Middle-Aged and Unemployed

— Michael Davis is unemployed, but his motivation is contagious. At 52, he's seen jobs come and go, and he's out of work again. "I was working for the San Diego Unified School District through a staffing agency called TOPS. They have an exclusive contract with the city schools, and what they do is hire you on short-term assignments, such as when someone is on vacation and/or they're trying to decide whether to fill a position or not with district personnel."

Davis isn't surprised by his layoff, one of many he's endured in the past few years. "I had 18 years with the Navy in the civil-service wing. I was a network technician and a supervisor of a major communications center. I was an overseer of telecommunications, digital data, voice -- you name it, I was hands-on. I was the civilian command duty officer for the Western Pacific. Then the cutbacks came, and the reorganization of the navy here in San Diego. A big command from Washington, D.C., came in and just absorbed all the smaller satellite commands, including communications.

"I went into training as a computer software and hardware technician. This was through the Urban League, which was sponsored by the San Diego Community College District. That didn't pan out because all of the promises that were made were never fulfilled. They said things like, 'You'll get a job right out of class; there'll be people here representing organizations like Qualcomm and Sony; they'll be sending them in to talk to you because you'll be groomed to go into their industry.' It never materialized. Ninety percent of the people that I went to school with never got jobs. I see them from time to time."

Davis believes the deception of bountiful corporate jobs veils a deeper problem. "It's overemployment. These corporations make promises that they can't keep. They'll hire 600 people, then they'll lay off 2500 within three months! And you're caught up in that. With Qualcomm, I was talking to the human resources supervisor, playing phone tag, and she got laid off! It's the same thing with all the big corporations. Because they don't offer decent wages or decent benefits. All they want is some kid off the street who's lost and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. They'll work him to death, and when he says something, it'll be, 'If you don't like it here, you can go. We got 20 other people waiting to replace you.' "

The last of Davis's jobs through the agency ended for seasonal reasons. "I had been doing computer software -- Microsoft Word, Excel, things like that -- helping out with administrative duties at the Ed Center on Normal Street. I was supposed to assist in a project they had planned, but it never got off the ground, so it lasted about five weeks, then there was nothing to do. I've been with the staffing agency about three years now. But because of the summer break, jobs are few and far between. August is the worst month to be working for the school system, because everyone's gone. Now I'm just waiting for TOPS to call me and say they have an assignment."

Although his own children are grown and out of the house, Davis and his wife are supporting his stepchildren. "They're young kids who can't make it on their own, so they're with us. It's my stepson, his wife, and two babies. I'm not the sole support, but it makes it all the tougher on my wife. She lost her civil service job a year after I lost mine, but she was blessed enough to get back into civil service January of this year. But this time, she's with a different department.

"We don't really have any savings to speak of. I even drew my retirement out. I have a little safety-net nest egg, but it's very small. Our bills run at least $2000 a month. This is my second marriage, and we came into the marriage with an accumulation of our past bills. There's a car payment, mortgage, and the gas and electric from last year -- we're still paying on that!" He laughs. "Six hundred percent! Then there's a couple of credit cards." Davis estimates that he and his wife owe nearly $27,000 in commercial credit.

Fortunately, Davis is eligible for unemployment benefits, but they can't begin to cover his family's needs. "As a matter of fact, I pick up my check today. It's $172 a week. They initially give you a dollar amount and spread it over six months, so it's, like, 4300 bucks over six months."

In spite of his predicament, Davis is extremely upbeat. When asked how long he thinks he can last without a job, he blurts, "Not another minute!" and laughs. "I've been jobless before and I've managed. Sometimes it's been odd jobs, minimum-wage jobs -- I can remember one time I was making $1.25 an hour; it was maintenance work. I've also shoveled cow manure. I've packed sandbags. I've done everything but fast food."

Davis's game plan is to improve his skills and find work that is less vulnerable to layoffs. "When I leave here, I'm going down to some ROP classes I'm taking to enhance my marketability. Right now I have a multimedia class, which covers production, Web design, the whole nine yards. Some years back I wrote down my goals, achievements, and experiences, and, well, I'm at a point in my life where I don't want to work for anybody anymore. That is, any more corporations who will say, 'That's it. Go home.' I've been through that at least a half-dozen times, and I've reached my limit. I would like to start my own business, and the wave right now is the Internet. That's why I'm in the multimedia class, and I was just calling about a Cisco class. Cisco is the most required programming and network knowledge for computers in the newspaper. Every other want ad will read 'Cisco.'"

Reaching into his folder, he pulls out a sheet describing a school counselor position and the required background. "I even want to be a teacher! When I did a career profile, they said because of my 18-years-plus working with the Navy I was qualified for this. I worked at San Diego High School temporarily as a career counselor/financial-aid person. I looked for college scholarships and helped kids get into college, and we had the best year San Diego High ever had. That was from May 2000 to May 2001. I got more kids accepted into college with financial aid with more success than they had ever seen. And with the state program I'm going through, all I need is a certificate. Here's my application for my certificate. Once I do my training and get my 360 hours, I'm in. I'm ready, and I've done my research."

The folders and checklists Davis carries make him hopeful that he won't be out of work for long. "I don't want to fall back on the 'I'm a 52-year-old black male who finds it difficult to get a position in the youngsters' market."

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