The thousands of jobs being trimmed from the nation's work force by IBM, General Motors, Xerox and other major corporations are never coming back, executives say. That is the single biggest difference between the current economic slump and previous recessions.
"The recession was a lot worse than we thought, and it triggered this round of cutbacks," said George Davis, director of corporate human resource strategy at Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y. "But if it were just the recession," he said, "we would be hiring these people back again. And we aren't going to do that."
As in past recessions, blue-collar workers have been hit harder than white-collar workers. Blue-collar unemployment stood at 10 percent at the end of October, white-collar unemployment at 4.2 percent.
Yet professionals, administrators and other desk-holders have also lost jobs in record numbers, and economists believe that the white-collar occupations and service industries will come under further pressure in the years ahead, just as manufacturing did in the 1980s.
The recession has forced many companies to face that during the expansive 1980s they got bloated, especially in the white-collar ranks. To compete with lean foreign rivals, cuts must be made, the executives say, and the recession is mainly accelerating the process.
Kodak is in the midst of a program that pays workers to retire early, and up to 6,000 of its 80,000 domestic employees are expected to accept the company's offer.
When Xerox Corp. announced last week that it was trimming 2,500, or 20 percent, of its white-collar jobs, the company also said that the uncertain economy was only forcing it to step up cost-cutting plans already in place.
At International Business Machines Corp., which said last month that it would pare another 20,000 workers from its 350,000-job payroll by next year -- on top of the 65,000 jobs it has eliminated since 1986 -- a key goal is to reduce the administrative staff in an effort to make the big computer company faster on its feet.
"Companies don't see improvement on the horizon, so they are moving now," said Garrett Dietz, a specialist in cost cutting at Towers Perrin, a management consultant. "Cutbacks show immediate change, and they make the corporate boards and Wall Street happy."