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Post Series - $17 An Hour

Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Greg Schneider was online to talk about an article examining a wave of Americans taking to the highway to preserve a middle-class life. He writes today that 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.

A transcript follows.


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Greg Schneider: Good morning. We already have some good questions, and I've gotten a fair amount of email reaction to the story, so I'll plunge right in.

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Somewhere in VA: That was an interesting article. I can related to that situation. I know someone who can not hold a high paying position of 150K. I 2 jobs within a year, then he transfer from the west coast to east coast making 30k less than before. He was a mortgage client and I was the processor verifying his employment history. I told my conservative boss about his employment situation, his response was maybe the employers got tired of him. The client ended up getting his loan elsewhere.

washingtonpost.com: Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work

Greg Schneider: Thank you. There are some people who blame the workers for their own plight, and certainly there are bound to be jobless people who lack the professional or social skills to keep work. But this phenomenon has gone farther than that and is affecting people who want to work and have tried to keep up with a fast-changing field.

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Bethesda, MD: In your story you do not mention anyone who thought the tech industry really wasn't all that bad. There was nobody who felt that maybe these people that are out of work do not actually have the skills needed to be in the tech industry.

I am a contractor in the tech industry. I have never been out of work for an extended period of time (except when I was not looking for something). I do, however, have many coworkers that were out of work for a while. But since I worked with these people, I realized the main reason they were out of work was because they really didn't have the skills (social and computer) to work in a fast paced environment.

Simply, my theory is that during the boom way too many people saw technology jobs as the easy way to make money. Now those people that were really never very good at programming, database administration, etc. are getting weeded out.

I don't see any problem with that.

Greg Schneider: Well, I did try to note that there are people who still do very well in the tech industry and who even prefer the independent contractor lifestyle. Many of them say they make more money that way and have more control over their time. The point was to try and look at a growing class of people who are not choosing to live this way or who are finding it harder to get by. Keeping up with training is especially important in the tech field, and that's hard to do when you don't have the money to pay for it.

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Forestville, Md.: When I read the article, my heart broke. Could you please give me just a moment or two to vent my frustration. Although I am apart of the fortunate who commute from Forestville, Maryland to Falls Church each day, I know of people who commute from as far away as Delaware to work in the District. I read that the economy is sparking and new jobs are being developed. IF this IS the case, why are so many people with technical backgrounds, displaced?? Heck why are so many people displaced, period?? I know, all of the .COM's fizzling, but still isn't this area suppose to be the Mecca of Career Advancement? Each of us who are not struggling should feel really blessed to wake up in the morning and not have to worry about a place to stay or food.

Greg Schneider: Thanks for your comments. I know I felt a lot less inclined to gripe about my morning commute or daily grind after spending time with the Packmans. The DC area is kind of a Catch 22; there are undoubtedly jobs here, but the cost of living is so high it's hard for many people to survive the environment.

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Prince Frederick, Md.: The nomadic techies you wrote about don't get any sympathy from me. If they are being pushed out of employment, can't they learn another skill? There is a dearth of health care employees. Any chance the IT people can learn nursing or social work or teaching? Hospitals are crying for nurses; we need good teachers; social service organizations need workers. Or are they too superior to lower themselves to doing this kind of work?

Greg Schneider: Many of these workers have already retrained from one career (I was surprised how many former steelworkers or manufacturing workers I ran across), and are at a stage in life where it becomes harder and harder to make another such momentous switch. It costs money, and takes time, to totally retrain as you suggest. And when you have kids, and a spouse who can't work or has health needs, it just gets even harder.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you feel that America's pool of human technology expertise will start to decline? It's hard to believe any new college freshmen would want to invest all the time, money, and aggravation to major in a tough curriculum like Computer Science if this is all they have to look forward to.

Greg Schneider: I have seen numbers showing a drop in enrollment in some IT-related college majors, and many experts worry that the U.S. could lose vital skills. There are still good jobs available in the field, though, and many in the industry predict that as the current work force ages the hiring environment will open up a good bit.

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Washington, D.C.: I own an IT business located in DC and am currently looking for techs. My business is pretty new (opened in 2002) and is growing rapidly. I have permanent positions available, with hospitalization insurance, 401(k) (with employer matching, upon qualification), car provided, base salary + commissions = $60 - 75K per yr and more. I'm having a really difficult time finding DEPENDABLE techs. I'd be glad to provide my e-mail address to any out of work tech or a tech that would be interested in helping a start-up business succeed. We are a franchised operation and there are a number of other franchisees out there, like me, who are also looking for techs. Any advice?

