On a recent bleak, rainy Tuesday that mirrored their mood, the 30 out-of-work job-hunters were gathered around a U-shaped table at the D.C. Employment Services office.
The group reflected just how severely unemployment has cut into the ranks of the city's once seemingly secure white-collar work force. These were professionals -- accountants, managers, RIFfed federal employes, consultants, a professor. College-educated, years of experience, articulate, dressed-for-success.
The kind of people you think would have everything going for them in their search for work -- if indeed they ever had to search at all.
But the gloomy truth is that many of them have been off the payroll for months. And for some, the time is fast approaching when the unemployment benefits that have sustained them expire. They had come to find out what, if anything, they were doing wrong.
But first, a brainstorming session to discover just what hardships they are experiencing in their so-far futile job hunt:
* "Everybody wants to send me overseas," says a 31-year-old woman named Albertha, who was laid off from an office job in a health services firm. Relocation abroad or elsewhere in the country is a possibility, but, "I'd have to sell my house and buy another one at high interest rates. I'd have to take the children out of school." One other factor: "D.C., I must say, has a marvelous life style."
* "It's much easier to find a job when you are employed," says Jerry, 35, laid off as a computer specialist at a local university. "The prospective employer looks at you, wondering why you aren't employed."
* "Lower salaries," pops in Albertha again. "Employers ask if you are willing to take a cut. They know you need the job. And if you are willing, they look at you suspiciously. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't." Adds another woman: "I've got obligations. I can't take a salary cut."
* "It's hard to portray a positive outlook," says Martha, 34, an accounting supervisor for a real-estate firm that went bankrupt in October as a result of the poor housing market. "An employer wants someone who projects self-confidence. But there's absolutely nothing out there."
* It's the competition, says George, a tall, husky young man. "You've got people with four or five years of college applying. I was qualified, but they say someone else sold themselves better."
* Job-hunting is expensive, says Steve, 35, who lost a position as project director for a government consulting firm because of federal cutbacks ("Nobody's signing anything"). "It's a very serious problem we are facing--the transportation costs, your clothes have to be sharper than usual." And, he asks, "How do you decide to reward yourself? After a good interview, I want a nice lunch to unwind--and not have to fix it myself."
The five-hour workshop is one of a series the D.C. Department of Employment Services is offering free on Tuesdays to benefit claimants who are having difficulty finding new work. Other sessions have focused on blue-collar and technical trades. They are expected to continue, says Etta Williams, director of the Office of Technical Services Staff, as long as there is a need.
"The job market here is very tight," workshop leader Sylvester Johnson tells the professionals. (And, adds another leader, Sam Love, "It is getting more and more gloomy. Some of us may be sitting in this same room.")
"But," continues Johnson, "there are jobs, and you can get those jobs. Maybe we can give you the additional skills to find the kind of employment you expect." He calls the workshops "an honest attempt to involve this agency in a different way" in helping the unemployed.
At the same time, he says, the sessions are a way to draw the job-seekers out of what can often be a period of isolation. They can "find camaraderie" as well as "exchange ideas and information." The brainstorming session is one way to show that their problems are not unique.
One thing that hits white-collar professionals hard, Johnson notes, is that unlike workers in more transitory jobs such as construction they may not be used to being out of work. For a laborer, it is "something you accept. In the professions, it is a new and different kind of situation. It carries a certain stigma. There are negative impressions."
Martha agrees. People she meets question her need for an unemployment check, to which she feels entitled. "I've had to divorce myself from people who are constantly critical."
As the workshop continues, Johnson begins to draw from the group suggestions on how to improve their search:
Increase your contacts, says Jeffrey, 34, an out-of-work economist with a Ph.D. Write letters, deliver re'sume's by hand, telephone, ask everyone you meet about openings.
Go around the front desk, says consultant Steve, to talk to the person who actually does the hiring.
"Be enthusiastic when you get there," says Rod, who ran an auto-parts store for 17 years before he was laid off. As someone who has been on the hiring side, he knows that is important. "If I have a knowledge of the company beforehand, I can tell them what I have to offer."
One thing he has failed at, he admits, is following up on the letters and re'sume's he previously has mailed out.
As for the personal problems involved in managing to keep financially afloat without a job, "sometimes," says Steve, "you have to swallow your pride and go to the people who would be willing to help, who have faith in you."
To help the money situation, "I do re'sume's professionally. You feel like you're holding your own in your social circle." He also advises making a budget--"write it out so you know what you've got coming in" -- and stick to it.
For Steve and Martha, joining the ranks of the unemployed has had its positive side. Steve has decided to switch to lobbying and has developed some promising leads. Martha is trying to establish her own accounting and tax service. "It's unfortunate I lost my job, but I certainly wouldn't have done this under any other circumstance."
At the end, Jerry sums up what may well have been the experience shared by others in the group. "I came here with a negative attitude. How is this going to help me? My unemployment is going to run out. But I learned you have to keep positive. You've got to persevere."