Forces Many to Wander for Work
IT Unemployment Now Exceeds Overall
Schneider:Washington Post; November 9, 2004
YORK, Pa. -- David Packman knocks on the motel room door and his
wife lets him in. His 9-year-old son is waiting with sneakers on,
hoping for a trip outside after a day of sitting around. Packman's
other son, 4, dances gleefully around the room. Dad's home from work.
This is no holiday getaway; this motel room, for the moment, is
where the family lives. Packman, 34, is one month into a four-month
contract fixing computers at a local company, and one day closer to the
end of the line. It's Monday, and the $50 in Packman's pocket will have
to cover food, laundry and incidentals for the coming week.
Not long ago his family was settled in a rental house in Warren,
Ohio, the kids chasing frogs in the yard and wife Sabrina, 30, baking
bread in the kitchen. Packman was hiring himself out as a freelance
computer expert, troubleshooting systems for any company that needed
temporary help. But jobs disappeared, and the Packmans lost the house.
So they wound up in a motel in a strange town, and now the $58-a-night
bill is draining them dry.
Packman is among a wave of Americans taking to the highway to
preserve a middle-class life. While few people nowadays expect to spend
a career rooted to one spot, some information technology workers are
having mobility thrust upon them as companies change the way they staff
computer-related jobs. Foreign workers are cheaper for some basic
programming and technical jobs, and short-term contract workers give
companies more flexibility to add and subtract employees as needed.
Many displaced workers have been able to retrain and find new
positions, often switching careers, or making one big cross-country
move. But some who are unable to get permanent jobs have to keep
roaming to find work, sometimes leaving families behind, sometimes
bringing them along in a quest for something better.
A generation ago, it was blue-collar workers who confronted a
grim future of layoffs and factory closures. Many turned to computer
work as a way out. Thanks to the 1990s boom in personal computing and
the Internet, jobs in information technology -- known as IT, or simply
"tech" -- were supposed to spread the prosperity of a "New Economy"
based on digital technology instead of on bending metal or stamping
But it's not working out the way many had hoped. Unemployment
among tech workers, once almost nonexistent, is now higher than the
overall jobless rate for the first time in more than 30 years,
according to an analysis of federal statistics by Ronil Hira, assistant
professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Between 1983 and 2000, the field was among the fastest-growing
U.S. job markets. Employment in all tech-related jobs peaked at nearly
6.5 million in 2000, according to a survey of government statistics by
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Those jobs have
declined every year since and slipped by more than 10 percent between
2002 and 2003 alone, the survey found. A recent study by the job
placement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. found that 16
percent of all U.S. jobs cut this year were from high-tech companies.
Millions of people still make good livings in technology, and
many economists think the industry will continue to generate jobs. It's
a broad category that includes entrepreneurs such as Jeffrey P. Bezos
at Amazon.com Inc., computer system managers making $100,000 a year and
technicians averaging about $45,000, according to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics. The average wage for all tech occupations last year,
according to the engineering group, was $53,728 -- better than the
$17-an-hour average (roughly $35,000 annually) for the nation's
workforce as a whole.
But wage prospects for many are shrinking, the group's survey
found. The average technology worker got an 8.7 percent pay hike in
2000, but only a 3.3 percent increase in 2002. Wages bounced back in
2003, rising an average of 4.9 percent, but growth was concentrated in
higher-end jobs. Workers in some of the broadest categories saw far
less; computer programmers, for instance, posted two straight years of
1.3 percent raises -- less than inflation.<>
"I think for many years, people were able to build careers and
have the middle-class lifestyle by working in IT . . . [but] demand for
IT workers has dropped significantly," said Bob Cohen of the
Information Technology Association of America, which represents
companies in the industry.
'Just in Time' Staffing
The slowdown is driven by a number of factors.
The Internet and telecommunications booms of the 1990s went bust,
causing companies to shut down or cut jobs. Technology has matured, so
corporate computer systems need less human support. Companies are
finding it cheaper to use foreign tech workers, importing temporary
immigrants or "offshoring" jobs to companies in India and
elsewhere.Companies also save money with "just-in-time" technology
staffing, hiring outsiders for brief projects rather than keeping
permanent workers. Many U.S. workers are forced to become independent
contractors, like Packman, hiring themselves out for temporary gigs
wherever they can find a company with a short-term need.
