Workers hunt for 'safe' jobs


Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 9:21 p.m.

After years of struggling to get their wages up, the nation's workers are trying to find jobs that will simply last, at least through the deep recession.

Fearing layoffs, investment bankers at a Merrill Lynch or a Morgan Stanley are joining small Wall Street firms for less pay but with signed employment guarantees. Academics are migrating to community colleges, which are adding teachers as enrollment rises. And in eastern Wisconsin, workers furloughed from a paper mill they fear will not reopen are training as truck drivers and welders.

"Looking online and in newspapers and talking to my instructors, I've decided that trucking and welding stand out as jobs that are available and will continue to be available, and a lot of my friends agree," said Dan Geneen, who has picked up a truck-driving certificate and is learning welding since he was let go by the paper mill last fall.

Trucker and welder are hardly glamorous careers for most Americans. But there is a new allure developing around jobs likely to keep a person employed, at reasonable pay, through a prolonged downturn. Government employment once offered that promise, certainly in the Great Depression. But government hiring is less than robust now, at 181,000 additions over the last year, mostly at the state and local level. That is far from offsetting the 2.5 million jobs lost in the 13 months of recession.

Community colleges are turning out to be a similar mecca as enrollment rises because of the recession. Laid-off workers are flocking to the schools to retrain for other occupations, and young people are enrolling in greater numbers to avoid the higher tuitions of a four-year college, said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich.

At 41,000 students, Macomb's enrollment is up 10 percent from last year, Jacobs said. With the recession driving enrollment, he is adding to his staff of 220 full-time teachers and 750 adjuncts. Most of the new hires are adjuncts, many of them teaching at Macomb and another community college, accumulating as many courses as full-timers.

Since enrollment is rising, they are assured of work semester after semester, Jacobs said. The annual pay is $40,000 or less usually less and no benefits. Still, they are coming back.

"If you spent six or seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars getting a graduate degree and you end up doing this, that is not a happy thought," Jacobs said. "But it is steady work."

That is precisely what Geneen, the displaced paper mill worker, seeks from his course work at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., where he earned a truck driver's certificate in December and is now learning to be a welder.

He was laid off in September as an operator of a coating machine when the NewPage paper company in Kimberly, Wis., shut a victim of plunging demand. Geneen, 47, had worked at the mill since high school. He says he is not even trying to match the $60,000, with overtime, he earned at NewPage.

Steady work, even in a recession, is his current goal, which makes him reluctant to exercise his recall rights even if NewPage reopens. "I don't want to have the same thing happen to me again five years from now, when I'm older," he said.

Taking advantage of a federal subsidy to train for what he considers a safer occupation, he completed a 10-week course to become a commercial truck driver. Even though truck shipments are off sharply and drivers' employment has fallen, Geneen sees a need for truck drivers, in good times and bad. So do 34 others who were laid off at NewPage and took the same course.

"Two of my classmates just this week applied at a trucking company advertising for tractor-trailer drivers," Geneen said. "They were hired on the spot and told to report for work on Feb. 1. They didn't even meet with the personnel people."

Geneen says he plans to drive a truck, preferably within Wisconsin. But with his wife, Kathy, earning $40,000 a year as a certified public accountant and with enough severance from his mill job to help carry the family for a while, Geneen has enrolled in a yearlong course to qualify as a welder. It is another occupation chronically short of qualified people, even in a recession. At $40,000 a year or so, welders' work would not match his old pay but would provide a backup plan for the future.

"I want options that will hold up in a failing economy," he said.

As the recession deepens, the only industry in the private sector adding jobs in significant numbers is health care, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it is doing so across the board, from physician to bed pan attendant.

Government used to be a refuge, particularly postal work and public school teaching. But the post office has been shrinking its payroll for several years. Secondary school employment mainly kindergarten through high school rose through August to nearly 8.1 million jobs, but it has fallen each month since as declining tax revenue forces cutbacks.

Those cutbacks rarely apply to math and science teachers, who are often in short supply. "Teaching math in a high school in an affluent suburb," said Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago and a Democratic candidate for Congress, "that is my idea of the ultimate safe job."

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