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$17 an Hour | Technology's Nomads

Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work

IT Unemployment Now Exceeds Overall Jobless Rate

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page A01

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.


"I just want to see my family happy. I want to see them satisfied. That's all I care about," says David Packman, playing with his sons Donovan, 9, and Kaz, 4. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
Tuesday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Greg Schneider will be online to discuss this article.
_____$17/Hour Series_____
Permanent Job Proves An Elusive Dream (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
_____Graphic_____
Information Technology Employment Overall, the IT workforce has declined since its 2000 peak. Computer programmers and electronics engineers have been especially vulnerable. Wage increases have also slowed.
About This Series

This is the third in a series of occasional articles about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how the changes are affecting large and small businesses and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost. To read the stories published so far, go to www.washingtonpost.com/business. Reporter Greg Schneider will be online at 11 a.m. today to discuss this article.

_____  The Economy _____

Interactive Graphic: Economy Over History
Report: The U.S. Economy




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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 plastics.

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.


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