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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

In the Real World, Statistics Often Lie

September 12, 1997|SANDY BANKS

The economy is booming, with "full employment" just around the corner. For the first time in years, business leaders say, there are more jobs than people to fill them. Employee salaries are on the rise, and companies once mired in layoffs are scrambling to hire new workers.

Even California's laggard economy is finally on the comeback trail, with unemployment dipping to a seven-year low this summer and more than 400,000 jobs being created this year.

Folks stuck in dead-end jobs are dreaming of big money again. Those sent to the sidelines when jobs disappeared are warming up to get back in the game.

But it's a different game these days, played on a field altered by the explosive growth of technology, an explosion that has catapulted some to success, but threatens to leave the landscape littered with the hopes and dreams of others.

*

It was billed as "Job Explosion '97--the Largest Career Fair in Southern California," pumped up by promotion that encouraged job seekers to "bring lots of resumes and dress to impress!" It drew more than 4,000 to the Los Angeles Convention Center this week, buoyed by the notion that the rising economic tide can lift even the most rickety boats.

They were Southern California in all its quirky diversity. Women with nails so long they could hardly grip a pen to fill out job applications. Young men with earrings and ponytails, lugging laptop computers and cellular phones. Suntanned young women wearing Versace knockoffs and perfect smiles. A woman in T-shirt and shorts, pushing a baby stroller while handing out resumes; another wearing sequins and stiletto heels, clutching a wad of hot pink business cards.

I filled out the registration form and was handed a bright yellow plastic bag with the Job Explosion logo, then joined throngs of job seekers to wander through an exhibition that seemed part trade show and part county fair.

Almost every booth had something to give away--candy, ink pens, breath mints, bookmarks. For $5 you could enter the drawing for multimedia computers; guessing the right number of jelly beans in a jar could win you a fishbowl of dollar bills.

"They're giving away a lot of stuff," I heard one woman whisper to her companion as they stood in line, waiting to meet an insurance company recruiter. "Yeah, everything except good paying jobs," her friend shot back.

*

It's the gray lining of the silver cloud: The reality that the jobs being created are of two basic types--high-tech, high pay; low skill, low pay.

"There's an economic boom, but it's generally uneven in the occupational sense," admits professor Dan Mitchell, who teaches at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and its School of Public Policy.

"At one end, you've got your fast-growing, glamorous, high-tech kind of things. And then you've got your janitors, sales clerks, cashiers--jobs that are hard to automate and can't be competed out of existence or farmed out to Hong Kong."

And in the middle--being pushed outward to one of those extremes--are people like Barbara, who had worked her way up from teller to branch manager when her bank merged with a competitor and shut her office last year. At 36, she joined the unemployed--ranks swelled by mergers and downsizing, outsourcing and restructuring. She has worked only sporadically since then, as a part-time teller--the same job she held in college 15 years before.

She scanned the list of job openings at the booth of a Torrance computer firm--"Mac / PC Account Exec. Web Content Developer. Marketing Analyst."--before handing her resume to a young recruiter who added it to the pile he already had. They talked, he nodded earnestly and glanced more than once at his watch. He was probably in kindergarten when she got her first job, I thought.

He scribbled on the back of her resume and put it aside, promising to call soon. He was already reaching out to shake hands with the young woman in line behind her.

It's a longshot, she knows; she doesn't know a megabyte from a Gigapet. "But my son," she says, "has promised to teach me the Internet."

*

I watched that scene play out--different characters, different companies--again and again. It was an odd sort of disconnect between the cheery economic forecasts and the real lives of displaced workers, struggling to find their way to the new high-tech frontier.

Just registering for the job fair meant confronting the realities of a world that seems to have gotten too busy, too clever to waste time waiting. There were places on the form for name and phone number, then cellular phone, pager number, message center, e-mail address. . . .

But what place is there for the 49-year-old insurance man who spent 19 years building a successful brokerage with only a calculator, phone and answering machine?

He turns to me as we stand in the line for GTE--for a job selling phone book ads. "You ever been to one of these before?" he asks.

This is his first time at a job fair, and he seems bewildered by it all--ashamed to find himself in this place, at this point in his life, with so little to offer.

I don't have the heart to tell him I'm here for research, not a job. My bright yellow bag has marked me as a soul mate, another one of the dispossessed, someone to whom he can confess.

"I thought there would be more choices," he says. "And more people like me." He eyes the youngsters crowding around the high-tech firms and lining up for a chance to sell life insurance.

"If you get this job," he tells me, "stay with it. Don't try to change careers when you're 49."

I nod, and wonder if it's too late to join that computer training class at work. And I hope I remember how to check my e-mail.

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