Bob Witkop is thinking of dyeing his hair.
Though he’s 70 years old, Witkop has no desire to retire. But at the moment, he’s involuntarily out of the daily grind.
The day he got laid off in April of last year, he packed up his office, came home and told his wife the bad news. They knew the economy was weak and guessed it’d take a couple of months to find something.
“I had no idea,” he said. “It’s over a year later and I’m still looking.”
He half-jokes that he thinks his hair color might be complicating his job search: He’s been greeted by people younger than his children on the few interviews he did snag. The managers and career-long colleagues have retired. For the first time, Witkop’s not being wooed to a new post by a recruiter who knew his skills and wanted him specifically.
His experience spans decades. Witkop’s a software and systems engineer and has remotely tracked troops and gear in Iraq, jammed the radar systems of enemy combatants and streamlined patient records systems in hospitals.
While joblessness isn’t palatable for any economic bracket, it hits these former managers, bosses and mentors especially hard. They used to hire people. Now some can’t get past the security guard at a company headquarters, or catch any online attention from posting their resumés. Many haven’t looked for jobs for decades — some worked that long in one place and others always had recruiters calling them.
This economy, on uncertain footing after one of the biggest downturns in years, is a tough place to be an older job seeker.
“We’re seeing people with management positions, no degrees, some degrees, even Ph.D.s,” said Gary Moss, who researches the labor market for the San Diego Workforce Partnership. “It hasn’t missed any level of education.”
Indeed, the San Diego job market is flush with out-of-work people. The county’s unemployment rate was 10 percent in May. Although the region has been adding jobs in recent months, unemployed mid- or late-career workers are finding the terrain is very competitive.
“People are getting frustrated,” Moss said, “because we say things are getting better, but it’s still bad.”
This new system of finding a job is confounding even Witkop. His last company was bought by Boeing and Witkop lost his job less than a year later. Now they’re starting to hire workers again, but at about half the $95,000 annually Witkop earned.
He said he’s heard buzz that the loss of experience like his on technical projects has hit companies hard, and that the younger, less seasoned workers are getting tangled in projects. Witkop hopes the companies are going to have to “bring the gray-hairs back” sooner or later to clean up the mess.
But if and when that day comes is uncertain. In the meantime, Witkop’s joined a distinctive training program for people like him — those with college degrees and at least five years of professional experience who have one harsh thing in common: They are out of work.
For some, it’s been decades since they’ve had to think about what they’d do the next day. And the longer they’re out of work, the more it affects their self-assurance.
“I’m 55 and I’m scared for the first time in my career,” admitted Sue Dickey, a former Home Depot administrative assistant who lost her job last August.
Dickey and Witkop’s class feels different from a plain unemployment support group. Unlike rudimentary word processing classes or job search gatherings that are little more than glorified group Google sessions, this class promises to be intensive. The class is put on by University of California, San Diego Extension and funded by the Workforce Partnership.
On the first day of Witkop and Dickey’s class about a week ago, teacher Camille Primm asked students to chime in with their fears and frustrations. In a sweet but unyielding tone, she told them they would need to pull themselves together.
“Aren’t you tired of being a passive victim of the job market?” she posed.
She compared the job search to dating — at which a class member interrupted with a cruder, more exploitative analogy.
Primm promised to teach her pupils to brand and market themselves, network, communicate better, negotiate and know their personal strengths. She said they’d be videotaped in a mock interview so they could see themselves from an interviewer’s perspective.
The flops would show up on YouTube, she said. The class laughed nervously.
“I’m joking!” she laughed.
The crash course launched when the Workforce Partnership, a nonprofit that funds job-training programs, saw more and more educated, experienced workers coming through its career centers.
There is some hope.
Jan Noz, 42, drove forklifts for the U.S. Air Force, was a manicurist, worked temp administrative posts, did shipping and receiving, was a bank teller, substitute taught for a while and even worked in the blinds and wallpaper at Home Depot.
In 2003, she became the first member of her family to graduate from college, and she got her master’s a few years later.
When Noz lost her job in March, she needed more than the basic resumé help. Noz was a career counselor herself at her last gig, helping find jobs for veterans, some of whom required extra help reentering the job market because they had been injured.
So when she first went to get help, Noz met with quizzical looks from receptionists.
“They said, ‘You have a master’s, what could we possibly do for you?’ and, ‘You’re a career counselor, what could we do?’” she said. “There’s several experiences I had where I would’ve run frustrated from the room.”
But Noz decided to practice what she’d been preaching when she would counsel out-of-work clients. “I was tapping into everybody,” she said.
Her volunteering, class-taking and networking led her both the UCSD Extension class and to the new gig at San Diego State University Foundation. She started there last Thursday to work on curriculum and training programs for groups that work in behavioral and mental health.
Noz was in the first group of students to begin the career management class, and she likes it so much she’s persuaded her new employer to let her rearrange her schedule so she could still attend the class sessions.
The new class’s participants like Dickey and Witkop are worried. A researcher with 20 years under her belt of writing grants suddenly can’t secure funding to continue her work. An architect struggles to find anyone who needs a building designed. Information technologists found themselves on the wrong side of a streamlining cut. A real estate broker never expected the crash to hit quite so hard.
Dickey, the former Home Depot employee, said she’s hoping for clarity.
“The problem is I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she said. “I want to work. I don’t want to sit at home. I’m going crazy. Hopefully this will give all of us some direction on who we are and what we want to do. And how I’m going to get there.”