The bar area of Mélange Underground Bistro is dark, crowded, and buzzing. But only a few of the well-dressed people here are sipping drinks. The rest are waiting, nervously or confidently, for the opportunity to pitch their talents to a recruiter.
There are seven or eight recruiting stations. The applicants clustered around them are all ages and occupations-techies, scientists, executives, and accountants. Most, however, share a common experience: they were laid off-“downsized,” “let go”-when their last employers ran into trouble and had to cut staff.
Unemployment in Washtenaw County rose to 7.3 percent in January, up almost 50 percent from a year earlier. Things are worse in the rest of the state: Michigan’s January jobless rate was 11.6 percent, and more than half a million Michiganians are unemployed. Many who live in the Detroit area are now seeking jobs in Ann Arbor, increasing the competition for the few positions that are open.
This job fair is sponsored by SPARK, a local economic development organization. And some of the people looking for work here have been laid off repeatedly.
In his dark-blue suit and neatly trimmed goatee, Paul Bianchi looks like he might be here looking to hire employees. In fact, he’s job hunting-as he has been since May, when he was laid off from a job as a software development manager. The layoff was his second in two years. “It’s almost like being kicked in the stomach twice,” he says.
Brutal as they are, multiple layoffs are becoming common. Nationwide, one in four unemployed workers has been out of work two or more times in a year-which translates to approximately 2,300 people in the Ann Arbor area last year.
The recession is the main cause, but other forces are at work as well. David Gruner, a veteran career and leadership coach and principal of Career Directions, mentions two things that can lead to repeated layoffs: the “luck factor” and the “last in, first out” rule.
Also, after losing a job, a worker may accept a temporary position, take a chance on a shaky company, or stretch his or her talents by taking on an unfamiliar position. That’s how “Suzanne Smith” wound up in an executive job with a Detroit advertising agency two years ago. “Smith” asked that her real name not be used. because she doesn’t want everyone to know she is unemployed.
“In Ann Arbor, you tell people you’ve been laid off for awhile, they kind of look at you different,” she says-even if, as in her case, you have an MBA from a prestigious university.
Smith is one of the hundreds of thousands of people downsized from the shrinking auto industry: she took a buyout from General Motors in 2005. She worked awhile for a smaller firm out of state before landing the advertising job, where she was expected to find new clients. After ten months, when the money and clients weren’t coming, she was out the door again. Since 2007, she’s had a “summer job” training auto dealers and, last holiday season, worked on a discount chain’s overnight shift, stocking shelves. “You have to suck it up sometimes,” she says. The late shift had at least one advantage: she was less likely to run into someone she knew.
She’s applied to the University of Michigan many times, to Washtenaw County, and for several state jobs. But now, they, too, are laying people off. She’s even visited family in Nevada for a few weeks to job hunt. Some jobs she applies for even though “my heart wouldn’t be in it.” Others she longs to have.
If anything good comes out of all this, it’s that repeated unemployment has made her more resilient. “I know how to manage it emotionally,” she says. She’s avoiding the “twenty-pound trap-the last time I gained around twenty pounds.” She sometimes still wears her red GM jacket.
“I have hope,” she says. “I don’t know why I have hope, but I do.”
All across the area, unemployed individuals are showing up at career workshops, job fairs, and seminars. They’re seeking work-but also new tools for finding work, and moral support. Gruner, a career coach since 1979, says he sees “a fear mentality now. . . . It can be a contagious thing. They solidify in the belief [that] this is how things are, and they can lose energy and focus” needed to get on a new path. “It’s hard to hold that confidence,” he says, when you’ve been out of work repeatedly.
At the SPARK job event, each job seeker answers with a resounding “No!” when asked if it gets easier to be laid off the second or third time.
“No, the situation is much more dire in the job market than back then,” says Colleen Knipple, of Howell, an outgoing woman who worked as an IT support manager. “There were so many more opportunities three years ago”-when she was laid off by an auto manufacturer. She landed a job with an advertising company, only to be caught in a large layoff in January.
In the darkness of Mélange, Glen Erdman waits patiently to see a recruiter for a small tech company. He’s lost three sales and marketing jobs in three years. The first was selling supplemental health insurance to seniors, the next working for a tool manufacturer that was downsizing. The last layoff was five months ago, from an insurance marketing job. “I really didn’t see it coming,” he says. “My employer told me I didn’t have any passion,” he adds indignantly. “The only way I lack passion is if I’m dead!”
Erdman lives in Plymouth but often comes to Ann Arbor for networking or job events. He’s learned to talk about employment and job opportunities anywhere, from the laundry to the church in Farmington Hills where he attended a two-day resume and job-search seminar.
He has four resumes-“one for any situation”-and believes his religious faith and positive attitude will see him through. “I pray a lot. I read God’s word,” he says. And he goes to a job-hunters group every week at a Plymouth church. He doesn’t read newspapers or pay much attention to the news because “it’s all negative.”
Though he’s single, sometimes when he gets lonely, he pretends that he’s married. His imaginary wife asks him about his job hunt. And then she says something like, “You better do it soon, or we’re going to eat nothing but rice and beans for the next year.”
The toughest weeks, Erdman says, are the ones when he doesn’t hear back from any place he’s applied. That’s when he turns to a circle of close friends for support.
Paul Bianchi, too, finds it frustrating when he sends in resumes and “then you never hear from them. . . . They’ve forgotten the human part of human resources.”
Bianchi, the IT project manager, finds solace in the theater. He acts in plays with the Ann Arbor Civic Theater and another troupe and ushers at the Ark and the University Musical Society-“a way to get my entertainment fix with a small budget,” he says. “My network of theater friends are pretty supportive.”
Formerly a management consultant for Ernst & Young, he’s now considering temp jobs or even moving into another field. “So how do you sell yourself, going another route?” he muses aloud. He depends on some financial help from his parents and has been siphoning off his savings for months. For now, unemployment compensation is paying for his mortgage and a few other expenses.
Smith feels grateful her home is paid off and her son has graduated from college. Yet sometimes her mother, who moved to Michigan to be near her, rails at her for spending a few dollars on two girls she mentors.
Some people who are stuck need to determine whether their careers are viable long term, says Nick Syncho, who runs a career transitions and counseling firm in Ann Arbor. They also need to determine their “core competencies” and what matters most to them about work-“what do I want to do now that I’m grown up,” as he puts it. Some need to relocate, and he suggests they pick a place that is “an epicenter for their field.”
But most of those interviewed for this article want to stay in the area, even if it means waiting longer for a job. And hard as that is, it does happen: though Smith, Bianchi, and Erdman are still looking for full-time jobs, some repeatedly laid-off workers are now getting paychecks again.
Madeleine Borthwick, who’s in her mid-fifties, spent almost a year looking for a job. She was fired from Republic Parking, she says, after a coworker wrongly accused her of using profanity, and then lost a job at a fast-food restaurant. During her long jobless spell, she did volunteer work-and was grateful that her husband still had his job. “He has been so supportive, my rock,” she says.
After sending out resumes and making calls almost every day, wondering if her age was holding her back, she landed a new job. She works for U-Haul in customer service and proudly wears her khaki uniform around town. Now she helps others handle their moves-as they relocate for family, for work, or to less expensive digs after their first, or second, or third pink slips.