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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

No Job, but Lots of Work

Educated, skilled and unemployed, Larry Schenone is trying hard to maintain his dignity and his prospects. He is far from alone.

January 17, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

WILDWOOD, Mo. — At first, the rejections were just disappointing. Laid off from his job as an engineering manager, Larry Schenone was confident he'd find work within weeks. His wife pestered him to finish laying the bathroom tiles before a new job took all his time.

These days, the rejections are devastating. Schenone cries when the letters come. His teenage daughter dreads those moments. It frightens her to see her dad defeated. His wife hugs him close, struggling to reassure, telling him he will again find work.

Schenone, 47, is a mechanical engineer with a master's degree in business and more than two decades of stellar performance reviews. He has been out of work a year and two days.

"You get those rejection letters and you want to crawl in a hole and die, literally crawl in a hole and die," Schenone said. "But you know you have to come out. Because you have a family to support. Because you still have a wife. You still have children. You still have dreams."

Schenone and tens of thousands of other professionals who once thought their college degrees earned them a measure of security find themselves financially strained and emotionally frayed this winter as jobs continue to evaporate. Executives who once managed multimillion-dollar budgets need unemployment checks to buy groceries.

The 13 extra weeks of unemployment benefits the federal government extended last week will be the only source of income for many jobless software programmers and business analysts, chemists and controllers. Others exhausted their benefits long ago.

Schenone knows that by any objective standard, he is fortunate. He and his wife, Kay, a preschool aide, own -- at least for now -- a roomy brick house high on a hill in this well-heeled suburb west of St. Louis.

Their three children feel the tension in the home, but they remain loving and loyal. Mia, 9, and Andrew, 10, collapse into giggles when their dad stages his bedtime puppet show. Allison, 14, has tacked a note above his desk, an addendum to a list of job-search commandments: "Thou will always be as great of a dad as thou already are."

The family is in no danger of going homeless or hungry. They have nearly drained the kids' college fund, but they could live for some time off Larry's 401(k). They could sell or rent the house. Schenone could quit looking for engineering work that he'll find satisfying and settle for a job that at least brings in money. A distant relative has offered to set him up in insurance.

Schenone tries often to count these many blessings. But he also feels his many losses.

He can't take his kids to dinner at Red Lobster. He didn't buy a Christmas present for his wife.

He has to find a sense of accomplishment in fixing an iron, instead of designing a front-wheel-drive loader.

He once supervised a dozen engineers. Now he nags Mia to hunt for her sneakers so he can get her to basketball practice on time.

Not Alone

Schenone sat the other day at a weekly meeting of a support group for jobless professionals. Nearly two dozen new members stood up at the microphone to introduce themselves: I'm Tom, and I've been out of work since September after 21 years as an information technology director. My name is Brian and I was a chief financial officer. My name is Maryann and I was let go after 25 years in human resources.

"You're in good company," Chuck Maender, an out-of-work corporate president, told them.

About 260,000 Americans with college degrees have been out of work more than six months. From telecommunications to financial services to computer technology, the growth industries of the 1990s are all bleeding jobs. In the last two years, the number of blue-collar workers without jobs has increased by 33%. The number of unemployed professionals has jumped 83%.

Educated professionals as a group are still much better off than laborers. After rising each of the last two years, the unemployment rate for workers with college degrees now stands at 3%. Laborers, in contrast, face a jobless rate of close to 9%.

Once they are laid off, however, workers with advanced educations find it much harder to get back on track, in part because so many middle-management jobs have vanished in round upon round of downsizing. Professionals remain unemployed a month longer than laborers, on average. About 32% are out of work at least six months, compared with 24% of laborers.

Schenone still cannot quite believe he has nowhere to go on a Monday morning but a support group in a church gymnasium, where 120 men and women in power suits swap tips for ordering free business cards from the Internet.

"I thought I was successful," he said.

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