Sunday, May 4, 2003 6:38AM EDT

Ready for next round
Stalls can be time to strengthen resumes

By AMY MARTINEZ AND KARIN RIVES, Staff Writers

Lucky you.

You survived the layoffs of the past two years and still have a job. You make your monthly mortgage and car payments and are already planning your summer vacation.
But if you're like a lot of people, you're probably not feeling so lucky.

The weak job market is hurting you, too. You're past due for promotion. You're bored with your job. Maybe you're not making as much money as you'd like. You want to leave, but you're scared you'll end up in a worse situation. And, besides, hardly anyone is hiring.

"People are more resigned to holding on to what they have, even if it's not ideal," said Howard McCain, managing principal of the Raleigh offices of Right Management Consultants, an outsourcing and career development firm. "Hunkering down -- that's how we describe people in this situation."

Sure, it beats being out of work and well on your way to financial ruin, like so many people in the Triangle who fell victim to the shakeout in technology and telecommunications. But let's face it, that's little consolation to someone who was planning on moving up and moving on by now.

By most measures, this is the worst economic downturn to hit the Triangle in 20 years. Unemployment is a full percentage point higher than during the last recession in 1990-91. More than 5,000 people are believed to be out of work six months or longer. And relief is still about six months off: Economists warn that employers are likely to postpone hiring until the end of the year, hoping to take advantage of productivity gains a little while longer.

Not only are fewer people finding jobs, but fewer people are also leaving jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the rate of voluntary job departures has fallen from 1.9 percent to 1.5 percent during the past two years, evidence that workers are holding tight.

Still, being stuck in a job is not necessarily a bad thing, career counselors say. Rather than look for another job, workers can take this down time to go back to school, improve their skills, take on new responsibilities and devote themselves to their families and communities.

Karl Mundt, for example, is getting his master's degree at N.C. State University. The 27-year-old Garner resident no longer feels challenged, after five years of managing copy centers for a large chain that he asked not be identified. He figures a new job is out of the question until the economy improves, so he'll focus on finishing his MBA next year.

"When people do start to hire again, I hope I can show that over the last two years, while there may not have been opportunities for advancement within the company where I worked, I made opportunities for myself," Mundt said.

Johanna DeBenedetto, senior vice president and general manager of the Raleigh offices of Lee Hecht Harrison, an outplacement and career development firm, encourages more workers to take that attitude. A weak job market, she said, is no excuse for failing to nurture your career.

It's true that job-hopping has slowed to a near halt and that many workers feel stuck. "But if you're feeling stale, you can always go to a different job within your company," DeBenedetto said. "You can always improve your skills by taking a course to work on those transferable skills that will eventually take you to that next industry or next job."

Even so, companies are cutting benefits intended to help employees further their careers, and that can make it financially difficult to improve your skills or go back to school.

Duke University recently laid off five staff members and eliminated five other planned positions at the Fuqua School of Business, saying fewer companies were willing to pay the steep costs of sending executives for their MBAs.

By the same token, companies are less willing to add benefits that don't immediately improve their bottom lines. Joel Mullen of Capital Associated Industries in Raleigh, a human resources consulting firm, said "there aren't any additions for the most part, and if anything, there's more cost-sharing."

New challenges

But the tough economy can create new opportunities for those fortunate enough to have jobs.

Jeff Groves is a 38-year-old computer systems administrator for a large telecommunications company with offices in the Triangle. New assignments landed on his desk as hundreds of co-workers lost their jobs during the past year, leaving him to wonder whether he'd be next.

Once responsible for a single computer system, Groves now handles a half-dozen. For each new system added to his job description, Groves faced another steep learning curve.

Sound like a bad place to work? Groves, who asked that the name of his employer be withheld, doesn't think so.

"I feel that the more I learn, the better off I am," he said. "Sure, it's been stressful. With the first really big layoff nine months ago it was like, 'OK, is it a good thing that I didn't get laid off, or am I the one who's been picked to get everything ready before they let me go, too?'

"That didn't happen, thank God."

John Challenger, chief executive of the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said workers such as Groves are likely to emerge from the downturn better off. Because they've accepted new responsibilities, they have more skills to add to their resumes, and even a new title: jack of all trades.

"You can get stressed out if you're doing the jobs of three people, but as long as you're not working the hours of three people, it could actually be great," Challenger said.

Challenger and other job counselors encourage people to keep looking for new opportunities -- albeit discretely -- if work becomes unbearable. That might seem risky with the threat of layoffs far from over. "But," Challenger said, "employers should recognize you always have a right to be looking."

Staying safe in place

Just as employers are reluctant to hire, workers are reluctant to change jobs, fearing they'll "jump from the frying pan to the fire," said McCain, of Right Management Consultants.

The worst-case scenario is they leave one job for another, then discover their new employer is about to go bankrupt or the job isn't what it was cracked up to be.

David Singer, senior partner with Fortune Consultants in Raleigh, an executive search firm, tells job candidates that now is a good time to change jobs. He reasons that employers in these cost-cutting times are hiring only when it's absolutely necessary. In other words, they regard the jobs as key to their survival and aren't likely to eliminate them anytime soon.

"There's just a lot of nervousness," Singer said. "People are saying 'I'm going to be conservative now, and until the economy changes, I'm better off collecting a paycheck.' "

This cautious attitude is in stark contrast to a few years ago when job fairs were packed with workers looking for that bigger and better job -- often within view of those writing their paychecks.

"In the old days, workers could run into their employer at a job fair and not be afraid. They knew how valuable they were and weren't going to be punished for looking around," said Betsy Wadington, a Virginia Beach consultant who organizes job fairs in the Triangle. "Frankly, I think the job market was so tight, employers looked the other way.

"The world is a different place today," she said.

Srinivas Saraswatula, 35, laments, "there are no jobs to hop to." He's getting his master's degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Up until two months ago, he also was working at LVL 7, where he earned $90,000 a year as a quality control manager for the Raleigh software company. Although the money was good, he had lost interest in the job and hopes an MBA will help him move on.

"I had gone as far as I could go technically. The next step was management, and for that you need an MBA," he said. "Hopefully, it will still work out."


Staff writer Amy Martinez can be reached at 829-4652 or amartine@newsobserver.com.



Jeff Groves wondered if he'd be next when his company laid off hundreds of people.



Jeff Groves' workload has increased as his company has laid off more people. Although it's been stressful, he's glad to learn more.
Staff Photos by Harry Lynch

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