Looking for work — any work

Posted 1/29/09

Last summer, Andi Melick was making $36,000 a year working for an event-management company in Louisville, and the 25-year-old Cherry Creek High …

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Looking for work — any work


Last summer, Andi Melick was making $36,000 a year working for an event-management company in Louisville, and the 25-year-old Cherry Creek High School graduate was excited by the opportunity.

“I helped manage programs that went all over the world,” she said. “I went to Argentina and Uruguay a few times. It was a phenomenal experience.”

Then in the face of a financial slowdown, Melick’s employer began cutting corners — and she was one of them. The event planner was laid off on Sept. 11, 2008.

“At first, there was that initial excitement of, OK, I get to start a new job and find something new,” she said. “I wasn’t terribly panicked about it. And then everything started going downhill.”

The economy, that is — not to mention home prices, the stock market and the number of businesses seeking workers in the Denver metro area.

Unable to land another full-time position or make the monthly payments to maintain her group health insurance coverage, the Fort Lewis College graduate put off plans to move out of her parents’ Centennial home. Then she began the humbling experience of competing for jobs she would not have even considered six months earlier.

“Fortunately, I’m not in a position where I have a mortgage, thank goodness,” she said. “So of all times to get laid off, this was it.”

Melick is one of thousands of Coloradans who have lost their jobs in recent months as businesses continue to feel the pinch of a national recession, the credit and housing crises and an unstable Wall Street.

The national unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in November and Colorado is catching up at 5.8 percent, according to the latest figures available from the state Department of Labor and Employment.

The slowdown comes despite a diverse state economy that includes a burgeoning alternative energy industry. About 8,900 Coloradans lost their jobs in November. More than 533,000 jobs were cut nationwide during the same month.

November marked the third straight monthly decline in Colorado jobs and continued the state’s longest period of job losses since early 2003.

According to the labor department, state residents filed about 25,000 new unemployment claims in December, topping the previous record of about 21,000 set in October 2001.

The less-then-favorable job climate has upped the competition for the employment opportunities that remain. Unable to find full-time work in her field, Melick is eking out a part-time living as an administrative temp while continuing to network and send out resumes.

“I didn’t see a career for myself in reception and administrative work, so that’s very hard” Melick said of her daily routine. “You go through college thinking I’m getting a college degree, therefore, I’m going to find work. And that’s not necessarily the case.”

Many economic observers expect the health of the job market to get worse before it gets better. A forecast released in December by the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business says the state will lose jobs again this year. It would be only the seventh time the state has seen a net annual job loss since such records were established in 1939.

The C.U. forecast predicts Colorado’s unemployment rate will rise to 6.5 percent in 2009 — the state will see more than 11,000 job losses in the construction industry alone.

Taking lemons and making lemonade

Although the job market may ebb and flow in the coming months and years, a Colorado employment consultant says job seekers should not pine for the good old days of long-term job security, but should instead proactively seize new opportunities in today’s changing climate.

According to Karen Armon, the Golden-based author of the new book “Market Your Potential, Not Your Past,” job seekers and those settling for temporary jobs should get used to new realities.

“The idea of an employee working for a big company is a World War II construct. It’s an anomaly that we never had before in human history,” she said. “If I’m going to be a sales rep, I need to start handling the ambiguity of working for companies for a short period of time and moving on.”

Other observers think many workers will need new training to meet the challenges of new employment sectors. For example, as part of a plan to resuscitate the economy, President Obama has promised to “create millions of jobs” in the largest public works construction program since the launch of the interstate highway system.

According to Kim Long, a Denver-based trend watcher and the author of “The American Forecaster Almanac,” today’s underemployed workers are woefully unprepared to contribute to such a wide-reaching program.

“We don’t have anybody left that has experience with that kind of thing,” he said. “Our elderly parents or grandparents would have been the last generation to have seen it during the 1930s. One of the myths of the Great Depression is that these programs put the country back to work. They put a small number of people to work. This whole thing is fascinating. I don’t know that you can prepare for it.”

Unemployed for the holidays

The holiday season is never a very good time to look for work, but that is especially true when toys, appliances and other potential gifts are gathering dust on retailers’ shelves or are unloaded in pre-Christmas sales.

Such was the unfortunate reality learned by Englewood resident Eleanor Womack in late November when the unemployed sales professional donned her power suit and strolled into the Cherry Creek Shopping Center determined to come home with a retail sales job.

“I knew I was going to get some job that day,” she said. “I went into about 15 different stores, but everyone I talked to basically responded with ‘We’re not hiring now.’”

Retail sales had not been Womack’s first choice, but any port in a storm, she figured. Her sales background had included stints in the insurance and business development industries. She had lost her sales job with a Denver staffing firm in early October and was confident that she could sell clothing and bedware as easily as anything else.

After about four hours of fruitlessly walking the mall, Womack was finally offered a job — a sales position of sorts. She was to greet children and their families as they lined up to meet Santa Claus. Womack would outline the various photo packages being offered and sometimes perform such tasks as coaching kids onto St. Nick’s lap.

She would be a Santa’s helper.

“I’m an elf,” Womack wrote that evening in a text message to a friend.

The $8.75 hourly wage that the longtime saleswoman would earn for the three-week stint was a far cry from the $60,000 annual salary she had received in the staffing industry. But the single mother of a 12-year-old son says she knew this was no time for her ego to get in the way of making a living — any living — during economically challenging times.

“I guess my first reaction was I can’t believe I’m doing this, but at the same time, I needed a job,” she said. “I could be cleaning sewers. It was a humbling experience.”

According to Armon, Womack’s story has become an increasingly common one during this economic downturn as more qualified candidates compete for a limited number of positions and oftentimes settle for temporary low-paying jobs.

“I really feel for this story,” the employment coach said. “It’s OK to get a stop-gap job. We have to go back to the 1980s playbook to handle this kind of economy. There’s nothing wrong with stepping back and taking care of yourself.”

Even author Long has had to move beyond his longtime role as a professional trend watcher to make a living. The writer has cut his losses by accepting what he considers uninteresting freelance writing opportunities.

“For the first time in 30 years, the bottom fell out of the book industry,” he said. “I’m doing projects that I didn’t want anything to do with before. I’m not turning anything down.”

What’s next?

With the holiday season over, Womack is back to the daily grind of seeking a full-time sales position. Selling herself during an economically lean period has been among the most difficult sales she has tried to make.

“The lack of opportunities and the lack of callbacks have been frustrating,” she said. “When you apply for a job, you’re competing with several hundred other people. I send out between 25 and 30 resumes a week and haven’t gotten callbacks.”

According to Armon, instead of getting frustrated, job seekers in this climate need to redouble their efforts and play a consistent offense by building a strong network, engaging in a diverse outreach and thinking out of the box at every step of their job search.

“We’ve got to get tougher about it,” she said. “We can’t simply post to a job online and hope that it’s going to come through. Opportunities come through people, not job postings. You need to be prepared for what’s happening and create a value proposition, rather than just say, ‘Here I am. Hire me.’”

As unemployment grows in Colorado, so will the population of job seekers trying to pull from an ever shrinking well of job opportunities. The demand for unemployment benefits could even result in the drying up of the state’s unemployment benefits, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.

While there is no fun in long-term unemployment, by Long’s reasoning there may be an ever-so-slight silver lining for the job seekers who are suffering through this economic downturn — simply because the struggle has become so widespread.

“The biggest problem people will have, as long as you’re not having a direct physical issue with starvation, is how do you fit in? What about your peers? What are other people doing?” he said. “I think the benefit of the depth and breadth of this [recession] is that people aren’t going to be feeling singled out.”


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