CHICAGO — After years searching for permanent jobs, many skilled workers are getting used to the new normal: temporary employment. • These are workers with established careers, who were making up to $100,000 a year as mid-level managers or executives before the recession. Now, they are temporary workers, hired without benefits and at a fraction of what they used to make.
They are workers like Bob Szabo, 48, who moved to Chicago in early 2007 to become the chief operating officer of a wireless services company. He was laid off a few months later, then rehired and laid off again in 2008.
"I figured the downturn would last five or six more months, and figured that, if nothing else, I would find a job as a loan officer at a bank," Szabo said.
Szabo has visited the unemployment office more times than he can remember.
He has worked as a car salesman and as a Census worker. He has become a master at using coupons and an expert at finding free events, but he has twice racked up about $15,000 in credit card debt. The first time, he sold his shares in Apple Inc. for $30,000 to pay his debt. His goal was to stop using his credit cards, he said, but without a job, he resorted to using them.
"My plans to retire are destroyed," said Szabo. "I have less than half than what I had when I was 38. I am going backward."
Since Szabo lost his job, his partner of 18 years has become his sole support. Without him, Szabo would be in California, he said, living at his parents' home.
He continues to look for a job, one he hopes will last until he can retire. "I just want to manage something, I don't care (what it is)," he said.
Another temporary worker, Tim Halas, works full time as a mid-level manager with a competitive salary, but for short periods of time and without benefits.
"Every time the contract is near its end, he gets nervous but doesn't say anything," said Halas' wife, Sharon.
About every six months, Halas applies for another short-term job. He has looked for permanent positions but hasn't found one. It's unsettling, he said, but he is adjusting.
"Like any person, when you are the primary bread winner, you get that feeling in the pit of your gut and wonder how will you support your family," said Halas, 53.
In addition to saving Sharon Halas' paycheck, the couple plan dinner dates at home, and Tim Halas bikes to the store to save on gasoline. In the mornings, instead of driving separately, his wife takes him to the train station.
"If this is what I do the rest of my life, I will make do," he said. "But if the right (permanent) position came along, I will (take it)."
Then, there are people like Mark Lyons, who doesn't think he'll land a permanent job again.
The way he sees it, companies will continue to hire full-time workers on a temporary basis. After all, he said, it's an employer's market.
"Employers are more demanding," he said. "If the position has 10 requirements, you have to have 11 of them."
That's why companies have been able to hire him at a fraction of what he's worth, he said. Before he was laid off in April 2008, Lyons was a mid-level manager, doing market research for food companies.
When he lost his job, he signed up with 17 temp agencies to earn money as he looked for a permanent job. After working a few clerical jobs, he got a two-week assignment at a health care nutrition company. The company kept him on as a temp for almost two years, paying him $17.25 an hour, or about $35,000 a year, $53,000 less than his previous job.
"It was below my skill level and quite low in pay, but I was happy. I was working and making money to support myself," Lyons said.
Lyons, 47, kept sending out resumes, following leads and calling companies to pitch himself. He went on a few interviews, but those didn't result in jobs. He earned enough to stay current on the mortgage on his Palatine, Ill., townhouse and make ends meet. But, he said, he has occasionally accepted help from his parents.
"It can be difficult because I don't like to have to ask someone else (for money)," he said.
When the job with the health care nutrition company ended in August, Lyons found a temporary consulting job that's keeping him afloat. To supplement his income, he teaches a vegetable gardening seminar at a library and night classes at colleges. He also lines up singing gigs on his days off.
Lyons said he still sends out resumes and continues to network, but the past two years have made him think about what he wants out of life. So he's starting a business teaching people how to grow food in their gardens.
"I'm going after the things I like to do," Lyons said.