Greg Schneider: Thanks for writing; this sounds like the kind of opportunity people are looking for. It's interesting to hear an employer's point of view; so many people flooded the field during the Internet boom that a lot of under-qualified types wound up on the job market. That may be what you're seeing. There are a lot of web sites aimed at tech job seekers; I mentioned a few in the story. And there are support groups locally for tech workers, helping them find jobs and encouraging them to stay in the area. I know of a couple run out of the Tower Club in Tyson's and can get contact information if you email me (schneiderg@washpost.com).

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Allentown, Pa.: Kudos to you and the editors at The Washington Post for putting this series on. The NY Times used to have really great--on the ground--economics reporting, but not so much any more. Stories like these are really, really important. Keep 'em coming!!

Greg Schneider: Thank you; there are several more stories on the way in this series over the next few weeks.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you an update on the status of David Packman? Has his living and work conditions improved? How's his family doing?

Greg Schneider: I got a brief email from David this morning saying they had seen the story. They did try to move Sabrina and the boys to a house in Ohio owned by an acquaintance, but the arrangement fell through for now so they're all still in the motel in York. He's still working on the same contract; prospects beyond that are unknown.

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Auburn Hills, Mich.: I agree that there are folks who probably shouldn't have picked I/T as a career, and are unable to find a job now - but there are tons of us who are talented, experienced, and qualified, and are still unemployed or under-employed.

Greg Schneider: I have heard from many, many people who seem to be in that situation.

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Arlington, Va.: But, what happens to those professionals in their 60s who need to continue working because they have lost their retirement savings to the stock market. It's very easy for the employed to look down upon the unemployed. These highly trained professionals who are out of work, don't have the luxury of taking just any job b/c they are seen as over qualified. Bad attitudes by employed America only contributes to the problem. If you don't have constructive advice, then don't clog up the live chat!

Greg Schneider: I think there is also an issue with age in finding new work. Several independent tech contractors I spoke with were reluctant to tell me their ages because they feared companies would be reluctant to hire them if they knew. It's a fast-changing industry and seems to favor the young.

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Houston, Texas: Man, this bring me down a bit. I have a young son and am in okay shape, but I am appalled at the way our country is going and really feel for this family. Where are George Bush's family values now. Oh, yeah, sold overseas.

How would I send these people money to help them out a bit?

There must be thousands (millions?) in a similar position.

Greg Schneider: Several people have asked about contacting the Packmans; if you send me an email, I'll forward your information to them and let them make contact if they want to. (schneiderg@washpost.com)

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London, U.K. (formerly Buffalo, N.Y.): The article challenges is also interesting because it gets into the issue of how manufacturing communities have been adjusting to the decline of manufacturing. Its basically saying we see the echoes of those unemployment lines of the early 80s. But realistically, what can these places do? Its not like manufacturing is coming back... this is just the new reality.

Greg Schneider: Thanks for writing. I do find it ironic that a number of the people caught up in this situation are refugees from the manufacturing meltdown. At least the communities that were centers of tech investment don't have the huge, aging infrastructure of a mill town, and many of them are finding ways to recover. Technology isn't going anywhere, but the nature of the jobs is changing.

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Orlando, Fla.: Your article underscored the temp nature of the IT explosion that lasted about 5 years while U.S. industry got wired. Now, IT is a commodity and so are IT workers. Do you have any sense of how widespread the nomadic existence you wrote about is? What fraction of laid-off IT workers will try that before moving on to pizza delivery jobs?

Greg Schneider: This is a great question and one that I tried to answer but ultimately couldn't. There just aren't reliable numbers yet for understanding the scope of this IT/nomad situation. A number of experts are studying the more specific issue of jobs being displaced by offshore or visa-holding foreign workers; and there is huge anecdotal evidence of people facing situations similar to the Packmans; but I couldn't find hard statistics for tracking how many IT people have become geographically unmoored. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is supposed to do a survey next year, I believe, of "non-traditional" work arrangements, and that might shed some light.

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Response for Prince Frederick: Unfortunately for me I have run across some of the displaced tech workers who attempted to make the transition into education, and let me tell you, they were not cut-out for a teaching job. It takes a very special person to not only be responsible for educating our children but also being a disciplinarian for 6-7 hours a day. Becoming a nurse involves spending $$ returning back to school and testing to get certified that these people obviously don't have, if they did wouldn't you think that they would be living in a house or apartment right now instead of a motel room?? Gosh, you have to have some bit of empathy for those who have been left unemployed through no fault of theirs.

