400 public sector jobs cut in a year

August 2, 2010 

There was a time when landing a government job meant being set until retirement and a gold watch.

While the private sector lead the way slashing jobs in this recession, the public sector is catching up with its own waves of staff cuts. For those laid-off workers, re-entering the job market can be tricky.

From June 2009 to June 2010, the county lost some 400 government jobs. Next month's unemployment numbers are expected to show more because many layoffs became final at the start of the fiscal year in July.

Among those was Dana McGarry, the former director of planning and research for Modesto City Schools. Her position was eliminated in February because of budget cuts, and her last day was June 30.

McGarry has spent more than a dozen years working in the public sector, for 10 years as a planner for the city of Turlock and then three with Modesto City Schools. The 47-year-old Turlock mother of two is her family's sole bread winner. Her husband stopped working a few years ago to take care of a sick family member and is having trouble restarting his handyman business.

Now, as she starts looking for work, the prospects are daunting.

"It's a pretty tight job market, particularly for people in my field," she said. "So many of the planners I know have been released in the last year or two. Even in the private sector, people who worked for architecture, engineering firms, those were the first to begin cutting jobs two or three years ago."

The couple's two grown children, ages 19 and 22, still live with them as they finish school and training.

Instead of looking for jobs in her field, McGarry said she is re-evaluating her skills and exploring new ways to market her talents.

"I am looking beyond my narrow, highly specialized work for opportunities that are parallel but not the same," she said. "I am not discounting anything. I am going to need to look at my skill set and experience in a different way."

McGarry said while she is looking for other government positions, she realizes hiring across the board has slowed if not halted.

Making the transition

Helping former government workers make that transition into the private sector is part of what Alliance Worknet business service specialist Paula O'Leary has been doing this year. She has worked on the rapid response teams that have spoken with newly laid-off employees from the city of Modesto, offering them resources and training.

"Most of them know that government work is not a real option for most of them right now," O'Leary said. "Cuts are so across the board -- county, city, state, federal. The government jobs are going away. And they know this."

One of the things she tells them is that now is a perfect time to upgrade their skills. Worknet has a free resource center that offers assessment tests, job databanks, career training and more.

Part of that training can mean learning new computer systems. Many government jobs use specialized programs, unlike the corporate world, which largely uses Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook as industry standards.

No one uses those programs

Modesto resident Margie Brogdon has run into that problem while searching for employment. The 52-year-old worked for the Stanislaus County Library for more than a year and before that for the Department of Child Support Services.

"Most of my clerical experience has been with the county," she said. "They had a special computer program for child support. And then the library had its own computer program done specifically for libraries. Nobody else uses those."

Since losing her job in April 2009, Brogdon has taken Quickbooks and Excel classes to qualify for more of the available jobs.

"That is the standard thing you have in clerical positions, but it's totally different in government," she said. "So the computer stuff has really been holding me back."

Brogdon said she has resigned herself to having to find work in the private sector. But for others who still want to make careers of government work, that means casting a wider net. And, in some cases, a 2,400-mile net.

Darcy Campbell and her husband, Ryan Campbell, worked in law enforcement in Tuolumne County, she in probation and he as a sheriff's deputy in the jail. But Ryan's lifelong dream was to be a police officer, working on the streets. With opportunities vanishing in the valley for police academy training and openings, the couple decided to make a drastic move.

He moved to Georgia, where the couple has family, to start police training in January. He has graduated and was working a beat by the end of March. She followed in May.

Born and raised in Modesto, Darcy said the move was major, but necessary.

"I think everybody knows that California is the worst off of the states," she said. "It's odd to know how impacted the valley has been. When I came here they said the unemployment rate is 10 percent. I was like, 'Oh, that's nice, it's double at home.' "

Long move worth it

While the couple took pay cuts to relocate, they said the lower cost of living and opportunity to fulfill their dreams has made it worth the cross-country trek.

But for people such as McGarry, who calls herself a Turlock girl and whose family and children are all here, moving is not an option. She hopes to be able to adapt and grow while keeping her roots.

"I wish I had a crystal ball, I simply don't know my prospects only because I am so new to this process," she said. "But I have realized that I will really need to imagine myself in new and different ways in order to market myself to find employment without having to completely start over."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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