Even the lucky ones are not so lucky, it seems.
A new study of American workers displaced by the recession sheds light on the sacrifices a large number have made to find work. Many, it turns out, had to switch careers and significantly reduce their living standards.
“In many cases, these people are not very happy,” said Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University and one of the authors of the study. “They’re the winners who got new jobs, but they’re not really what they want, and not where they want to be.”
The study, conducted by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, was based on a survey of Americans around the country who were unemployed as of August 2009 and re-interviewed about their job status twice over the next 15 months.
As of November 2010, only about one-third had found replacement jobs, either as full-time workers (26 percent) or as part-time workers not wanting a full-time job (8 percent).
And of those who successfully found work, 41 percent had switched into a new career or field.
Some of these may have been workers who retrained for new fields they wished to enter, but many seem to have taken their new jobs out of desperation. Only a minority of those displaced workers changing careers — 22 percent — said they had taken a class or a training course before finding their new job.
“Look, I am really happy to have a job — that’s the main thing,” said Sue Bires, 60, who was laid off from a job managing homeowners’ associations in Orlando, Fla., in September 2008. She initially had another job lined up with a different realty association in Orlando, but when that fell through, she moved to Austin, Tex., to stay with a friend. She filed for bankruptcy and took a job at a call center.
But she now earns $30,000, far below the $45,000 she was paid when she was managing properties.
“It’s competitive out there, even for the lower paying jobs, especially when you’re 60 looking for a job in a young town,” Ms. Bires said. “So I’m grateful to have a job where the people are nice and I have a little bit of flexibility in my hours. That’s especially important now, since retirement is looking like a long way off.”
Like Ms. Bires, most of those forced to switch careers generally seemed to downgrade their job status.
Nearly 7 in 10 of the survey’s respondents who took jobs in new fields say they had to take a cut in pay, compared with just 45 percent of workers who successfully found work in their original field.
Of all the newly re-employed tracked by the Heldrich Center, 29 percent took a reduction in fringe benefits in their new job. Again, those switching careers had to sacrifice more: Nearly half of these workers (46 percent) suffered a benefits cut, compared with just 29 percent who stayed in the same career.
Many of those who found work in a different field say they have come to terms with the limited opportunities, but they are reluctant to see their new job as a calling.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve switched careers, since I’m not exactly sure this is a career, but I’m definitely doing something different,” said Adam Kowal, 30, of Royal Oak, Mich.
After being laid off from a job as a quality control supervisor at a department store warehouse and losing his house, he moved his family across the state to live with his mother. Unable to find similar work, he initially took a “soul-sucking” temporary job on an assembly line making auto parts, and is now working in a kitchen at a high school.
His hourly wage has fallen from $15 an hour at the warehouse to $10.50 an hour washing dishes and preparing food, and he has gone from having health insurance coverage for his whole family to no benefits. He, his pregnant wife and their 4-year-old son are now on Medicaid.
“I’d love to go back to what I was doing,” he said, or even into what he described as his true passion, full-time screenwriting. “But when I talk with the unemployment office here in Michigan, they tell me the chances of going back and using the same skill set I had before are pretty farfetched.”