Greg Schneider: Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: Great story!;

What freaked me out the most is how much trouble this family is having getting by on what I consider a fairly generous wage. In fact, it's about what I make now. And yet the circumstances of their lives (the sudden job loss, the health problems) have left them in an ever-spiraling hole. The housing situation was especially heartbreaking.

Have you read The Two-Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren? Between this family's story and the statistics in Warren's book, I'm not sure if I am up for the risk involved in having children.

This health care problem is out of control, and all I see on the horizon are more holes being poked in the safety net.

Greg Schneider: Thank you. I know, $30 an hour sounds pretty good; but the lack of health coverage is a HUGE problem, and in the Packmans' case the consequences of their past financial troubles have just been too much to overcome. One aspect of their problem that I was only able to touch on in the story is how people who have the least money wind up having to pay the most for basic services -- such as cashing checks, or car insurance, etc. The hole just gets deeper.

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Reston, Va.: Pls. tell David to apply to the Federal Govt for an IT job while he is waiting for these temp jobs to come through. I know Govt is still hiring.

I wish he and his family the best. I hope things get better soon.

Greg Schneider: I hope the Packmans are reading this chat or get a chance to check it out later. There's plenty of advice out there.

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New Orleans, LA: I would like to address the smug comment from Bethesda, MD. I worked at Sprint as a Software Engineer until I left voluntarily in January because of my wife's relocation. But in the five years I worked there we cut our IT staff from 13,000 to 6,000, and it was because we had 7,000 incompetent people working there. A lot of very good people lost their jobs because of poor management decisions. Now Sprint is outsourcing most of the rest of its IT to India and most of the rest of the IT people will lose their jobs over the next few years. I have changed careers three times in my life and it looks like I will have to do it again. What happens when health care crashes--as it inevitably will. Heck, they are already sending x-rays overseas to be read.

Greg Schneider: A lot of strong feelings on this topic...

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Libertyville, Ill.: This article touches a nerve regarding changes in employee/employer relations and loyalty issues across the board. Tech employees were notorious for swapping jobs for pay/benefits increases and it appears that employers became fed up. The sad issue is that I had sought additional IT help and the applicant's capabilities didn't come close to matching their resumes, or they were so specialized they would require more time to train than the job was worth. I finally gave up looking. Current want ads I 've seen from other companies are looking for a 20 yr old willing to work 60hrs + a week with knowledge and work experience only available to someone at least 15 yrs older who held a different job at least every 3 yrs. Very sad situation overall.

Greg Schneider: Those are good observations. I do think the excess of the tech boom suckered a lot of people in; it seemed great at the time and people got used to it, but it couldn't be sustained. And you're right, many people gamed the system and swung from company to company in search of bigger and bigger paychecks. Not happening so much anymore.

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Sterling, Va.: Does Sabrina Packman work or do her health issues preclude her from working? I found it interesting that 75% of the Packman's woes came from lack of affordable healthcare. Great article, keep up the good work.

Greg Schneider: Thank you. Yes, Sabrina hasn't been able to work because of her health situation. She's been homeschooling the boys.

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Washington, D.C.: In response to the retired (or retirement age, I forget) respondent: tell him to contact any of the Geeks On Call franchisee owners in the area (I believe there are about 10 or 12 of us). I would be glad to hire ANYONE, regardless of his/her age if he/she:

--WERE DEPENDABLE

--safe driving record

--alcohol/drug free

--technically competent

In fact, I believe my business (Geeks On Call - DC) is perfect for such an individual. We offer our techs a designated territory to develop (zip code designations). We service both the residential and the business communities and are looking for individuals (regardless of age, race, religion, sex, etc.) with good technical skills who are interested in a job that is the closest one can get to owning your own business. Upon meeting a few performance-related criteria, our techs can be promoted into a "Managing Geek" position that pays all the same salary but also offers the tech a percent of the profit from his/her designated territory. All this plus a car, base salary 40-50K, commission - $15 - 30K, hosp. ins, 401(k) with employer matching funds. All this and I can't find/or keep a tech who's really interested in working to EARN his/her way in life.

Greg Schneider: Interesting perspective; and this does highlight another point I only touched on in the story (gotta whine for more length next time), which is that while a lot of these people are suffering at the hands of the Tech Gods, they're also able to find new solutions to their problems through the very same medium -- the computer, hooked up to the Internet. David Packman would have just been stuck in Warren OH if the company in York hadn't seen his resume online.

