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No Job, but Lots of Work

Educated, skilled and unemployed, Larry Schenone is trying hard to maintain his dignity and his prospects. He is far from alone.
By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, January 17 2003

Larry Schenone and family WILDWOOD, Mo. -- At first, the rejections were just disappointing. Laid off from his job as an engineering manager, Larry Schenone was confident he'd find work within weeks. His wife pestered him to finish laying the bathroom tiles before a new job took all his time.

These days, the rejections are devastating. Schenone cries when the letters come. His teenage daughter dreads those moments. It frightens her to see her dad defeated. His wife hugs him close, struggling to reassure, telling him he will again find work.

Schenone, 47, is a mechanical engineer with a master's degree in business and more than two decades of stellar performance reviews. He has been out of work a year and two days.

"You get those rejection letters and you want to crawl in a hole and die, literally crawl in a hole and die," Schenone said. "But you know you have to come out. Because you have a family to support. Because you still have a wife. You still have children. You still have dreams."

Schenone and tens of thousands of other professionals who once thought their college degrees earned them a measure of security find themselves financially strained and emotionally frayed this winter as jobs continue to evaporate. Executives who once managed multimillion-dollar budgets need unemployment checks to buy groceries.

The 13 extra weeks of unemployment benefits the federal government extended last week will be the only source of income for many jobless software programmers and business analysts, chemists and controllers. Others exhausted their benefits long ago.

Schenone knows that by any objective standard, he is fortunate. He and his wife, Kay, a preschool aide, own at least for now a roomy brick house high on a hill in this well-heeled suburb west of St. Louis.

Their three children feel the tension in the home, but they remain loving and loyal. Mia, 9, and Andrew, 10, collapse into giggles when their dad stages his bedtime puppet show. Allison, 14, has tacked a note above his desk, an addendum to a list of job-search commandments: "Thou will always be as great of a dad as thou already are."

The family is in no danger of going homeless or hungry. They have nearly drained the kids' college fund, but they could live for some time off Larry's 401(k). They could sell or rent the house. Schenone could quit looking for engineering work that he'll find satisfying and settle for a job that at least brings in money. A distant relative has offered to set him up in insurance.

Schenone tries often to count these many blessings. But he also feels his many losses.

He can't take his kids to dinner at Red Lobster. He didn't buy a Christmas present for his wife.

He has to find a sense of accomplishment in fixing an iron, instead of designing a front-wheel-drive loader.

He once supervised a dozen engineers. Now he nags Mia to hunt for her sneakers so he can get her to basketball practice on time.

Not Alone

Schenone sat the other day at a weekly meeting of a support group for jobless professionals. Nearly two dozen new members stood up at the microphone to introduce themselves: I'm Tom, and I've been out of work since September after 21 years as an information technology director. My name is Brian and I was a chief financial officer. My name is Maryann and I was let go after 25 years in human resources.

"You're in good company," Chuck Maender, an out-of-work corporate president, told them.

About 260,000 Americans with college degrees have been out of work more than six months. From telecommunications to financial services to computer technology, the growth industries of the 1990s are all bleeding jobs. In the last two years, the number of blue-collar workers without jobs has increased by 33%. The number of unemployed professionals has jumped 83%.

Educated professionals as a group are still much better off than laborers. After rising each of the last two years, the unemployment rate for workers with college degrees now stands at 3%. Laborers, in contrast, face a jobless rate of close to 9%.

Once they are laid off, however, workers with advanced educations find it much harder to get back on track, in part because so many middle-management jobs have vanished in round upon round of downsizing. Professionals remain unemployed a month longer than laborers, on average. About 32% are out of work at least six months, compared with 24% of laborers.

Schenone still cannot quite believe he has nowhere to go on a Monday morning but a support group in a church gymnasium, where 120 men and women in power suits swap tips for ordering free business cards from the Internet.

"I thought I was successful," he said.

A year ago, Schenone was pulling in an annual salary of about $100,000 as an engineering manager for Systems & Electronics Inc., a military contractor based in St. Louis. He supervised a team responsible for reducing production costs and improving the reliability of a huge aircraft cargo loader. But the firm lost several key contracts last year and laid off dozens of employees. Schenone was given just a few hours' notice to pack up his office on that Jan. 15.

Since then, the only money he's earned was selling hardware at Sears for less than $5 an hour, plus 2% commission a part-time job for the Christmas season.

He has applied for every mechanical engineering job that would suit his skills in factories and offices, working to make a production line more efficient or to design a new industrial product. He has applied for supervisory posts and for midlevel positions he left behind a decade ago. He's willing to take a pay cut of up to 40% for a job in St. Louis. He'll move out of state if he must.

