Economy's toll: No bailout for the overqualified jobless

Modesto BeeDecember 30, 2008 

MODESTO, Calif — As Mike Wilczewski pulls a heavy file of job applications from his briefcase, a piece of paper slips out. He looks at it, smiles and slips it back into his briefcase.

"Don't ever give up," reads the sheet of paper with a cartoon of a frog in a bird's mouth. The bird is trying to eat. The frog is fighting not to be eaten.

Since losing a job that paid him about $70,000 a year and included health benefits and a company car, the Oakdale, Calif., resident has felt like the bird and the frog. Over the past two years, Wilczewski has been told he is overqualified and underqualified. He doesn't know whether he's reaching too high or too low in the job market. Ultimately, he's just trying to survive.

He's not alone. Like a growing number of job seekers, he has decades of experience, a diverse background and a college degree. He has been on the job market so long, he has started reaching far below his previous pay scale. Eventually, he started hearing back from interviewers that he was overqualified.

"When I heard that, I started to think maybe I shouldn't show all my cards," said Wilczewski, 52. "I just need to get my foot in the door so I can prove myself, I can take off, I can do it."

Darlene Smith of the Alliance Worknet, a job bank in Stanislaus County in California's San Joaquin Valley, draws a deep breath when she hears stories like Wil czewski's.

For years, the alliance, which helps residents find jobs and deal with layoffs, has urged job candidates to develop basic skills and further their educations. Job seekers with solid skills and good work ethics once were hard to find.

Things have changed, Smith said. Businesses have closed and downsized, laying off once highly-sought-after employees.

"They're afraid age is going to get them or having too many qualifications. They're afraid they'll never get the wage they had before," Smith said.

It's an increasingly common problem throughout California, were job losses were building even before the country officially entered the current recession a year ago.

"We're seeing professionals who, at this time in their lives, never thought they'd be looking for a job or changing careers," said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the California Employment Development Department.

Wilczewski arrives every day by bus 15 minutes before it opens.

"We have journeymen carpenters who made $20 an hour who are hoping to make $8 now. Those guys can look at blueprints and build a house if they needed to. They have a lot of experience. Now, their experience is hindering them. Their pay scale is too high," said Mark Terry, a Modesto branch manager for Labor Ready.

Job seekers are lowering their standards as they watch the unemployment rate rise, labor experts say. Last month, Stanislaus County's unemployment rate climbed to 12.4 percent, according to the state Employment Development Department. That is up from 9 percent the previous November and 7.6 percent in November 2006.

"When you're unemployed for so long, you adjust to the market," said Carla Whitehurst of Nelson Staffing. "I received a call the other day from a sales rep who made $75,000 to $85,000 a year. Now, she'll take $10 an hour. She'll take clerical. And she's willing to travel."

Over the past year, Vic Calbreath, 45, of Riverbank has made the same plunge down the job market. He used to manage about 60 construction workers at projects throughout central California; now he cares for his 6- and 9-year-old daughters.

Calbreath said the girls keep things in perspective when he is turned down for jobs he wouldn't have considered last year, such as delivering frozen food for 12 hours a day.

"I lean toward management, but I've applied for anything and everything at this point," he said.

Well-qualified, well- educated applicants are easy to come by these days, labor experts say. They're more flexible than ever and fighting to fill jobs they used to manage.

What's rare are attitudes like Wilczewski's and Calbreath's. After searching more than a year for jobs and being told they are not qualified, they are still hopeful.

"You've got to have a good attitude. You can't let your kids see you depressed," Wilczewski said, smiling behind his salt-and-pepper mustache. "The kids are my support. They say, 'Hang in there, Dad.' It's hard, though. I'm a professional. I'm not used to having to beg and scrape for a job. I used to get other people jobs."

Wilczewski is a single dad with a 20-year-old son and a teenage daughter. Like many teens, his daughter wants a car. But since Wilczewski lost his job, he has had to give his son use of the car to get to school.

Rain or shine, he stands at the bus stop every morning to get to the employment office in downtown Modesto before it opens.

After an hour and a half of job searching, he takes another bus to a job he has had for two weeks. He makes $9.25 an hour working phones for a fund-raising operation. Wilczewski is grateful for the work, but it doesn't pay enough to cover the bills or support his children. So he keeps searching.

"Never give up," he said to himself, while scanning job listings recently at the employment office.

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