These days, experience, advanced degrees don't mean you're layoff-proof

March 9, 2009 

If anything will keep workers safe from layoffs, it isn't these: a graduate degree, a government job, a high salary or even a new promotion.

The people who used to be shielded during recessions are feeling unusually vulnerable these days. They are jobless in large numbers, and the blow to their confidence is magnified because they aren't bouncing back as quickly as in past downturns, despite solid credentials and connections.

Labor Department data for February, released Friday, show that among the 12.5 million unemployed Americans there were nearly twice as many managers and professionals as a year ago -- a category that includes lawyers, doctors and people running hotels. Joblessness also is up sharply from last year among the college-educated, and within the most stable industries, such as education, health care and government.

The growing number of pink slips across a wide range of demographic groups is prompting people to rethink the notion of what it means to have a secure job, or simply to be employable.

"I'm beginning to realize there's no such thing as a bulletproof lifestyle," said Brian Walker, a 37-year-old Houstonian who felt blindsided in January when he was laid off as a manager at Kawasaki Motors Corp.

A salary of more than $100,000 a year had enabled Walker to take his family of four on trips to Japan, Singapore and the United Kingdom, and to eat out two to three times a week. Invulnerability would be too strong a word to describe how Walker felt, "but you still get caught up thinking, 'Geez, Louise, I'll be making $200,000 in a couple years. I'll be a senior guy, and we'll have it made,' " he said.

Now, like millions of others with far fewer resources and skills, Walker's sense of financial security has been shattered.

It's tough, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the investment bank Mesirow Financial in Chicago, because people in every industry, at every level, are being hit.

In February, the nationwide jobless rate rose to 8.1 percent, with layoffs mounting in construction, manufacturing, and professional and business services, which got rid of 180,000 jobs.

If part-time, discouraged workers and others are factored in, the unemployment rate would have been 14.8 percent in February.

Among people with a bachelor's degree or higher, the unemployment rate rose to 4.1 percent, the highest on records dating to 1992.

The notion of job security for white-collar professionals began to disappear in the recession of the early 1990s. But as the concept of lifetime employment withered, it was replaced by the idea that those who lost jobs could always find other work.

But at the moment, at least, that's not the case. "You can't even switch professions and be OK because job losses are so broad-based and widespread," Swonk said.

This new reality is sinking in for Pat McCloskey.

With a doctoral degree in genetics and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina, and strong communication skills, McCloskey had for years found success in the business side of the pharmaceutical industry. He has worked for four universities and companies over the past decade, moving easily between jobs. He even felt calm four years ago after his employer shut down.

"I golfed a little bit," McCloskey said, then landed a job six months later with Cytogen, a small pharmaceutical company based in Princeton, N.J., that paid him more than $125,000.

But last March -- about the same time his wife was divorcing him and his dog died -- the company was sold and McCloskey was laid off. Because of the weak job market, a career change seems certain, as does a cut in pay.

McCloskey tries to stay positive. He's studying Mandarin, networking and has taken a business class at Rutgers University.

"I've earned my right to have a job in this economy," he said. "I will find that job."

There are plenty of people coming to grips with their unexpected vulnerability.

Carolyn Davis of Lincoln was laid off last month as a part-time office assistant in her city's public works department.

Her husband, Michael, a battalion chief with the city's Fire Department, has taken a 5 percent salary cut and will forgo a raise this summer.

Both believed government jobs always would be safe, even in the worst of times. But like many places in California, the bedroom community 30 miles northeast of Sacramento has been hit hard by the housing market's collapse, and it has trickled through every nook of the local economy.

"It's just scary to think that a job that's always been secure is no longer," Carolyn Davis said. "It's not just (Lincoln), but all the cities around us."

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