Education, skills are no refuge for jobless Angelenos

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LA.Spot.Us

When Bhavna and I met at the Los Angeles Farmers' Market, the first thing I noticed was her posture - upright, confident - and a firm, professional handshake. She seemed to radiate with intelligence. I knew her only from a résumé on LinkedIn and a couple of brief e-mails, but it seemed to me that any executive with good sense would hire her on the spot. Our conversation didn't change my mind.

"People think that India is going to take over the world," she explained. "They believe we're like England in 1914, the empire that's about to collapse. But you know? I visited my relatives there last summer. They're well off, enough to send my cousins here to the States for school. They own a business. But four hours a day, they have no running water. The infrastructure isn't there yet. And here in the U.S., we've still got a world-class higher education system."

Bhavna graduated from Cornell University last year with a master’s degree in political science. She's 26, single and childless, hungry for opportunity. No family obligations can distract her from a full-throttle dedication to an entry-level job. Well traveled and experienced in international marketing, she speaks conversational Hindi and Chinese.

During the six months she's lived in Los Angeles, she has interned at the L.A. Convention Center and worked as an associate producer on a low-budget film for a friend of a friend, even though she's never had dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry. She's flexible, resourceful, hard-working. What is there for an employer not to like?

Beats me. But in this economy, even Bhavna can't find a job.

When she moved to Los Angeles with a boyfriend, the plan was straightforward. He would finish his accounting degree, and she would apply for positions at one of the many businesses here involved in trade with East or South Asia. They would live frugally together, set aside funds to buy their first home, get married, have children, and begin saving for retirement.

It didn't work out that way. The boyfriend got an offer from a Fortune 200 accounting firm, while she sat at the computer in their home office, sending out résumé after résumé, making call after call, getting progressively more frustrated. Short paid gigs popped up here and there. She earned $150 one day on a movie set, handling paperwork. The internship at the convention center was unpaid, and she said they liked her work but had no money to hire her.

Eventually, the relationship cracked under the strain. Bhavna moved out.

"This isn't the America we lived in five years ago," she said with a shrug. "You can't afford to be creative anymore. My ex is way ahead of me now in his career because he studied accounting. Maybe I should have followed a more conventional track – engineering or something."

Bhavna hasn't filed for unemployment; she doesn't think she would qualify. She hasn't had a full-time job with benefits. Instead, she lives frugally with roommates – no Starbucks coffee, no car – and draws on savings that she expects will run out by April.

"My parents would like me to lean on them a bit more," she said, "but my brother is in medical school and my sister is an undergraduate. I've had my shot. They deserve theirs."

Bhavna is not alone. The official unemployment rate in Los Angeles County was 12.4 percent in December 2009, but that figure doesn't include people in her position. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines Bhavna as a "marginally attached worker" because she is neither working for pay nor collecting unemployment benefits, even though she's available for work and has recently been employed.

The Economic Roundtable, an L.A.-based research organization, issues a monthly report on unemployment and underemployment in Los Angeles County. According to data from December 2009, Bhavna numbers among the 23.7 percent of underemployed/unemployed Angelenos, and the 12.4 percent of work-hungry residents with a college degree or higher. (January rates won't be released until March 5).

To put it another way, almost one in four Angelenos, and one in eight local college graduates, is working too little or not at all. Moreover, the consensus among economists is that these dismal rates are unlikely to come down much in the next few years.

So where does that leave Bhavna, and the dozen or so other educated job seekers I interviewed – most with career aspirations, mortgages, children or elderly parents to support? The best answer I could come up with? It depends.

Happy marriages and supportive parents seemed to ease the stress, as did being single and childless. The worst hit have been the job seekers with caregiving responsibilities toward aging parents or young children, and those whose shaky spousal relationships are crumbling under the weight of the economic crisis. Common themes ran through all of the interviews: depression, bewilderment, foreboding, a conviction that this savage downturn was "for real," and that the good times would probably take their sweet time to come back, if they ever did at all.

Sue Kearson, the first person I spoke with, is in her mid-50s and lives with her aging mother, who has emphysema. About a year ago the landlord evicted them from an apartment building that was slated for condominium conversion, and subsequently sold the property. Sue was entitled to relocation funds but never received them, so she has filed a lawsuit.

In the meantime, she was laid off from her job with a local publishing house, in part because she frequently had to take time off to care for her mother. A friend had a vacant house and agreed to let them stay there at below-market rent, but last week the house went into foreclosure and they have to find yet another place to live. Sue has no health insurance, and her savings are almost gone, but she won't be eligible for Social Security for several more years.

Skeptics might say Sue could have made wiser choices, like making a deal with the landlord to raise her rent gradually or to find a way to balance her work and caregiving schedule. Maybe she could have explored hiring help for her mother.

But in this recession, her story isn’t much different from some of the unemployed graduates of my alma mater, Harvard University.

