Ralph Dever sat in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Long Beach, a stack of job applications in front of him. A year ago, he said, he never thought he would find himself in this position.
Back then, the 54-year-old equipment operator from Whittier had just been hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach. It had taken him months to find that job after being laid off when Todd Shipyards closed in San Pedro in late 1989. Dever's new job paid less than the $13.50 an hour he had made at Todd. But heck, he thought, it took him 20 years at Todd to make that pay. Besides, at least he was working.
Then after five months at Douglas, less time than it took him to find the job, Dever was laid off last July. "I thought I was getting it back together when I went to Douglas," he remembered. "I thought it was all systems go."
Now, in the shadow of Douglas' plant in Long Beach, Dever was at a job fair co-sponsored by the company. And his determination to find work didn't hide his discouragement at having to do so.
Since July, he has been concentrating on the basics: Finding a job. Staying afloat. Holding onto hope that the near future will be brighter than the recent past.
So far, he said, he and his wife are getting by. They still have the house, his pickup and Carolyn's Chevrolet. She is working again, this time as a switchboard operator.
Still, they are struggling. "We've been falling behind a little every day," he said.
"If I could just find something," Dever said, getting back to the job applications. "I know I'll be starting out at less than what I made at Douglas. I'm just hoping to get a foot in the door."
So were many others.
Earlier this week, about 1,100 former Douglas workers converged at the Long Beach hotel for a job fair sponsored by Douglas, the state's Employment Development Department and the private industry councils of Long Beach, Torrance, Carson and Lomita. The event, Monday and Tuesday, was the third since last May, when 5,000 workers were let go in the first round of layoffs by Douglas.
From entry-level clerks to management personnel, the former Douglas workers filed past brightly colored booths that crowded the hotel's Grand Ballroom. Filling out applications, passing out resumes, questioning potential employers about openings, the former Douglas employees faced the hard reality of unemployment with resignation and sometimes humor.
"Some timing, huh?" quipped Don Kasner, a manufacturing engineer who folded his consulting company to join Douglas, only to be laid off last September after just a year on the job.
"It was just one of those things. It comes down to a head count, and I'd been there less time than the others," Kasner said.
Though confident of finding new employment, the 49-year-old resident of Mission Viejo acknowledged concern over searching for a job during the current economic recession. "Times are tough right now, and that bothers me more than anything else," Kasner said.
Others, including many who have previously been victims of the fits and starts of the aerospace industry, voiced similar concerns over finding employment soon.
"I'm having a very hard time getting a job. The places I'm looking at are either laying off or barely hanging on," said Mary Davis, 61, of Stanton. Davis, a data management supervisor, joined Douglas four years ago after being laid off at Rockwell International, where she had worked 23 years. Her job at Douglas ended last June.
Now, she said, she has found other aerospace companies, even out-of-state employers, with few, if any, openings. And other industries and employment agencies, she said, have either told her that she is overqualified for certain positions or that they do not have anything available.
"It's tough right now," acknowledged Terry Haberman of General Dynamics Corp., one of 54 employers represented at the job fair.
Though the corporation's San Diego facility was recruiting for senior engineers and manufacturing supervisors, that was all its recruiters were looking for. "If you talk to any of the companies here, you will find that they are downsizing operations at the same time they are hiring in some positions. Everyone's adjusting their work force to stay competitive," Haberman said.
As a result, recruiters such as Haberman had no choice but to tell many at the job fair that their skills were not needed. Not now, anyway.
The reaction of job seekers was predictable. "I've seen people more nervous, under more stress than in the past," Haberman said. "They seem to be saying, 'Why is this happening to me?' "
Mindful of the disappointment, even trauma, faced by displaced employees, recruiters and Douglas' event organizers took special care to talk plainly but sensitively to those attending the job fair.
"You have to understand what these people are going through. You have to be sensitive to that," Haberman said after politely telling one job applicant that he should save his resume for another company.