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Wednesday, April 18, 2007 | When Rod Hanson agreed to step in as operations manager for a friend’s manufacturing business, he expected the stint to last no longer than six months.

Hanson’s short-term expectation stemmed from a simple fact — he lives in Vista in San Diego County, and the company headquarters are in Santa Ana, Orange County. Now, two-and-a-half years later, Hanson is still making the commute of nearly two hours each way, every day.

More Gray, Less Opportunity

  • The Issue: As the region’s job growth becomes more focused in specialized industries like biotech, high-tech and telecom, some workers closer to retirement than college say they’re forced to commute elsewhere to find work.
  • What It Means: The workers are opposite to the growing commuting trend in the region, where workers buy less expensive homes in Temecula and Murrieta and drive hours to jobs in San Diego County.
  • The Bigger Picture: Local economists have observed that San Diego is rapidly becoming an hourglass economy, with job growth in high-paying, specialized fields and low-paying hospitality and service sectors. Real estate, gas and other living costs are such preoccupations for many San Diegans that some are turning to measures like two-hour commutes in order to make it work.

He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to get on Interstate 5 by 6 a.m., arriving in Santa Ana by 8 a.m. At 6 p.m., he’s back on the freeway, arriving home by 8 p.m. for dinner and a quick hello to his wife before bedtime, an hour later.

It wasn’t for lack of trying to stay local that Hanson wound up in Orange County, he said. After shutting down his own telecommunications business in San Diego in 2002, he spent a couple of years consulting and weaving together other odd jobs, but couldn’t land another permanent position. He attributed that to what he sees as a regional aversion to gray-haired workers. So he agreed to take the job with his friend’s company, Membrane Switch and Panel in Santa Ana, and has been there since.

“San Diego is a more technically oriented market where you’re dealing with a higher-level, college-educated type work force,” he said. “Potentially, you’re dealing with young, aggressive college graduates. I’m 60 years old, and it’s tough going out there, trying to interview for a position.”

The trend isn’t lost on the region’s analysts. San Diego’s iconic industries include biotech, high-tech and telecommunications, fields that tend to attract workers closer to college than to retirement because of the specialized training required. The cost of living, of buying homes and of driving cars in San Diego County has bounded exponentially in recent decades, while wages have only crept up, making it better suited for younger professionals who aren’t saddled with the costs of caring for a family.

These commuters are the reverse of the commuters San Diegans are getting used to hearing about: those buying less expensive homes in Temecula or Murrieta and driving to San Diego County each day for work.

People in business careers nationwide have dealt with a rapidly changing landscape where mergers can mean demotions for long-standing employees and can bring new bosses generations younger than the employees under them. A 55-year-old former vice president for Corporation X, for example, may appear as a threat when she applies for a job from a 33-year-old executive at another company. And businesses hoping to keep costs low might favor someone whose medical insurance costs would be lower. Of course, such maneuvering is illegal and considered age discrimination.

There is no known empirical evidence demonstrating the difficulty near-retirement job seekers claim. But job candidates and economists swear: the unspoken preference for younger workers is there.

“Over 50 is a typical cut-off, so to speak, a mental cut-off for a lot of employers,” said Ken Schmitt, senior director for Judy Thompson and Associates, a local agency that searches for and matches financial executives with corporations. “They see somebody who’s going to want to come in and run things. They don’t see these people for what they are — really, really experienced and very knowledgeable.”

Schmitt said some questions he’s heard asked include the candidate’s health history and marital status, two legal faux pas among corporate recruiters. “I hear from candidates all the time that the questions that are asked of them are not on the ‘approved [human resources] question list,’” Schmitt said.

Economist Alan Gin from the University of San Diego said the region’s propensity for small, privately held companies instead of the corporate headquarters that inhabit Orange County drive these labor force issues. Just three San Diego-based companies made Fortune magazine’s 2007 list of the 500 largest companies nationwide — Sempra Energy, SAIC and Qualcomm. If more corporations were based in San Diego, more support services would cluster in the region, too, Gin said, which would include accounting, business, marketing and advertising services. Those service clusters might attract even more experienced workers, he said.

“They’ve been trying to lure corporate headquarters here but they haven’t had much luck,” Gin said. “The transportation infrastructure — it’s not good that you can’t fly directly overseas from San Diego.”

Scott Alevy with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce said the value of real estate in San Diego likely deters older workers, who may have already established themselves in the market, from leaving. He said the chamber had no official position on the trend, but he said he thought it a stretch to tie the changing labor force to any sort of concerted bias against older workers. People in his generation bought their homes when real estate was a lot lower, and might find it more expensive to buy a comparable home in other Southern California counties at the prices they once saw, he said.

“I’m 56, and there’s a lot more gray in my hair than there used to be,” he said. “My perception would be that this is far less about a kind of pre-established opinion or a bias, but it’s a lot more about the financial condition of real estate than a lot of other things. You can work anywhere, but you can’t live everywhere.”

The local economy has changed drastically in recent decades because of losses in aerospace and manufacturing. In the 1990s, three out of four aerospace jobs were lost, spawning a recession in the local economy. And the region’s losses have continued in the sector: 800 manufacturing jobs were lost in the year ending last month, according to the California Employment Development Department.

“The old aerospace industry, where people worked at General Dynamics for their whole careers, that’s kind of gone,” said Kelly Cunningham, economist for San Diego Institute for Policy Research, a think tank run by businessman and political figure Steve Francis. “Now it’s much more the case that you’re going to switch jobs from company to company.”

Cunningham said San Diego still contributes research and development to manufacturing corporations, but costs for the actual manufacturing run too high if companies try to stay here.

Mike Stell is another commuter who lives in Poway and works in Santa Ana. He takes the 6:44 a.m. Amtrak train from Oceanside to Santa Ana, where he connects to a bus before arriving at his marketing job at technology wholesaler Ingram Micro at 8 a.m. His company subsidizes half of his public transit costs, or he’d drive the whole way, he said. After a string of short-term positions with companies that went bust or downsized, Stell interviewed for several local positions, and was unsuccessful. Finally, on a whim, he checked an online job board for Orange County and found the job he has now. Stell echoed Hanson’s feelings of the gray-hair bias among the region’s companies.

“I’m not going to sue anybody,” Stell said. “But it’s more than a little subtle sometimes.”

Stell also agreed the region’s small companies make it difficult to climb past a certain level on the corporate ladder. And the job descriptions seem more fitted to a team of people than an individual, he said.

“Some of the job descriptions are incredible — three people couldn’t do this job,” he said. “And the wages … are crappy. They want a $60,000 performance for $38,000.”

Moving out of San Diego County isn’t an option yet for Stell, whose wife and two college-aged children work and live in the region. Neither is relocation an option for Hanson, though he said the commuting chapter in his life is about to close.

“The commute issue was big, certainly, going into this thing,” he said. “But quite honestly, over the years, you kind of get used to it.”

Hanson said he’s leaving the Santa Ana job at the end of April and has begun the search for a job closer to home.

“After being your own boss, it’s kind of a psychological letdown to compete for a job, trying to work for somebody else,” he said. “What I kind of figured I had to do was kick myself in the butt, forced myself to … start looking. I want to make this my last job.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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