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New Orleans, LA: Let me get this straight for the last time!;

There were NOT 7,000 incompetent IT professionals at Sprint. A lot of good people were let go because of bad decisions by MANAGEMENT who got huge golden parachutes.

Greg Schneider: ...more strong feelings...

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Reston, Va.: These stories seem to be more proof of the rich getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Growing up, my family was considered middle class, in the late 70's long before the outrageous cost of living in the Northern Virginia area. Now, as a twenty-something year old college graduate with an excellent employment history, I find myself living just above the poverty line in Loudoun county. How am I supposed to get ahead? Between insurances, taxes, registrations etc. I end up living paycheck to paycheck! These days even dinner and a movie is a fancy night out with a hefty price tag. I can't even imagine what it must be like for those folks that didn't get as fortunate a start in life as I did. . . .

Greg Schneider: This gets at the heart of our series. Also I think it's worth noting that the middle class seems to have higher "entry fees" these days... everybody expects to have cable TV, and Internet access, and a computer, and more; without all that you'd feel shut out of modern life. But all that stuff costs money.

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Anonymous: I'm sorry my comment should have said it was NOT because we had 6,000 incompetent people working there.

Greg Schneider: thanks for clearing that up

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Washington D.C.: This is a great article. Not only does it portray the picture of individual life, but also clearly brings out the reckless mismanagement that happens in corporate luxury rooms for which ultimately individuals pay the price. It is too easy to say that people should pick up new skills. But it is quite another matter for the 40 or 50 somethings to do something like that while facing the prospect of meltdown in family life. Independent contracting is good for young people or for those who have just encashed a lot of home equity, but for the rest of us it simply sucks.

Greg Schneider: Thank you. What we're seeing is an industry in transition, and while experts and policy-makers can talk about the ultimate collective good that will come from offshoring and job contraction, the fact is there are individuals who will suffer.

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Auburn Hills, Mich.: The contributor from VA is right on target. When I was unemployed and desperate for work, no one would talk to me about a job outside my field because I was over- qualified. I ended up creating a "dumbed down" version of my resume so I could at least get interviews. But it never panned out, because no one would consider me for a "low end" position.

Greg Schneider: I heard this from others while reporting the story.

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Washington, D.C.: Have the Packmans considered filing for bankruptcy? This situation seems tailor-made for it.

Greg Schneider: I think they're trying to avoid that, but have considered it.

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Washington, D.C.: I left the broadcast industry after 35 years and did as many people in similar circumstances have done, I moved into the IT field.

After 5 years in the industry on a full-time basis I can safely say that it was a good decision over all, and I would do it again. However there are a couple of things people should know.

First, regardless of what the schools will tell you, there's not unlimited opportunity in this field. It's a skilled trade, like being a plumber. There will be ups and downs as in any skilled trade. And you won't get rich doing this. It requires a LOT of effort to learn new skills and keep abreast of changes in the industry, but the money doesn't improve along with the effort.

I work for a Govt. contractor, have not been unemployed since moving into the IT field, and I didn't lose a lot of money in the process. The IT field is still viable, but there's nothing "magic" about it. It's just a job.

Greg Schneider: This is a valuable perspective. Thanks for writing.

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Arlington, Va.: If older professionals in the IT industry face discrimination due to age, in comparison to their younger counterparts, would you suggest that they try to reinvent themselves at this stage in their lives and try another career? Possibly teaching? For Electrical Engineers, Computer Scientists with strong math and science backgrounds, would it be easier for them to transition into teaching positions at the high school and college levels? How would they go about doing this? Please provide some insight on how older workers can continue working in a field that doesn't seem to have any room for them anymore? Thanks.

Greg Schneider: While many people perceive age as a problem, there are others who argue that experience is still valuable. And while there is a lot of technological change, the fact is that many companies have gone to huge expense to install back-end systems and are in no hurry to change them, so they're going to need workers to service those systems for some time to come.

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Washington, D.C.: This article belies the false promise of education as a cure for all workforce problems. Here's a worker who DID retrain, but finds himself in a job market where employers just don't want the "burden" of full-time, permanent employees. We can all go and study for Ph Ds and Law Degrees, and become wiser for it, but even those jobs are becoming "adjunct" and "temporary."

