Ken Hall expected it> would take much longer to get back to work. Within a few weeks of being downsized from his position as marketing director of an architecture firm, the 47-year-old from Memphis had scored a new job.
Actually, make that four. Between organizing press conference for the city s Walk of Fame, booking bands to the local cotton museum, promoting a new golf league and pulling together a patent presentation for a local inventor, he was keeping busy enough. The latest gig he s thrown into the mix? Bartending. It makes for an erratic schedule, says Hall.
For the nation s growing ranks of unemployed, the odyssey begins with a pink slip. Only these days the quest doesn t lead to a single new job but many. Faced with a national unemployment rate that recently jumped to a 26-year high, more than 7 million Americans are cobbling together a patchwork of positions to make ends meet. A recent survey from job site CareerBuilder.com revealed that 10 percent of workers had taken on a second job in 2008, while nearly double that said they plan to do so this year. Not surprisingly, the folks most likely to find themselves freelancing are those a little further down the bumpy road to retirement; a full 65 percent are over the age of 46.
A year of crushing layoffs has driven much of this workforce shift. Analysts say firms that aren t downsizing are hiring contractors, consultants and other contingent workers for lower pay and few, if any, benefits (which cost them, on average, an extra 30 percent). And the only way many workers find to minimize their risk of being unemployed again is to diversify the number and kinds of jobs they hold, not unlike an investment portfolio. More people are doing it out of necessity, says Ravin Jesuthasan, of consulting firm Towers Perrin.
Losing a steady paycheck and benefits certainly isn t easy especially with a family to support. And experts say competition among freelancers has become increasingly fierce, with projects running shorter and paying less. Still, some workers are seeing silver linings: self-structured time, a refreshing lack of office politics, a greater variety of tasks and contacts and the chance to fast-track a career change.
Trawling for Fish and a New Job
Phillip LoFaso has had his share of workplace adventures during a 23-year career in marketing. Yet none of it prepared him for this: Last fall the 50-year-old found himself aboard an 85-foot-long fishing boat off the coast of Long Island, trawling for scallops and squid while trying not to get seasick. Once LoFaso helped yank the nets out of the water, he d toss back catch that couldn t be sold to restaurant distributors: bluefish, sand sharks and, yes, a baby whale. It can be unnerving, says LoFaso, who was back on the boat this summer. I m a 9-to-5 guy.
Or at least he was. Ever since this father of two from Huntington, N.Y., got laid off from a health care publishing company last April, he s been working all sorts of hours trying to make up his former $150,000 salary. A full-time consulting gig in publishing downscaled to part-time, then ended abruptly earlier this year. He s spent hot summer days hoisting hundreds of seats into makeshift stadiums for outdoor events like a Hilary Duff concert. He s also been painting houses, bussing tables at parties and driving a catering van not to mention piloting that fishing vessel in the wee hours while the captain sleeps. As long as it s not illegal or immoral, I m ready to go, says LoFaso.
For his efforts, though, LoFaso is still facing an issue common among patchwork part-timers: generating income. Even with all his jobs, he s making less than a quarter of his former salary, without benefits. Indeed, a recent Columbia University study says that workers who lost their jobs in mass layoffs in the 1980s were still earning about 20 percent less than similar nondisplaced workers two decades later. To bring in extra income, LoFaso s wife, Regina, a preschool teacher, started babysitting part-time. But they re still falling behind on mortgage payments for their five-bedroom home meaning fewer movies and dinners out and no summer vacation. LoFaso says the worst part is, with all this job juggling and searching, he s now spending less time with his family than he did when he was working full-time.
Still, LoFaso suspects the right project at the right time might lead him back to a full-time gig. In fact, every two weeks he meets with a local support group made up of former marketers. While they set aside time to vent about the personal challenges they ve each been facing, they also swap tips about improving their r sum s and interview skills. And most important, they share job leads. We ve stopped thinking of it as competition, he says.
For Aliya Jiwa, the competition for new work is just heating up. Until last winter she had enjoyed a full-time job as a hotel development analyst in Dubai, complete with a tax-free salary of $65,000 and cushy perks like a free furnished apartment and daily chauffeur. But the company shut down her office in February, prompting Jiwa s move to New York City and the freelance life.