When I was a student there in the late 1980s, my temperament didn't jive well with the uber-competitive spirit of many of my classmates – those producing musicals with casts of dozens, or founding companies in their dorm rooms. Here I am now, 41, and sketchily employed as a freelance writer. Yet my under-employment isn’t that different from some other Harvard grads, or alumni from other top-level schools, living in Los Angeles.

Forbes Black, a 46-year-old process engineer and writer who graduated from Harvard in 1986, has been on the job hunt for six months. Recently, he had a series of interviews with the firm that he left two years ago to launch his own business.

When the venture went bankrupt, Forbes joined the ranks of the unemployed and discovered the joys of picking his two children up from school and taking them for hikes and bike rides. He lives in a rented home, where he moved after his recent divorce. Bills get paid with unemployment benefits and his credit card; the kids travel back and forth between his house and his ex-wife's.

"I'm just glad that I have so much time to spend with my kids," he said, "and with the wonderful woman I've been seeing."

Still, reality creeps back in. Forbes said that if he didn’t go back to work, he'd probably only be able to continue in the current arrangement for two more months. "I can't live on my credit card forever."

There was a decidedly more somber tone to my interview with J.H. Walther, a graduate of private Hamilton College in upstate New York. An avid surfer and writer, he's worked as a newspaper reporter and taught middle-school English, but it's been a while since his last gig. Schools and newspapers aren't hiring, and now the savings are gone.

J. H. is in his mid-50s and married with several children, the youngest of whom is 18 months old. The family lives in a single-family home in a middle-class residential neighborhood. Although his wife works full time, they can barely meet their monthly expenses.

"There's no health insurance," he said, "so you have to play your relatives, call the one who cares about teeth and ask for help with dentist bills for the kids. I haven't gone to the dentist in four years. Our daughter loses things. Kids do that. This winter she lost a couple of coats. Two years ago, we would have just bought her a new one and moved on. Now we have to sit her down and say, 'You can't do that, we don't have the money to throw around, ' and give her consequences, and now our 12-year-old daughter has to feel stressed out about being poor.

"Sometimes I think, you know, I came to Los Angeles to follow my bliss, to express myself, because my father spent his whole life in corporate America, grinding away in a gray suit, and we never saw him. I wasn't going to be like him. Now I wish maybe I had been more of a gray suit myself, gotten a real job. I followed my bliss off a cliff."

J.H.'s wife wants him to get a job, but he's not sure where to find one.

"My wife likes to tell me that if this were 1955, I would have left home and not shown my face until I had a job,” he said.

His 7-year-old son has a passion for music and likes to plunk out tunes on their electronic keyboard. "I just sit there, quietly looking at her while she says, 'We should get Will piano lessons,' and then she thinks a second and says, 'We don't have money for piano lessons,' and then she screams at me, 'How can you live with yourself?' I just walked off and sat by myself in the kitchen for a while." They eventually tracked down a piano teacher whose rates they could afford, but Joshua's assessment of the marital relationship is that the only reason he and his wife are still under one roof is that neither of them could afford to go it alone.

On the other side of Los Angeles County is D. Mirsky, a professional joke writer, illustrator and Harvard graduate who recently gave up his place in Santa Monica and moved into an $800 a month, one-bedroom apartment off a major intersection in Culver City. He is a single man, 41, with no children.

Between 2000 and 2008, he had several gigs with television shows and humor Web sites, and during dry spells, he paid his way with temp work. For the past two years he's been unemployed, although he's tried marketing some of his illustrations over the Web as decorations for mugs and T-shirts.

His aging mother in Boston sends money regularly for his food, rent and utilities. Mirsky's heart is still set on a career in entertainment, and he can take some solace in the contacts he still has because of his professional and educational background. He is not ready to abandon ship and go home to the East Coast. "If I leave L.A, I'd be giving up everything," he explained. "I have to live here to do what I do."

Mirsky acknowledged that his work history was already spotty before he went on unemployment because of his chronic anxiety and depression. He had a psychotic episode when he first moved to Los Angeles. He recovered enough to make a living after he went on medication. But that was before the Great Recession.

It's not just the artists and the over-40 set feeling the pinch, either.

John Greenwall graduated with honors from Harvard in 1995. He is 35 and married, a fluent speaker and writer of Japanese, French, Russian and German who lived and worked in Japan for several years. He's also earned an MBA from Pepperdine University and a law degree from Southwestern Law School; he passed the bar in September 2009. Nine coworkers and supervisors have vouched for him on his LinkedIn profile, with comments like this:

  • "Extremely knowledgeable with payment systems and was very helpful to the team.... patient, easily approachable for any questions or for devising solutions to issues with vendors... an integral part of the team's success..."
  • "Diligent and focused... His deliverables are of high quality and very well exceeds the standard requirements. He is results driven and goes out of his way to provide assistance to the team. He is a pleasure to work with.”
  • “Extremely knowledgeable ... a detail-oriented project manager who established a track record of delivering projects accurately and on time. He was a tremendous asset to our team during some especially challenging times for an aggressive project schedule."
  • I asked John what it felt like to be jobless when he had such an impressive array of qualifications, and how he was making ends meet. He laughed softly. "Half of my law school graduating class is unemployed. Fortunately, my wife works, and I have some money saved up. I knew there'd be a lag time between law school graduation and passing the bar. But... I wish I could contribute something useful to society."

