SUDBURY, Mass. — Tom Calderini used to supervise three teams of software programmers spread across two states and an office overseas, but that job never tested his “people skills” quite like this.
“Sorry,” an apron-clad Calderini says gently, addressing the mother of a girl in purple flip-flops whose head is barely level with his new workstation — the counter at the local Starbucks. “We’re all out of blueberry.”
Spoken like a true survivalist in a job market that calls for desperate measures.
Desperate, but increasingly familiar to scores of workers who, unable to find jobs equal to well-paid white-collar positions they lost in layoffs, are grasping at survival jobs offering considerably less.
Since early 2001, the economy has shed about 2.7 million jobs, stranding workers from the stricken information technology and telecommunications sectors and the broad ranks of middle management thinned by corporate cost-cutting.
In the 1990s, those jobs were the prizes of the New Economy, offering substantial paychecks, stock options, and generous benefits, along with the promise of hopscotching to something even better.
But that’s all a memory, and many displaced white-collar workers driven by frustration and money worries are settling for work as food servers, security guards and retail clerks.
“A lot of people are going into auto sales or working at The Home Depot,” said Larry Elle of Success Associates, a Boston-area job counseling agency. “They’re kind of grasping at straws.”
For some of those survival-job takers, “there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment in doing it because it’s a feeling of going backward,” he said.
The attraction is largely financial — a paycheck to cover bills and, in the best cases, employer-subsidized health insurance. But for some, at least, it’s also about the need to do something, anything, to again participate in the working world.
That doesn’t mean finding such a job is easy. Calderini, a 41-year-old father of two who used to make about $80,000 a year, was indignant after being turned down for work at a home improvement store, an upscale grocery store and an outdoor gear shop.
Now he vacillates between praising the Starbucks job — it offers health insurance and a chance to meet people who might be a link to another career — and voicing a certain queasiness, not unlike a ballet dancer forced to dance for tips in a stripjoint.
“Some days I say I can’t believe I’m doing this, getting up at quarter to five to go sell coffee for not very much money,” says Calderini, of Marlboro, Mass., a bedroom community between Boston and Worcester. “But If I give up on this, it’s almost like I’ve given up altogether.”
It’s hard to know just how many workers like Calderini have taken survival jobs — since they’re working again, they’re not reflected in the unemployment rate — but their ranks are swelling.
The shift is hinted at in figures tallied by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that about 4.7 million people who want to work full-time have settled for part-time jobs because of economic conditions, nearly a 50 percent increase from three years ago.
The willingness to settle reflects the difficulty of finding equivalent jobs. The time the average jobless worker remains unemployed has stretched to more than 19 weeks, up from about 12 weeks in early 2001. More than one in five jobless workers — about 2 million people — have been out of work longer than half a year.
But many workers settling for lower-paying jobs have been searching for much longer.
Take Herman Gold, who lost his job as a project manager for a consulting company at the end of 2001. When months went by without a nibble from potential employers, Gold took a job as a clerk in a Kinko’s photocopy shop near his home in Naperville, Ill.. a Chicago suburb. He left that job for another as an office administrator at a used car dealership, working 20 to 30 hours a week.
Gold says he thought of himself as an isolated case until he went to a networking meeting at the local library in March and sat next to an unemployed electrical engineer.
Gold was impressed to hear the man had received 17 patents in his years at Lucent Technologies. But the man was focused only on getting out of the meeting by noon so he could grab some sleep before rushing off to a third-shift job as a stocking clerk in a warehouse.
“It turned me into saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. What’s going on here?’” Gold recalls.
Such an account would not surprise Cary Coovert, who lost his job as a software engineer in late 2001. This May, he finally gave in and took work as a security guard, patrolling an office and retail complex in Cambridge, Mass.
It means that each Friday night, Coovert puts his two daughters to bed before changing into a uniform so he can work through the weekend on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. The job pays $9.25 an hour, and Coovert figures he now makes about a third of what he did in his past life.
“I’m ashamed to be in the situation I’m in,” he says. “I feel like I wasn’t watching the business. I wasn’t watching the economy. I feel like I wasn’t paying attention. I’m not sure anybody was paying attention back in the ‘90s.”
The transformation of the labor market has stunned many jobseekers, says Sharee Wells, an adviser in the Tulsa, Okla., office of career counseling agency Bernard Haldane Associates, which has seen many of its clients take survival jobs unrelated to previous careers.