She quickly developed a network of friends who, like her, had been laid off from corporate jobs. Often, they forward job notices to each other. But whenever the most lucrative positions pop up, such as event-promotion gigs that pay upwards of $200 a day, things can get a little less collegial. Those are the ones everyone wants to get, says Jiwa, who estimates she ll earn as much as $70,000 this year if she keeps up her current pace of project work.
Hustle is nothing new to this feisty 31-year-old, who once owned and managed a caf in downtown Chicago for four years. When Jiwa sold it, she invested her profits in an MBA from the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland. The only problem: She came up $25,000 short, and Mom s now calling in the loan. While Jiwa s got two and a half years to pay off that debt, she s kicking into overdrive to get there sooner. It helps that a foreign hotel chain has hired her part-time to analyze the market potential for new properties. But a typical 18-hour workday for Jiwa has recently consisted of writing property blurbs for a real estate site, blogging and writing freelance articles, then helping a former banker use Twitter and social networking to promote his online T-shirt business. In fact, she used him as a reference to get her own line of shirts printed. Next challenge: to market and sell all 1,200 of them herself.
Yet her tiny one-bedroom apartment barely has room for the product she d need to order if her venture took off especially when she s also helping launch her twin brother s online shoe business. Although office rents have dropped 23 percent in Manhattan from their peak in the spring of 2008, Jiwa isn t ready to invest in a workspace quite yet. Instead, she s found a new apartment in the building next to hers. It isn t free, and there s no chauffeur. But it costs less than her current rent for almost double the space.
Trying Not to Slip Off the Roof
Ken Hall had never experienced a party quite like this before. An acquaintance he d known for nearly two decades had turned 70 and hosted a celebration in his sprawling backyard outside Memphis. More than 50 guests turned up, including some of Hall s church friends, and they spent the evening admiring the sunset, tapping their feet to live bluegrass and reminiscing about the birthday boy as photos flashed on a giant screen. But while Hall had been introduced to some guests as a family friend, he wasn t asked to sit down with them when dinner was served. The reason? I was not invited to the party, says Hall, who had been hired by a catering company to pour beer and wine spritzers all evening.
Bartender is just one of the many hats that Hall has donned this year. Ever since the end of the busy wedding season, when his mixing skills were honed at receptions in local gardens and museums, Hall has been splitting his time and energy trying to secure two kinds of incomes. On the one hand, he s looking for something steady which is why he s consulting with a few local nonprofit agencies. He also took his bartending skills a step further, becoming certified to train and award serving permits. He figures that by teaching four weekly classes of 15 people, he can earn an extra $1,500 a month.
At the same time, Hall is also picking up short-term contracts, in hopes that one morphs into a full-time position. That means subcontracting with an agency, where tasks have included finding 14 musicians to perform patriotic music at a country club fireworks show. (Yes, that s him on trombone.) Another stint: organizing the transportation for a five-day corporate meeting. Sounds easy enough, until the tour bus guide keels over from an apparent heart attack. Anyone mind a detour?
As stressful as moments like these have been for Hall, he s just thankful his own health has stayed strong so far. Unlike other positions he s held during his 24-year career, none of his current gigs offer health insurance. And his last full-time employer was too small to qualify him for Cobra, putting Hall among the 25 percent of freelancers lacking health coverage, according to the Ayers Group, a career-transition consulting firm. (For alternative plans, see Beyond Cobra on page 58.) During his first few months of unemployment, insurance was on his to-do list, but Hall was in no rush to pay the out-of-pocket expense of a private plan now averaging individuals $6,750 a year, three times the cost of a work-sponsored plan. But coverage recently became a priority after Hall got caught in a downpour while redoing his roof. I almost slipped off, he says.
Thus far, Hall s been able to get by with the earnings he s amassed, without racking up any debt. He did dip into savings once, though money pressures recently eased when he paid off the mortgage on his three-bedroom house. Still, it doesn t make life any easier when he spends his days sending out r sum s and waiting for calls back. When the phone rings, I have absolutely no idea what might be on the other end, he says.