In Linthicum, white-collar jobless struggle to stand up and go on At new state outplacement center, career goals are scaled back

February 24, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

They park their Chevy Blazers in front of the anonymous-looking office. They hang up their finely tailored suit jackets in the closet. Then they take out their Cross pens emblazoned with company logos. And fill out the unemployment forms.

Here in Linthicum, at the state's 6-week-old Professional Outplacement Assistance Center, some of Maryland's 22,000 unemployed executives confront a new reality: They must either chase increasingly scarce managerial jobs or give up on their dreams of corporate success and find new (and usually less lucrative) livings.

Inside the office, at a bank of black touch-tone phones where ex-managers can make job-searching calls, are the people who make up the statistics showing that the nation's white-collar workers are playing a scary game of economic musical chairs, as unprecedented numbers of white-collar jobs are erased from the economy.

Carlos A. Phears, a staffer whose desk contains napkins that double as tissues for traumatized ex-managers said: "This is a massive structural change," with personal implications that are visible at the center.

Mr. Phears recalls the former $40,000-a-year engineer who broke down in tears when he realized he would have no choice but to file for bankruptcy and accept a $7-an-hour janitorial job. "I could feel the pain," Mr. Phears said. "It does something to you inside."

The pain will continue. While blue-collar workers still make up the bulk of the unemployed, the recession that started in 1990 was the first to significantly increase white-collar unemployment, according to a Harvard University study last year.

And as companies such as USF&G Corp., Westinghouse Electric Corp. and IBM announce layoffs, the market for managers continues to worsen despite other evidence of an economic rebound.

Two or three times every Monday, a new group of unemployed corporate vice presidents, accountants and engineers gather awkwardly in a small conference room to hear a "pep" talk by Stephen R. Gallison, director of the center.

"How many of you are middle managers?" he asks at one of this week's orientations. About 15 of the 20 people in the room raise hands.

"Those jobs are gone," he says.

He warns them that his office can only help improve their job-search skills. It cannot create job openings. So far, he says, the office has served about 500 Marylanders. Only about 20 of them have found jobs.

Mr. Gallison has all those present stand up and describe themselves.

A mechanical engineer says his boss' office used to be "right where we are standing now."

A longtime Westinghouse employee says he has been painting his home since being laid off two months ago and is "running out of rooms."

Andrea Foster, a human resources manager for a defense contractor, says she had to lay off several dozen workers and then had her own hours cut back to part time. Now, she fears losing even that.

"I want to get out of Department of Defense work. . . . I want to join something growing, where I can do some hiring" instead of firing, says Ms. Foster, who works in the Linthicum office of HRB Systems Inc.

But she won't be picky. "We've got two small children, and we live paycheck to paycheck," she says.

Dennis McGee, who was laid off from a public relations job in the state planning office 15 months ago, says that since he lost his job, he has been divorced, had to sell his house and lost his health insurance.

He has been looking for any kind of writing or public relations job. He's had plenty of job interviews but no offers. "People tell me I'm overqualified," said Mr. McGee, who is in his mid-40s. "They tell me I should be doing their jobs."

All this rejection "really does a job on your self-esteem. You blame yourself" for joblessness, "and it can spiral into depression in a matter of hours."

He has run out of unemployment benefits, he said, and he figures he

can last only a few more weeks on his savings. After that, he will have to take any job just to make money.

At times, he said, he feels as if he does not fit into the economy anymore. "Sometimes, I feel like a buggy whip manufacturer."

Mr. Gallison gives each group a two-hour dose of realism tempered with optimism, before sending them to the center's library and counseling sessions.

Although the demand for traditional middle managers like themselves is shrinking, Mr. Gallison says, they can market themselves in new ways. Managers can be trainers, or business consultants, for example.

But he warns them against thinking that they will find jobs easily, no matter how creatively they market themselves.

He shows a slide of a cartoon -- someone stoking the heating plant of a building with resumes -- and says that help-wanted ads in The Sun often attract up to 2,000 responses. People who just send resumes to advertisers "get lost in the paper shuffle," he tells them.

The best way to get a job, he says, is to ask friends, relatives and business associates to keep an eye out for openings.

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