Some tech workers prefer the independent life. "Even with paying
my own health benefits and having to carry the tax burden for Social
Security, I'm still making more money than I made as a salaried
employee," said Joan Ozello of Potomac, who has been working as an
independent security and capital planning consultant since being laid
off from a technology company four years ago. "When people waste my
time, and I have to work extra hours to make up for breakdowns, I get
paid for it," she said.
And companies say such staffing practices are essential in a
time of increasing global competition. From financial services giants
to struggling manufacturers such as Eastman Chemical Co., businesses
find flexibility to be their biggest information technology asset.
"The business is changing rapidly. . . . I can't really afford
to have a large staff and have them sitting on the bench when I don't
have the work to do," said Jerry Hale, chief information officer for
Eastman Chemical, based in Kingsport, Tenn. Hale has shrunk his tech
payroll by more than a quarter in the past few years, he said, using a
mix of local contractors and offshore workers to augment his in-house
But many workers feel steamrolled by the trend. "There's been a
shift of risk from the employer, who might have carried some of these
people during the slow times, to the individual," Hira said.
"Economists view this as efficiency -- companies can offload workers
when they don't need them. But from the workers' point of view, how do
you manage your career now?"
It's all part of a broader reshaping of the American workplace
that has been going on since the late 1970s, said Arne Kalleberg , a
sociology professor who studies labor issues at University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We have a hollowing out of the job structure,
and so these jobs that were once middle class are now low-skilled or
disappear. People are forced to move elsewhere to try to get them,"
The challenges facing tech workers vary around the country. Many
regions that boomed during the tech bubble -- such as San Francisco,
Denver and parts of Utah and Texas -- have lost population as workers
flee shrunken job markets, said Marc Perry of the U.S. Census Bureau.
A study released this summer of people laid off in the Dallas
area found that 13 percent had to leave the region to find work. Nearly
two-thirds of the 573 survey participants had lost technology-related
jobs. Next-biggest was manufacturing, at 8 percent.<>
Those who stayed in the region sent out an average of 85
applications and waited more than 13 months before getting a new job,
according to the study performed by the North Texas Technology Council
and the University of Texas at Arlington. More than half of the workers
said their new jobs paid less than the ones they left and were in
The Washington area, on the other hand, is second-best in the
nation for tech job opportunities, according to the Dice Report, a tech
jobs clearinghouse. New York ranks first. Job postings in the
Washington region are up 60 percent this year, according to Dice.
Still, more than a third of all positions posted on Dice are
contract jobs, not permanent. And the region's high cost of living is
unforgiving for anyone trying to piece together short-term work, said
Corey Frankel of Falls Church, who has been plying the Washington area
tech scene nearly 20 years. He has two young daughters, and while
Frankel has bounced from job to job in recent years -- working on both
mainframe computers and database management -- he can't bring himself
to leave the area.
"I have children in elementary schools in the finest school
system in the country, and I'm not about to give that up because
somebody wants to toy with my life," he said.
Instead, Frankel has roamed among a variety of small contractors
on short-term government computer jobs. In between, he has subsisted on
everything from unemployment checks to selling cars.
The current economy "is turning good working people into
gypsies. It's making them into migrant workers," he said.
The nationwide scope of the tech jobs problem is apparent on the
Internet, which swarms with Web sites and chat boards dedicated to
out-of-work techies. Web sites such as RescueAmericanJobs.org and
ITPAA.org serve as job search and support groups, as vehicles for
calling for political help or as simple outlets for rage.
At ITUnemployed.com, for instance, someone posted a long ode
called "Elegy for a Profession."
"Hello, Corporate America. Do you know us? Do you remember? . .
. We are the men and women who helped you build the 21st century," it
begins. Lamenting the loss of jobs, it concludes: "We send out
résumés by the ream, month after month, as savings and
retirement money slowly dwindle . . . In desperation, we apply
everywhere, to do anything, but to no avail. We are overqualified for
anything else, and we are unable to work in the field we love."
Jobs Dry Up, Bills Pile Up
career was supposed to be an escape from dead-end jobs. Now, at the
motel in York, he talks late into the night with Sabrina about what to
do next, quietly so the sleeping boys don't wake up and realize how bad
Packman's dad was a steelworker, his mother a Greek-immigrant
hairdresser. They divorced when he was young, and he lived with his
mother, moving a lot as she searched for cheaper rent or better jobs.
