Dot-Com Survivor

— Bob Tommaso's view of the San Diego job market is grim. At 56, he is one of San Diego's many victims of the dot-com implosion, out of work since September 2000.

"I was working at a dot-com company in Sorrento Valley, doing programming. The company was going through a number of financial squeezes. At first I was told that I was going to be able to keep my job, then I was told that it was not possible. I didn't feel too good about it because I've been unemployed in San Diego before, and this is not an easy town to find a job in. I was rather upset.

"I had the job probably four months. It brought me down from L.A. I've tried to come to San Diego a number of times, but I've found the job market extremely tough in San Diego, so L.A. would end up attracting me back. I was raised in L.A., but it's gone through a lot of changes and it just doesn't seem to be much like L.A. anymore, whereas San Diego still seems to have the Southern California lifestyle."

His job in Sorrento Valley paid $600 a week, a salary that doesn't quite reflect the value of his background. "I have some pretty extensive computer training, but all of my computer training is obsolete. I was a d-base programmer for quite a few years, and I made pretty good money at that, but now d-base is no longer used. I had heard that in computers you were just constantly retraining and retraining and retraining, and that's what I'm experiencing now. I'm getting more training now, learning CGI scripting, which is a language where Web pages can contact databases, kind of hooking them together."

His former employer, Netgram, was a small company, a fact that never gave Tommaso any sense of job security. "It was a lack of seniority combined with bad luck, I guess. I was working in what is called an 'incubator,' which is like a company that holds a lot of dot-com companies. I don't think my company went out of business. They just collapsed down to a very manageable level. I'll bet you that none of those businesses closed completely; they're all just working out of bedrooms now."

A single man with no family, Tommaso has no savings but no great debts either. He is able to survive in San Diego by living with friends and working odd jobs on the side. "Fortunately, I only have to pay my operating expenses, and I own my own vehicle. My unemployment benefits ran for about six months, but that ran out a long time ago. It was about $130 a week. I'm still not even near finding a place of my own in San Diego. I don't think I'll last here too much longer if I don't get a job soon -- maybe another two months or so. I started reeducating myself last year as soon as I was laid off, but a lot of changes have occurred in the dot-com field. If I don't get something soon, I'll do day labor."

Day labor is one of many odd jobs Tommaso has dabbled with to help pay his expenses. "Ironically, I took on a casual-labor construction job, participating in the destruction of my old office! I couldn't believe it when I saw the order! I've done a lot of construction stuff. I was a judge in a teenage beauty contest. I've done a lot of moving, and I'm currently working as a bartender at corporate picnics on weekends. These kind of things just keep money in my pocket."

One of Tommaso's more lucrative yet unstable experiences was working in the entertainment industry. "I've worked in the music business and the motion-picture business. I was a road manager for rock groups for about 12 years. I went around the world with them, and I've spent a lot of time at the Whisky A Go-Go. About three or four times I worked with the biggest groups in the world. I had the Grassroots, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, Ten Years After -- the late '60s, early '70s. Then I switched over to motion pictures and became a paralegal in that business -- a job I didn't actually like too much. It turned out to be a lot more pressure-filled. In that kind of business, you're out of work as soon as a project is over." His current year of unemployment is, however, a new record for Tommaso. His longest spell without a job before this was six months.

Tommaso's disillusionment with the L.A. rat race led him out of the country during the 1990s. "I went off to Mexico for about eight years. I went to San Miguel de Allende, a 500-year-old town, in 1991. I stayed there for two years, writing computer programs for bars and restaurants -- because that's all there is in San Miguel. A major nightclub bought a program that I wrote for running bars, and I became the manager for their bar. I had to come to the U.S. in '93 because I ran out of money, so I elected to go to Texas, because California was having an economic downturn. I then went back to Mexico, this time to Guadalajara. I was down there until about 1998. A good job in Mexico pays, like, $50 a week. In Tijuana, it's about $80 a week, but that's an expensive town. I made $100 a week managing a club. As far as the Mexicans were concerned, that was a fabulous amount of money, but as far as an American was concerned, that just kind of dampened my outflow. I just ran out of money. When I went back to Los Angeles, it was just one huge traffic jam."

Tommaso describes his discouragement with surprising calmness. "So far, I've been unable to crack the San Diego egg. But when you're training yourself for other things, you limit your schedule, which makes it harder to find work. My age is a problem too. You can't put your finger on it, but it's harder. I'm sure I'm being discriminated against, and the industry I'm in has a tendency to prefer younger individuals. There's this notion that young kids are fixated with computers, and if you hire them, they'll just sit in front of a computer and work all day. I don't know whether that's true or not, but you walk into these offices, and it's all young kids. A couple of months ago I got interviewed at a very substantial looking software firm in Rancho Bernardo in an extremely conservative neck of the woods, and the guy that interviewed me had a stocking cap on down to his eyes! He looked about 20. That was the office style. It was a luxurious office, but the work force inside was extremely casual. They seemed to be implying, 'We're casual, but we don't expect you to go home before 9:00 at night. You might as well be comfortable because you're going to live here!' I think they don't want to hire you when you're older, because they figure you're going to stand up for your rights and say, 'Hey, look. I gotta have a life somewhere else.' That's not what they want.

"I've been in the work force for quite some time, and I've never seen it this hard to find a job. I do go through the second-guessing of whether it was smart for me to come to San Diego or whether I would have been better off staying in L.A. I think L.A. is a much easier job market. But last summer, dot-com jobs were hotter than flames. I can tell you that when I took the job, and I came here, and the place I was working had all these dot-com firms, it just seemed like magic. It seemed like everybody was into something that would turn into a fortune, but suddenly it turned. I'm really surprised how quickly and totally it turned around. I'm very happy to have a dot-com credit on my résumé, and that is what brought me from Los Angeles to here. I read in the paper the other day that San Diego is the sixth most expensive U.S. city to live in, but it's like the 21st city in terms of salary. I've taken a lot of job-getting seminars, and I've learned that over 50 percent of the companies in San Diego are five people or less, so it's a different kind of job place. It's a huge market of very, very small firms. That probably means less stability, and I'm not sure if that hinders me or helps me. I've tried to break the job market here many times before, and I was always unable to do it. It's decidedly harder than Los Angeles."

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