Unemployment rates are slowly improving, and the economy is beginning to grow again. But for one particularly hard-hit segment of the unemployed — former high-income workers — finding another job is a struggle between balancing their own expectations and overcoming the prejudices of those who view their former salaries as an obstacle.
"There are 4.6 unemployed workers for every job opening in the country right now, and we know that employers are getting a slew of applicants for every position, so they can be very picky," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
"Older workers, once they get laid off, they're much more likely to get stuck in unemployment. They have spent a long time developing a certain set of experiences and wage needs, and when you're in an economy where jobs aren't plentiful, it's hard to find jobs that meet those needs."
Workers in high-paying sectors such as finance and technology lost their jobs at a faster pace in this last recession than did those in lower-paying industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Large numbers of engineers, executives, sales representatives and others whose six-figure salaries were stripped away in 2008 and 2009 are struggling not only to live, but also to recapture some piece of those former lifestyles.
A study by the Mergis Group, a Fort Lauderdale recruiting company that specializes in professional and executive-level positions, found that the confidence level among employed accounting and finance workers about their own job security had reached its highest level in three years.
"The report illustrates that workers' confidence in the economy and job market have dimmed. Conversely, workers are now indicating greater confidence in the future of their current employers and in their ability to find a new job," said Brendan Courtney, president of the Mergis Group.
Ken Leslie, chief executive officer of Strategic Search Consultants in Toledo, Ohio, said difficulty in finding a job isn't exclusive to those who made six figures before the recession.
"I think we're in a stage in America where everybody has to be worried," he said.
But hiring for some tech-sector jobs, such as computer programmers, has begun to pick up in recent months, said Leslie, who specializes in placements for executives and those with advanced technical skills. "The turtle is moving along," he said.
Economists say that although the employment picture looks bleak now, especially to those out of work for a year or more, there are strong indications that companies are beginning to hire again.
"Job growth has already started to mend," said economist Ken Mayland, president of Clearview Economics LLC in Cleveland.
Mayland likened the recovery to that following the recession of 1990-91, when job growth lagged significantly for more than a year before accelerating substantially in 1993. The swings are even more substantial for high-income workers, he said.
"In high-paying industries, employment is more volatile than in low-paying industries," Mayland said.