Cara Alcantar, a former customer service worker at WorldCom, thought she'd have her job until retirement.
"This was a company we thought we would probably be in forever," she says now of her four-year stint at the company. "They told us how lucky we were to be there and to work there. And we were."
Then Alcantar was laid off in early July. She is now working as a special projects coordinator for labor union AFL-CIO, a job that grew out of her activism last summer on behalf of WorldCom workers who were let go from the company. She picked up and moved from her home town of Phoenix to the Washington, D.C., area to take the job.
Alcantar is one of the lucky ones — she's doing something she enjoys, and making more money. But others out of work are faced with either staying in the same industry for less money, or changing fields altogether.
Ben Barile, a 43-year-old Poughkeepsie, N.Y., resident, worked with WorldCom for almost 14 years as a software developer. Since he was let go at the end of June, Barile has had an uphill battle finding comparable work. Some of the job openings he's seen in his field are paying $7 an hour — a far cry from the $30 he was making at WorldCom.
"You're better off staying on unemployment," he says. "It's not much, but it's better than $7 an hour."
Now Barile says he is considering going back to school in January to study something else, or opening up his own consulting business from home.
It's been a tough year for workers in a many industries that have been devastated by the recession, especially those who love their chosen field. The dismal hiring situation has forced many former employees to either look for a comparable job in other industries, or change their career path altogether.
Hot Jobs Are Out There
Sectors that have been hardest hit include technology, telecommunications, travel and manufacturing.
Aircraft parts manufacturing, for example, has shed 62,000 workers, or 13.5 percent of its total workforce, in the year ended October, according to the latest Labor Department figures. The transportation and public utilities sector has lost 248,000 jobs, with 112,000 jobs coming from the communications sector alone. Manufacturing has dropped 700,000 jobs in the past year.
Since the beginning of the recession, and most markedly since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of job seekers changing industries has been on the rise, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Around 46 percent of job seekers tracked by the firm changed industries in the third quarter this year, compared to 40.72 percent in the same quarter last year.
"People are shifting out of the areas of the economy that aren't doing very well and into stronger areas like health care and defense and security, government, education, residential construction," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
State, local and federal government entities have gained 252,000 workers in the year ending in October. Mortgage banking has gained 57,000 workers — a jump of almost 17 percent during the same period. And health services have added 271,000 workers.
Temporary Blip or Permanent Shift?
Whether or not this shift is a permanent alteration in the face of the U.S. economy or just a temporary blip as the recession forces companies to cut costs temporarily remains to be seen, but economists say such worker dislocations are often temporary.
While industries like manufacturing, which have lost U.S.-based jobs to cheaper employment overseas, are unlikely to return, other areas like technology (despite its current depressed state) are expected to continue to be a driver of economic growth, say economists.
"I'm not convinced at all that in the longer run those industries still don't have an awful lot to grow," says David Neumark a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-profit San Francisco-based research organization.
"We often tend to lose sight of the fact that these things are temporary. Every recession is characterized by particular industries being harder hit than others," he says.
Others note that at 5.7 percent, the current unemployment rate is not nearly as bad as in recessions past. In the last recession in the early '90s, the unemployment rate got as high as 7.8 percent.
"There's no question that there are some folks who are in dire straits, because they're out of work and they're out of work in their field," says Ken Goldstein, economist for The Conference Board, a non-profit economic research group based in New York. "But where we are at the moment is not as bad as some of the stuff we've seen in our lifetime."
Work the Network
Still, for those people looking for work, these are frustrating times. Stories of hundreds of applicants for one job opening have become commonplace in the folklore of the unemployed.
Job search experts say instead of looking for exactly the same job they had before, job seekers should look for what skills they used in their former jobs that can be used in another industry.
"People should think of themselves as open to changing industries but not changing fields," says Challenger. For example, sales, purchasing, customer service and marketing are the types of jobs that can be used in a variety of different companies.
"Most people work in fields and they build their skills in areas that every company needs," says Challenger.
And perhaps the most important piece of advice for job searchers is to network, says Joe Loughran, cofounder of yournextcareer.net, a career counseling firm based in McLean, Va. Loughran says telling everyone you know that you're looking for a job is key to finding something else.
"The connections you make in your life are going to pay off very richly in an environment like this," says Loughran.