    To keep himself busy and in the game, he's taken a volunteer gig at the Los Angeles Superior Court, where he conducts legal research and writes summaries of recently passed state legislation. He spends a lot of time on Facebook and reads Russian-language novels during his free time.

    After hearing enough stories, I became convinced that surviving a Great Recession with one's dignity intact requires three things: a frugal and high-savings lifestyle; an engaging personality unburdened by too many family commitments; and a specialized set of skills that are highly in demand.

    Don Hoffman seemed to fit the bill. He was single and childless, a semi-professional opera singer whom I met in a local choir. He had worked as a mid-level executive for several years for a magazine publishing firm, lived in New Orleans and Paris, and had 21 recommendations on LinkedIn from coworkers, supervisors and employees who reported to him, one of whom described him as a "consummate magazine editor and manager, one of the best I have ever worked with ... knows publishing inside and out, from sales and marketing to putting together a monthly magazine from the trenches ... a diplomat, a mentor, a go-to guy for problem solving ... authoritative, balanced, resourceful, creative… He is everything that one would want in a leader ... caring boss – and most entertaining dinner companion.”

    Don has been unemployed since January 2009. He's putting a brave face on it – he put up a shingle as a "consultant" with his own media firm, and is contemplating a return to school, maybe for an MBA. He keeps on singing to keep busy. But in the meantime, he's been doing "all the right things," sending out résumés, delivering them in person to the offices, making follow-up phone calls, pursuing every contact he can for a reference, and after a year, he's had three interviews.

    "I'm not a total idiot," he said with a pained smile. "I went to an Ivy League school. I've managed employees. All I'm asking is for a little face time."

    One woman, a veteran career counselor and business owner in Los Angeles, asked for her real name not to be used. Over this past year of endless sorrows, she's helped 52 professionals find new jobs paying more than $100,000 a year, so you'd think she, of all people, would be optimistic.

    Here's her take on the job-hunting situation: "You've got to be careful with people who are unemployed; some of them are so needy that they suck you dry. I've seen marriages fall apart before my eyes. One of my clients used to be a world traveler and wealthy housewife – after her husband lost his job they had to sell everything they owned, then they split up, and now she's living in a granny apartment in back of her mother's bungalow."

    There have been recessions before in Los Angeles. People of all social classes have lost their jobs – some have moved away to more promising labor markets. Aerospace had its dark days at the end of the Cold War; entertainment-industry jobs took flight for less-expensive shooting locations. Corporate headquarters drifted away. The real-estate market took a sound drubbing in the 1990s after the 1992 riots, the Northridge earthquake, the fires and floods.

    Each crisis eventually subsided. The Long Beach-San Pedro port complex became the nation's center for international trade, and immigrant entrepreneurs revived the fortunes of the city with new businesses. Downtown Los Angeles was reborn as an artsy residential neighborhood; new museums were built and rail lines completed. Violent crime sank to levels not seen since the 1940s, and street gangs went into retreat.

    And yet – here we are now, with unemployment rates unseen since the Great Depression. Today's crisis is an order of magnitude higher than every downturn since World War II. Every major industry in the area is in decline, from entertainment to construction to international trade.

    Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came into office six years ago with an optimistic campaign that asked Angelenos to "dream with me" about a "subway to the sea" and a forest of solar panels on every roof. Now he is up against the wall, doing his best to force through layoffs of between 1,200 and 2,000 city employees so the city can plug the largest projected deficits in its history – $212 million this year and $484 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

    In his most recent book, "The Next 100 Million," Valley Village resident and urbanist Joel Kotkin sounds off on the future of American cities. He makes gloomy predictions for the urban core of Los Angeles – unemployment and income inequality hidden behind a flashy facade of museums and high-end stores for the wealthy.

    He's a lot more cheerful about Santa Clarita, a city of more than 175,000 in the northern foothills of Los Angeles County whose "town centers, paseos and housing stock... must by any standard be considered a success." Forbes, the optimistic engineer who just interviewed with his old employer, lives in Santa Clarita. Home-ownership rates are among the highest in the region, and up to 10 percent of the population works from home. Local industries employ local residents.

    Maybe Don, Bhavna and J.H. should pack their bags and head, literally, for the hills. In the meantime, what will become of the late, great city known as Los Angeles?

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