Kiss Your Career Goodbye

Welcome, new workers, to the world of McJobs

By now, Ondrea Delio should be living the good life. She learned multimedia design at Northwestern University, becoming the first in her blue-collar Connecticut family to get a bachelor's degree. After nabbing that $100,000 sheepskin, she landed jobs with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and Sapient. She also forked over another $10,000 to study Oracle databases at Columbia University.

But then, in early 2001, Sapient pink-slipped her—forcing her to move back in with her family, declare bankruptcy, and give back her car. Worse, she had to listen to her parents harp on how her degree was essentially worthless. She took a $10-an-hour retail job selling women's clothing and worked in project management at a liquor company. This January she finally found a better job—albeit one with no benefits—as a contract IT project manager for a financial-services firm.

Delio, 26, feels like the system conned her—luring her with the promise of a secure, upwardly mobile life, if only she worked hard and ponied up the money for expensive schooling. "The American dream, for my generation—the people who went to college in the mid to late '90s—was to go to school, get good grades, work your butt off, get internships. And eventually you land in a kickass company, you work 70 or 80 hours a week, and you make great bonuses," she said. "It feels like everything you've worked for and everything you've sweated for four-plus years has been ripped out from under you."

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.

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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

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Delio's timing was impeccably bad—she left school just as the tech bubble was about to burst—but her story underscores a broader reality of today's job market for newcomers. Choosing a career path is a high-stakes gamble on where the jobs are likely to be two or four years down the road. Guess wrong and you could end up at a dead-end retail or fast-food job, slowly climbing out of a deep, dank hole of debt. Guess right, and you'll enter a job market that offers less security than ever.

May marked the nation's third straight month of job growth, but the long-range view is mixed. For the best handicapping, you want the job market equivalent of a Las Vegas line-maker, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. Every couple of years officials there release the mother of all occupational outlooks, the 10-year employment projections. The most recent one, published in February, projected 21.3 million net new jobs through 2012. Construction jobs should keep growing (expect to see a million more by 2012). The strongest service-sector bets are in education, health care, and state and local government. The single best choice may be to join the ranks of registered nurses (623,000 new jobs).

But here's the depressing news: Of the top 10 occupations with the rosiest projections, seven are by and large poorly paid McJobs: retail (596,000 new jobs by 2012), customer service (460,000), food preparation (454,000), cashiers (454,000), janitors (414,000), waiters and waitresses (367,000), and nursing aides (343,000). And the BLS admits its numbers don't distinguish between full-time jobs with benefits and part-time or temp work. In other words, there will be plenty of jobs, but far fewer careers.

It's the rare kid who goes to the website to navigate the maze of job data (it's at bls.gov, under "Employment Projections"). But the gist trickles down through the media and career counselors, and through the anecdotes of friends and relatives. The result? A rapid drop in enrollment at Web, tech-related, and manufacturing programs, and a stampede into programs for accounting, education, and especially nursing. Some of the cheaper nursing programs, at technical schools, already have one- to two-year waiting lists, and programs elsewhere can cost $60,000.

What if the widest gate holds no allure for you? Told about the projected boom in health care jobs, Delio, for one, said she'd never consider the field—"I'd be puking up my guts daily"—and is disturbed by industry problems such as high malpractice premiums and HMO mismanagement.

Take heart, Delio: The news in other sectors isn't all bad. The BLS projects more than a million new jobs in business and finance by 2012, with another million in computer and mathematical occupations.

Still, many young Americans remain deeply disillusioned about their prospects. Take Jessica LaPlante, of Green Bay, Wisconsin. She worked in journalism for several years, but was given the boot from a local paper in October 2003. Now she's training to be a paralegal. She looks around at her fellow students—many laid off from local manufacturing and white-collar jobs—and wonders if she'll have to change again. "That's the fear," says LaPlante, 25. "I mean, is there any job or any career you can rely on? Aside from health care, I'm not hearing a whole lot of optimism as far as job security goes."

Young people like LaPlante know full well that part of the problem is cyclical—that the economy has gone through a particularly nasty downturn. What's striking is the bleakness of their longer-term view. "I don't feel there's enough job creation to sustain the American way of life that we've been enjoying," says LaPlante. "You can go to school, get professional training, excel at your studies, have professional work experience. You can come out and have a degree. And you still have trouble finding a job."

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.

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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