Will Manage for Food

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Pounding the Pavement: Job seeker John McCormick dons a sandwich board in NYC

Frank Ruppen was a jet-setting marketing executive dispatched to Australia, Japan and Venezuela by a string of brand-name employers — until the economy soured, and he was dispatched to the street. The Harvard M.B.A. hit the job market with confidence this spring, but after months of rejection, he decided on what he calls "guerrilla tactics." Ruppen, 45, milled around a midtown Manhattan sidewalk in shirtsleeves, spectacles and a sandwich board with 20 other jobless executives last week. Standing firm amid the lunch-break crush, he shouted, "We want work!"

It has come to this. White-collar workers are joining the jobless ranks in record numbers, tossed aside by the same companies that not long ago lavished them with signing bonuses and free lattes. Although the Labor Department announced last week that overall unemployment fell slightly to 5.6% in September, the number of white-collar workers who are jobless has doubled from two years ago. Professionals, managers and technical and administrative workers now make up 43% of the unemployed, according to the government. "Of course, other workers are hard hit too," says Jeffrey Wenger, an economist at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. "But considering where these people were just a few years ago, yes, it's pretty grim."

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The most alarming thing about this job crunch is that, once squeezed out of the ranks of the employed, many of the jobless can't seem to elbow back in. The number of Americans unemployed for six or more months hit 1.6 million last month, up 93% from a year ago. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created during many months in the '90s, but the job market shrunk by 43,000 jobs in September. Professionals and other elite workers — who tend to be older, better educated and highly trained — find themselves fighting for a shrinking pool of high-paying jobs. And in the wake of 9/11, only 12% of laid-off managers are willing to relocate for jobs, according to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas — the lowest since the company began tracking that figure in 1986. "There's a need for security and comfort now," notes John Challenger, "[but that unwillingness] may contribute to longer unemployment for many." That helps explain why white-collar workers now make up a whopping 48% of those unemployed for 27 or more weeks, up from 39% just a year ago.

Rick Elliott is one of them. Until a year ago, the analyst for an information-technology (IT) consulting firm and his IT manager wife Carol lived large on a household income of $200,000. They felt so secure that they had recently scaled up from a half-million-dollar home to an even more luxurious one in a tony Chicago suburb. A week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Elliott, 41, was laid off with only two weeks of severance. Unbowed, he began his job hunt. "I thought it would take six months at the outside," he says. Seventy-five leads and two interviews later, the Elliotts are in a bind. The couple and their three kids get by on Carol's income, having tapped out their bank account and Rick's 401(k). When the $1,600 monthly unemployment checks ran out in June, Elliott took an $8.80-an-hour job as a meat wrapper at the local supermarket. A few weeks ago, the Elliotts — three months behind on their $3,000 monthly mortgage payments — were served with foreclosure papers on their home. Elliott is pinning his hopes on a new career as a butcher. "It's about survival," he says.

Things may only get worse for a while. Unemployment typically continues to rise for months after an economy has emerged from recession. "I'd expect unemployment to bounce up in coming months," says Bill Cheney, chief economist for John Hancock Financial Services. Even if the economy manages to sustain modest growth, companies will slash costs to make up for weak sales and profits. Industries like technology and finance continue to suffer; in recent weeks, such firms as Fidelity Investments, Goldman Sachs and data-storage company EMC Corp. have announced job cuts numbering in the thousands. Other struggling sectors likely to suffer job cuts include telecommunications and numerous travel-related businesses like airlines and hotels.

Meanwhile, some corporate refugees are starting their own businesses, while others are taking jobs that offer lower pay but greater satisfaction. Dan O'Grady, 31, was let go by Sony Electronics in October 2001. Weeks later, he and his wife Liz, 30, discovered that they were expecting their first child. The former public relations representative grew increasingly worried as he scoured job websites and help-wanted pages but found that "every job I applied for, dozens of better-qualified guys did too." For O'Grady, who grew up in a New York City suburb, the 9/11 attacks stirred deep reflections. "You meet success after success and move up and up, and before you know it, you're stuck in a job you don't love, and your life is over," he says.

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