He has been close to a new job several times, making it through several rounds of interviews. With each rejection, he grows more despondent. He opens the letter or e-mail, takes the call, and knows he will break down. He gives himself a few hours to grieve.

"Then," he said, "you pick yourself up and do what you have to do next."

Always Driven

Earnest and deliberate, with thinning brown hair and blue eyes that these days look exhausted, Schenone has been driven since he was a boy working alongside his parents as they dipped chocolates for a friend's candy store.

He reads engineering textbooks to relax. When he had money for tuition, he studied Italian at a community college for fun. He has volunteered so many hours teaching high school students about business that he earned a spot in the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame. He is used to waking up at 5 a.m. to be among the first at work.

Now, he has no reason to set his alarm clock.

He stays up late to watch Jay Leno because he might as well.

"I hate the feeling," he said.

His family shops at the cheapest discount grocery in town — the one that Allison's teacher used the other day in an economics lesson as an example of a low-end store. They get surplus meat free from a relative who's a butcher. They have cut out all the frills: Cable TV. Christmas card mailings. New clothes. Kay's membership at the gym. The kids know not to ask their mom to take them to Taco Bell for after-school snacks. "We have to get rid of the gimmes," Andrew explained.

Still, Schenone lies awake at night, calculating how many months he can hang on until he risks losing the house.

He still has two weeks of unemployment benefits because he did not apply for them immediately. He'll seek the three-month federal extension signed last week by President Bush. But the benefits are just $250 a week. Kay, 38, takes home at most $100 a week. With the mortgage, health insurance, utilities and food, expenses are running about $900 a week.

Schenone talks to God a lot these days. He asks: What am I doing wrong? He reads his resume, three pages detailing success after success, and he wonders: Did I really do all that? After so many rejections, he has begun to doubt his skills. He wonders whether he'll ever have the chance to prove himself again.

His wife reassures him, often, that he will. "I tell him whatever company gets him will be thrilled. I try never to make him feel that it's his fault he has been out this long," Kay said. But she admits her confidence sometimes falters.

She can't go out to lunch with her friends. She and Larry can't entertain. She feels as though her real life is on hold — and she has no idea when, or if, it will restart.

Kay finds herself running through a mental list of all the jobless engineers they know and how long it took them to find work. "I think Larry's been out the longest," she said, attempting a smile.

Grim Outlook

Economists can offer little reassurance. The nation lost more than 100,000 jobs in December, nearly half of them in manufacturing. That's on top of a net loss of 88,000 jobs in November. Experts predict the labor market will pick up eventually. But many manufacturing firms — the most likely to hire mechanical engineers such as Schenone — have moved their factories abroad, to Mexico or China.

Other hard-hit industries, such as telecommunications and computer programming, probably will rebound. But the frenetic hiring of the 1990s high-tech boom might never be matched. Plus, after learning to work lean, corporations are unlikely to rehire the waves of mid-level managers they laid off.

"They probably have learned they can do without all that bureaucracy," said John Challenger, the chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global job-placement firm.

In three months, maybe four, Schenone will have to consider work other than engineering. But he's not willing to forsake his career just yet. He explains it as an economic decision: While he still has some savings to draw on, it makes more sense for him to spend his time searching for a $70,000-a-year job than stocking shelves for $7 an hour.

It's not just about money, though. He wants a job that will make him proud again.

Shortly after he started selling hardware at Sears, a senior manager from his old engineering company came into the store. Schenone ducked into a back aisle. "I couldn't handle it," he said. "I didn't want him to think I was so hard up, I had to take this job. But the ugly reality is, there I was."

Schenone tries to stay upbeat, installing baseboards in the playroom or organizing drawers around the house so he feels useful. He makes a point of giving food to a panhandler or dropping a few dollars in a Salvation Army kettle to remind him of those less fortunate.

But his older daughter, Allison, feels the gloom. "When he gets those rejections, it hurts the whole family," she said. "It gets you down." She works extra hard to get good grades. "Maybe that will make my parents happy," she said.

Mia has invited her dad to speak to her class on career day this spring — whether or not he has a job. "He can talk about what he used to do," she said, beaming through her freckles.

Full-Time Search

These days, Schenone has made searching for work his full-time job; he's at it 50 hours a week.

He has set up a relentless networking schedule: He calls this recruiter every three weeks, that former boss every month, sends e-mails to every friend of a friend who might possibly know of an opening. He scours classifieds. He practices promoting his skills in mock interviews with the support group, called Businesspeople Between Jobs.

He has even formed a network of laid-off St. Louis-area engineers; every few months, he mails 630 local companies a newsletter packed with resumes.

"I'm down," he tells himself, "but not out."

Schenone promises himself that one day, one day soon, he will again dream of the future with confidence. He will buy bleacher seats at a Cardinals ballgame for his kids. He will again set his alarm.