Message of the economy: Stand in line -- and settle

July 13, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE JOB FAIR was scheduled for 11 o'clock yesterday morning, but the line of people looking for work started forming around 9:45. Everybody was dressed to kill. They had all the cheery demeanor of those awaiting tax audits. By 11 o'clock, the line snaked down one hallway, turned a corner and headed toward the front lobby, where Mary Lacey stood like the others, with copies of her resume and her dread.

Once, she was a vice president of First National Bank of Maryland. Then she was assistant treasurer at Alexander & Alexander Financial Services, Inc., managing $5 billion in cash a year. Later, she was a consultant for the Bank of Bermuda. But the bank was bought out, and Lacey's job went away. Now she is 54 years old and standing at the end of this line of job seekers yesterday at the Holiday Inn on Cromwell Bridge Road in northern Baltimore County.

The sign in the lobby said "National Career Fairs: Providing Employment Solutions." Lacey said she used to make $90,000 a year. She looked over the list of businesses setting up tables inside the meeting room at the front of the job line. One of the names was Carvel, the ice cream people.

"I saw that name," Lacey said, "and I was practicing, `Would you like sprinkles with that?'" She smiled ruefully. Dress up, paste on a smile, and prepare to lower your expectations. The White House says the economy's getting better. Maybe it is. But it's hard to find evidence at the end of a long job line in a hotel hallway in suburban Baltimore.

The White House says 1.5 million jobs have been added in the past 10 months. This is supposed to cause great rejoicing across the land. During the Clinton years, the economy added 236,000 jobs - in an average month. Last month, with this White House boasting of the long-awaited recovery, only 112,000 new jobs were added.

And, as everyone knows, many who are laid off are taking new jobs for considerably less money.

"This job fair," said Bill Mueller, "is mostly not for blue-collar people. These are professional jobs, generally college-educated people." Mueller is president of I Need A Job.com, which put together this gathering for National Career Fairs. These jobs, he was saying, were for upward strivers. Also, though, for realists, who understand the continuing economic truths of the day.

"Oh, I don't have any illusions," Mary Lacey was saying now. "My last job, as a consultant, I got $65 an hour. Do I think I'll find that now? No. This is all different. Now I feel incompetent. I haven't had to look for a job since college. I feel like I should have one by now. I keep saying to myself, `Hey, you were assistant treasurer of this big company. Now you're standing on line. And it's the end of the line."

She looked at the long row of people in front of her. "I thought I'd be the only person in my age range," she said, "but I guess I'm not." The others ranged from new college grads to those past 60. Some had been laid off, some downsized, some out of work for months.

Inside the job fair, Rick Esterson, Jamil Luckett and Khrista Isaacs sat at a table for Laureate Education. Their company is looking for enrollment advisers - people who can assist students "seeking online education from fully accredited institutions."

"We're seeing a lot of people who are finding out they have to settle," said Luckett. "They're people laid off the last few years, who are trying to rebound and return. They're hoping to get something near their old salaries. But those jobs aren't back yet."

"It's all about timing," said Esterson. "It's about taking what you can get vs. what you need."

"I was in San Francisco," said Luckett, "working in high-tech. Everybody was making lots of money. Once the dot-com went bust, everybody was taking pay cuts. I took a 50 percent cut myself."

"Yeah," said Esterson, "you hear all the time about people who had $120,000 management positions taking jobs at Home Depot."

A few tables over sat Chad Pillsbury, a corporate recruiter for the EMG real estate and environmental services firm. "There's an understanding now," Pillsbury said. "People who were making six figures, they look for work now and understand they're not going to get that kind of money again. Not yet, anyway. The ones just starting to look, you'll tell them the job starts around $25,000, and they'll say, `Oh, I can do better than that.' They'll say that till they've heard the same thing five or six times, and they realize some money is better than none."

Maybe the economy's coming back - but you couldn't prove it by this crowd. In the long hallway line yesterday were Vanessa Sample and Roslyn Taylor. They're both Baltimore City Community College graduates. Sample, 41, works nights in a warehouse. She's hoping for a job in an office. Taylor, 34, is looking for the same. They said they'd be thrilled with $20,000-a-year jobs. This is life in the recovering American economy.

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