After high school, Packman worked as a bar bouncer, a landscaper, a
steelworker. There was no future in any of it. So he put himself
through Kent State University and then computer training. <>
He and Sabrina married young. They met at a punk rock bar; he
wore a mohawk haircut; she said she was a "skinhead for racial
equality." In time they realized what they wanted was a family and a
stable home. Today Sabrina wears a silver stud in her lower lip and
mails tips to Parenting magazine: "I leave cut-up veggies in plastic
bags in the fridge to toss into a soup or salad," she wrote last year.
Son Donovan was born first, then Kaz, and everything seemed on
track until 2001. By then the technology boom had collapsed, and
Packman lost his $49,000-a-year job designing and fixing computer
networks at Trustmark Insurance Co. When a series of health problems
hit -- Sabrina needed treatment for a chronic cyst on her pancreas,
then gave birth to a baby that died of a kidney disorder -- the
Packmans had no medical insurance. They wound up more than $40,000 in
A friend eventually helped Packman get a new job,
troubleshooting computers for the law firm Arter & Hadden LLP. That
lasted two years, until the firm went bankrupt from over-expansion.
This time, Packman simply couldn't find a permanent job.
Companies wanted independent contractors for short-term gigs, so he
would work anywhere within a reasonable drive from his home near
Youngstown, as far as Cleveland, Akron or Pittsburgh. He'd get $15 an
hour to $27 an hour, always with no health benefits.
The work was so inconsistent that medical and other bills began
accumulating again. Sometimes the family had to choose between buying
groceries or paying the rent. With kids involved, it wasn't much of a
By the end of August, the Packmans were evicted from their home.
The Internet proved to be the family's last lifeline. Packman
had posted his résumé on several tech job sites, and it
drew a hit from a company 300 miles away in York -- a region where
Packman would not otherwise have looked, demonstrating the power and
promise of the computer age, along with the frustration. He landed a
four-month stint troubleshooting networks at a government contracting
company, which he asked not to name in this article for fear of
jeopardizing his prospects there.
Using his last $1,000 to rent a moving van, Packman hauled all
their belongings to a storage center in York and checked the family
into a motel, hoping they might find a place to rent. But with such bad
credit history, Packman said, landlords were not willing to take a risk
on them. After a few weeks, they moved to a cheaper motel.
The $30 an hour he's earning disappears quickly. Because of
their past problems with medical bills and eviction, the Packmans have
to pay a premium to lease their 2002 Chevrolet Malibu, pushing the
monthly payment to $320. They also pay more for auto insurance. Banks
won't let Packman open a checking account because of his wrecked credit
and at least one overdrawn check on his record, he said, so he has to
pay fees to a check-cashing company to cash his weekly paycheck. He
pays child support to a daughter from a previous relationship. The
motel bill adds up to far more than rent would ever be in York.
Every day, Packman gets home from work around 4:30 p.m. and
takes the boys out to a park or school playground. Sabrina might make
sandwiches in the room for dinner. On a typical night earlier this
month, Packman dropped her off at a coin laundry and took the boys to a
nearby Giant grocery store. Donovan has the list in his head: sodas,
cereal, corn dogs. The boys want ice cream; Packman lets them buy a
candy bar and pack of gum instead.
Back at the laundry, Donovan and Kaz jump from chair to chair in
front of a television set. As Sabrina pulls shirts and jeans from a
dryer, Packman idly watches the opening to a Fox "Renovate My Family"
show. A woman weeps happily; she's getting a new home.
"My wife can't watch those shows anymore," Packman says with a
wan smile, turning away.
They endure this routine for three more weeks, then face a hard
decision. The stress is aggravating Sabrina's health, and the boys are
going stir crazy. They have no way to meet other children; when a
co-worker invited Packman to bring Donovan to a birthday party, Donovan
spent the whole time with his dad, nervous around the unfamiliar kids.
Packman's only solution is to load the family in the car and
drive them eight hours to a friend's house outside Cincinnati. He plans
to leave Sabrina and the boys, to save money, then live out of his car
if necessary until the York contract runs out. But he puts off making
the move, day after day, because he can't bring himself to separate
"I just want to see my family happy. I want to see them
satisfied. That's all I care about," he says. He has
résumés on the Internet. Something else will come along.
"I always have other feelers out," he said. "There's no such
thing as a permanent position anymore."