When are we going to wake up and realize that education is good for its own reasons, but we still need to fix our labor environment?

Greg Schneider: Even for people with consistent employment in the tech field, retraining is a constant, costly requirement, just to keep pace with change change change. It all reminds me of the day-trading phenomenon, where people who were willing to shackle themselves to their computer and obsess over every minute tick of the stock market could squeeze out some gain if they were lucky; but who wants to live like that? Only certain types of people.

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Washington, D.C.: We here at the Community Action Partnership are very concerned about this topic and the fact that so many middle class families are in danger of joining the ranks of those in poverty. Your article demonstrated that one loss job or illness or a combination of both can send once stable families reeling.

We are calling on the White House to convene a White House Conference on American Poverty to address these issues and to preserve the American Dream.

Lisa Holland

Community Action Partnership

Washington, DC

Greg Schneider: Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: I am right now, today, considering taking a 4.5 month contract with permanent option working for a US Government department. The contract job would gain me Secret clearance, a nice perk. I currently have a solid, salaried position making $60K a year but do not like the job/employer anymore.

What's your take on this situation? Am I nuts to be thinking about leaving a salaried but not-fun job and taking a contract? I have bills due (like most people): mortgage, school, etc etc etc. Unemployment would of course be disastrous.

Thanks!

Greg Schneider: I'm not qualified to give job advice, but I know reporting this story made me feel pretty good about just having a reliable job to go to every day. (at least, I hope I do...)

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Forestville, Md.: What I am trying to figure out is why haven't the pay checks caught up the cost of living here yet? Although I make very good money at my current position, I am in the job market in order to get more money to live in a safer neighborhood then where I live now. And I also wanted to piggy-back on a comment from earlier. And to piggy-back on what a previous responder mentioned, the Healthcare Industry has already started to outsource positions, free-lance nurses, doctors and the like. The deal is for every one to not become relaxed in their current position. Always take advantage of whatever educational opportunities that are out there for you. Always network, even though you maybe happy with your current employer. Always keep your eye open for other opportunities.

Greg Schneider: I think part of the problem around here is that the real estate market has just been nuts for so long. If you got in early you're doing well, but the bar for entry gets higher every day.

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Washington: Love/Hate the series. Love: Because you are showing those of us blessed with permanent work how "the other half" lives. Hate: Having been a contractor for years I feel so sorry for these people most of whom are not responsible for their situation.

Anyway, thanks for helping me tolerate my-less-than ideal (but for now, anyway) permanent job.

Greg Schneider: Thanks; I feel the same way.

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Auburn Hills, Mich.: Do you think this is a relatively short-term thing, or has the job environment for I/T people changed over to reliance on contract resources for the foreseeable future?

Greg Schneider: I think there will be reliance on contractors and offshore workers for a long time to come. But I think the job market will change and generate new types of work for Americans. One of the future stories in our series will look at where those opportunities might be.

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Westminster, Md.: This article is so disturbing. I see a major problem with economic development and government job re-training programs that have served to substitute one failing industry with another rife with problems. We're supposed to be the cutting edge technology country--the goto idea guys--so not to worry about off-shoring, down-sizing since we will be creating jobs. Right. Nobody seems to know what the next big thing will be. Biotech with its minimal staff requirements for years? Nanotech currently a no go.

When President Bush says that the answer to the lack of jobs is just education, who is he kidding?

Greg Schneider: I got flooded with emails from tech workers after the presidential debates. Many took offense at the notion that they could just go out and train themselves to do something totally different.

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York, Pa: I can't type long, but I just wanted to thank everyone for their understanding and even some of the criticism, it's appreciated.

A couple comments.

I wish I could retrain into a field that I could support my wife and children in but I simply don't have the resources, even though I consider myself well rounded and able to learn quickly... It's not a matter of capability or willingness I assure you.

In general, everyone I've worked for has been pleased with my skills and work ethic. While I too have run across some who aren't qualified for what they do (as happens in any field), sometimes it's just luck of the draw that lands one person on the wrong side of things. America's workplaces are not meritocracies anymore.

Again, thank you all for the feedback and thank you, Greg, for telling our story.

Greg Schneider: Thanks for writing in, David, and for giving me the chance to tell about your situation. I think you can see a lot of people had strong feelings about it. Best of luck.

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Greg Schneider: I have to wrap this up. I'm just sorry I couldn't get to every question; they were all thoughtful and many told compelling stories.

Greg Schneider: On that note I'll sign off. Thanks again to everyone.

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