Despite boom, many forced to search help-wanted ads

Landing job remains difficult for millions of unemployed in U.S.

February 13, 2000|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Robert Brown has a lot of assets: He has 18 years' experience as a machine operator and a friendly, confident personality.

What he hasn't had, for seven-plus years, is a decent job.

Brown, 44, was thrown out of work when a local steelmaker shuttered his unit in the early 1990s. Since then, he has gone through a series of what he describes as "go-nowhere, full-time jobs, or survival-type part-time jobs." And most recently, no job.

"It makes you very angry sometimes," said Brown, who lives near the Pimlico racetrack in Northwest Baltimore. "But you can't use anger to get ahead -- you have to put it behind you. All I'd been able to attract were survival-type jobs. And that does a lot to your standard of living, if you think about it, taking you from $35,000 down to $12,000."

Brown's life finally has a bright spot: On Thursday, he accepted a full-time job that seems to hold promise.

Even with that happy ending, the Baltimore man's seven-year saga underscores that even during the longest peacetime economic boom in U.S. history, landing a job remains a struggle for millions of Americans.

That's the paradox: Even with unemployment at a 30-year low of 4.0 percent and employers begging for job applicants -- the State Employees Credit Union, for instance, is offering workers a $200 bounty for each candidate they bring in -- 5.7 million people last month were actively seeking work and couldn't find jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And, said the bureau, another 1.2 million had looked sometime during the previous year, but were no longer seeking jobs.

`Not working for everyone'

On average, an unemployed person spends 13 weeks on the dole. But just more than 700,000 people have been looking for more than six months.

"The economic boom is not working for everyone," said Natalie Kauffman, a career counselor and training specialist for Maryland New Directions Inc., a career-management and consulting firm on North Charles Street. "I have so many clients who get so upset because friends and family members, in a well-meaning way, say: `It's an economic boom -- I don't understand why you are unemployed.' This is the group of people who have been forgotten by the so-called economic boom."

Unlike Brown, fortune has yet to smile upon Tracie Sanders, 25, a single mother of two who had to move in with her mother in O'Donnell Heights. She's spent months looking for a clerical job, and realizes she lacks some of the basic technology skills that employers look for. She's hoping to land a temporary job with the U.S. Bureau of the Census -- and just passed the entry test -- but doesn't exude confidence when she talks about her goals.

Downsizing remains a powerful cause of unemployment. Though it spawned more controversy in the early part of the decade, layoffs were heaviest in 1998 and 1999, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement firm that tracks layoff trends. Companies eliminated 675,132 jobs last year. The 20 million jobs created during the 1990s absorbed many of those workers, often after retraining.

Brown, an articulate man with a "can-do" attitude, found his life turned upside-down when Armco Steel decided to shut his unit. Unable to find comparable employment, he lost his health insurance -- leaving him with big bills when he needed medical attention. His credit rating deteriorated. He had to move in with his mother, back into the house he grew up in, and could no longer afford insurance and maintenance on his cars. Even with the assistant manager position he accepted last week with an import-export firm, he'll be taking the bus to work.

Landing this job -- in which he sees the chance for advancement -- is a relief, since he needs to start thinking about how he'll finance his retirement.

"The clock is ticking," Brown said. "I've still got a little while to work and build security."

`Last one out the door'

Layoffs also clip white-collar workers, like Stan Sierakowski of Abingdon. Sierakowski, 44, spent 15 1/2 years with a company that services a computer system that boasts a small, but loyal, customer base. The firm was struggling, though -- enough that, in November, when he was going to borrow against his 401(k) plan to help some relatives out of a jam, Sierakowski asked about job security.

"You'll be the last one out the door," his boss assured him.

During the holidays, when Sierakowski was told he was losing his job, so was the boss. Now, minus his high five-figure income, and with the loan against his retirement plan, he says things have gotten tight for him, his accountant wife and two children.

In today's "knowledge-based" economy, Sierakowski would seem to be in demand: He's designed and set up customer-support networks and has an electrical engineering degree. He's had interviews, but nothing has surfaced to match his old job.

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