MODESTO, Calif. — As Mike Wilczewski pulls a heavy file of job applications from his briefcase, a piece of paper slips out. He looks at it, smiles and slips it back into his briefcase. • It's a cartoon of a frog in a bird's mouth. The bird is trying to eat, while the frog is fighting not to be eaten. "Don't ever give up," it says.
Since losing a job that paid him about $70,000 a year and included health benefits and a company car, the Oakdale, Calif., resident has felt like both the bird and the frog. In the past two years, Wilczewski has been told he is overqualified and underqualified. He doesn't know if he's reaching too high or too low in the job market. Ultimately, he's just trying to survive.
He's not alone. Like a growing number of job seekers, he has decades of experience, a diverse background and a college degree. He has been on the job market so long, he started reaching far below his previous pay scale. Eventually, he started hearing back from interviewers that he was overqualified.
"When I heard that, I started to think maybe I shouldn't show all my cards," said Wilczewski, 52. "I just need to get my foot in the door so I can prove myself, I can take off, I can do it."
Darlene Smith of Alliance Worknet in Stanislaus County, Calif., draws a deep breath when she hears stories like Wilczewski's.
For years, the Alliance — which helps people find jobs and deal with layoffs — has urged job candidates to develop basic skills and further their educations. Job seekers with solid skills and good work ethics once were hard to find.
Things have changed, Smith said. Businesses have closed and downsized, laying off once highly sought-after employees.
"They're afraid age is going to get them, or having too many qualifications. They're afraid they'll never get the wage they had before," Smith said of the displaced professionals and skilled workers she helps.
"We're seeing professionals who, at this time in their lives, never thought they'd be looking for a job or changing careers," said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the California Employment Development Department.
It has become increasingly common around staffing agencies and the Employment Development Department office in Modesto, where Wilczewski arrives every day by bus 15 minutes before it opens.
Mark Terry, a Modesto branch manager for the temporary job agency Labor Ready, is seeing the same trend. "We have journeymen carpenters who made $20 an hour who are hoping to make $8 now. Those guys can look at blueprints and build a house if they needed to. They have a lot of experience. Now, their experience is hindering them. Their pay scale is too high," he said.
Job seekers are lowering their standards as they watch the unemployment rate rise, labor experts say.
"When you're unemployed for so long, you adjust to the market," said Carla Whitehurst of Nelson Staffing. "I received a call the other day from a sales rep who made $75,000 to $85,000 a year. Now, she'll take $10 an hour. She'll take clerical. And she's willing to travel."
Vic Calbreath, 45, of Riverbank, Calif., has made the same plunge down the job market. He used to manage about 60 construction workers; now he cares for his 6- and 9-year-old daughters.
Calbreath said they keep things in perspective when he is turned down for jobs he wouldn't have entertained last year, like delivering frozen food for 12 hours a day.
"I lean toward management," he said, "but I've applied for anything and everything at this point."
Well-qualified, well-educated applicants are easy to come by these days, labor experts say. They're flexible and fighting to fill jobs they used to manage.
What's rare are attitudes like Wilczewski's and Calbreath's. After searching more than a year for jobs, and being told they are not qualified, they are still hopeful.
"You've got to have a good attitude. You can't let your kids see you depressed," Wilczewski said, smiling behind his salt-and-pepper mustache. "The kids are my support. They say, 'Hang in there, Dad.' It's hard, though. I'm a professional. I'm not used to having to beg and scrape for a job. I used to get other people jobs."
Wilczewski is a single dad with a 20-year-old son and a teenage daughter. Like many teens, his daughter wants a car. But Wilczewski hasn't had a car of his own since he lost his job.
Rain or shine, he stands at the bus stop every morning to get to the employment office in downtown Modesto before it opens.
After an hour and a half job searching, he takes another bus to a job he has had for two weeks. He makes $9.25 an hour working phones for a fund-raising operation. Wilczewski is grateful for the work, but it doesn't pay enough to cover the bills or support children. So he keeps searching.
"Never give up," he said to himself, while scanning job listings recently at the employment office.