Kiss Your Career Goodbye

Welcome, new workers, to the world of McJobs

Tell it to the kids not fortunate enough to get a degree. Aside from construction gigs, the government predicts non-service-sector jobs will continue to stagnate. That means more manufacturing workers will have to take lower-paid McJobs with few if any benefits, and often no union protection. Their best hope is training or retraining for more specialized jobs in areas like radiography.

One such worker is 29-year-old Jeff Olson, of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Laid off when his employer moved its aluminum cookware plant to Mexico last August, he could at first glance be a poster boy for the losers in the modern economy. Far from it. He says he was bored anyway, and had mastered every part of the assembly process. Now, under a federal program that helps retrain laid-off manufacturing workers, he's back in school, and plans to start training this fall in biomedical electronics. He looks forward to fixing medical equipment in hospitals, doing something more challenging and different every day. "To be honest, it's probably one of the best things that ever happened to me," said Olson. "I was going to go back to school anyway. This took me from point A to point B in less time than it would have taken me if I had done it all by myself."

But Olson knows he's in the minority. He estimates that 40 percent of his former co-workers are still unemployed or have taken lower-paying jobs, and he knows of at least a couple for whom the layoffs were devastating. What makes him different? He's clearly ambitious and bright, but he's also highly flexible, with no family to support. He's a labor economist's model 21st-century worker: smart, retrainable, mobile.

A baker at a shop like this one in Queens could expect to make $29,556 a year.
photo: Tara Engberg
A baker at a shop like this one in Queens could expect to make $29,556 a year.

Details

THE TOTEM POLE

Median expected salaries in growth industries, as calculated by salary.com

CUSTOMER SERVICE MANAGER
$62,546

REGISTERED NURSE
$46,927

HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
$46,429

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION INSPECTOR
$38,096

CARPENTER
$31,889

COOK
$30,357

NURSING ASSISTANT
$21,350

CAFETERIA ATTENDANT
$21,166

RETAIL CASHIER
$16,954

In a rapidly shifting job market, the best strategy may be to focus on what sparks your interest—and then hedge your bets against the BLS projections. "You don't want to train in something that you're not that interested in in the first place, that you're struggling to get through, and then it backfires on you and you don't even get a job out of it," says Jim Zephirin, senior counselor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. "Holy cow, how bad is that, you know?"

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