Nowadays, jitters are part of the job

September 18, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Dom DiGiacomo is a man with a terrific job title: program manager for personnel management and labor relations, U.S. Department of Agriculture. It takes him 10 minutes just to say it, and another 40 minutes to explain it.

Once, terrific titles counted for something in America. Maybe you didn't make much money, but you had a title. A title marked you as a person of stature. It locked you in. A title said you didn't have to worry about losing your job in the shifting sands of the American workplace.

Today, people get titles instead of security. Nobody has security anymore, or at least nobody thinks they do, which is why #F DiGiacomo is standing in a hotel hallway in Edgewood, Harford County, the other day, at the edge of a ballroom packed with government workers gathered for a conference on something known as "professional development."

That's a nice euphemism, "professional development," useful for its uplifting blandness. It happens to stand, though, for the general uneasiness in the American workplace, where so many people feel jittery over the speed of change, and the constant influx of new technology, and what feels like the almost-daily VTC premature arrival of the future.

"Just think about what everybody's gone through," says DiGiacomo, who helped put the conference together. "Technology changes, hiring freezes, downsizing, regionalizing, declining budgets, 'options' to relocate your job that involve uprooting your whole family. It changes every day. We reinvent ourselves to justify our existence constantly. And it's everybody, private business and government."

It's why all these people gathered in Edgewood this week. It so happens, most of them work in engineering and research and development at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which sponsored the conference. But, emotionally, they could represent any job market. That they work for the government, once considered a bastion of job stability, speaks even more poignantly about American workers' sense of edginess.

"That's absolutely the case," says a man in career management at the proving ground, who's uneasy enough that he'd rather not see his name in the newspaper. "Listen, I've been at the proving ground for 20 years, and I've never seen anybody in my department thrown out of a job.

"But, these days, everybody thinks they could be. It's just in the air. They come up to me all the time and talk about it. I tell them, 'Go back to school, take courses. If you do get cut, the courses are your ticket somewhere else.'

"At the proving ground, they look around and see Department of Defense cutbacks, and Army cutbacks, and they wonder, Am I next? Probably they're not. But you have conferences like this, so people can feel they're doing something constructive with their concerns, they're developing a plan for the future, they're defining their career goals."

Everybody talks about the booming American economy, but the boom involves internal tremors across the employment landscape. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor showed a high rate of layoffs from 1993 to 1995 -- even as unemployment remained low. People lose one job and bounce to another. Often, there are pay cuts. Always, there are anxieties.

This became an implicit theme touched on by a series of speakers at the Edgewood conference: the fear of taking a simple lunch break, the sense of being pulled in too many directions at one time, the fear of burnout, the fear of getting lost on the information superhighway. And the daily sense of dread that people carry with them on the job and off.

Last year, the number of layoffs in the American workplace increased 14 percent over the previous year. Three-quarters of all American households have seen a family member, friend, relative or neighbor lose a job since 1980.

Dom DiGiacomo remembers when it happened to him.

"I had an advanced degree in public policy," he said, "and landed a job that lasted 18 months. At that point, I was laid off. I asked, 'What's going on?' They said, 'Oh, don't take it personally. This position was earmarked for elimination even before you were hired.'

"I said, 'Why did you put me in there if you knew it was being eliminated?' They didn't have an answer. It's just the way things happen. But I felt a tremendous sense of betrayal. A lot of people understand that today, and worry it could happen to them. It's the mood of the country."

It's why they were gathered in Edgewood this week. They called it "professional development."

It's a nice positive phrase, intended to cover the anxieties everywhere in the national workplace.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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