who follow Baltimore-area job trends say that a phenomenal number of veteran white-collar professionals -- often people over 40 -- have been laid off because of corporate and government cost-cutting and shut-downs.
Loss of income hits these breadwinners especially hard because they have worked many years to achieve a comfortable lifestyle for their families and carry heavy financial obligations.
"The managers who used to give out pink slips are the people who are getting them now," says John Wasilisin, head of Baltimore County's Dislocated Worker program.
"These are people with $60,000 salaries who have a mortgage, a home equity loan, a car loan, maybe a recreational vehicle and possibly a second residence at the beach."
This seems to be happening throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor, says Ron Windsor, state administrator of the Dislocated Worker program. "We're seeing a fair number of mid-level to top management people," he says. "It's worse than it was six months ago."
"We are seeing grown men sit in our office and cry, terrified that they are going to lose everything that they've spent a lifetime building up," says Sunna Kalis, director of the Jewish Vocational Service, which counsels dislocated workers here.
"Most people come to see us after they've exhausted their resources, so they are already on a downward spiral," says Kalis. "We suggest that people go public immediately after layoffs and hit the ground running."
The service sponsors a peer-support group for older unemployed men that is run by John Wolfe, a 57-year-old psychologist and deputy medical director of the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.
He's been laid off twice himself from managerial jobs in the last five years.
The men in the support group, some of whom lost six-figure incomes, feel depressed and angry, Wolfe says. "These are men for whom retirement is within reach, and yet that is being denied them."
They "gave to the company" and then were ejected, having learned the hard way that businesses "don't give gold watches anymore," Wolfe says.
"This is a new phenomenon," he says. "There are professionally trained and educated people now desperately looking for work," most of them 40 and above."
"In this recession, the middle manager is getting hit the hardest," says Charles White of Success Management, a career-counseling organization here. "Companies are cutting out the people they don't feel are totally necessary, to save money.
"It is traumatic, especially for those workers who have substituted corporation for family -- people who have put too much emphasis on their job," says White.
"Individuals can no longer count on a company to provide long-term employment. Individuals themselves must take a much stronger role in their career management. Now, people must do their jobs and manage their careers."
Self-confidence, aggressiveness and a little luck can overcome the shock and panic of a layoff, says Ralph Raphael, a Baltimore psychologist whose practice includes career counseling.
"I know one fellow who very suddenly lost his job in advertising, and that day beat the bushes and got himself a new position. His response: 'I didn't want to go home and tell the kids I didn't have a job, so I got a new one.'
"His confidence helped him carry the day -- but it's not always that easy. He persisted and he had some luck."