Riding out a jobless recovery

Tess Vigeland (in red) speaks to John Challenger of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas about his thoughts on the employment outlook.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: To put the stories of this country's 15 million unemployed in context, we thought we'd go to the go-to guy when it comes to jobs. John Challenger is one of the founders of the country's oldest outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Conveniently located -- for us, at least -- here in Chicago.

John Challenger: So glad to be here with you.

We talked outside one of the city's many significant labor sites. A non-descipt boarded-up building called Sakora's Hall. In the mid 1800s, it housed the Packinghouse Workers' Organizing Committee, and meetings there eventually helped lead to the establishment of an eight-hour work day.

John Challenger: You know, what's interesting is the eight-hour day has now turned into 24/7/365 work.

Vigeland: Yes. And in fact, let's talk about that.

Challenger: OK.

Vigeland: Even within those eight hours, assuming that you're limited to that, productivity these days have gone through the roof and more people are working harder within those eight hours.

Challenger: Companies manage their numbers so closely, they're constnatly looking at the task that people are doing, they're checking productivity numbers, they're driving it forward. But I think it's really due, less to trying ot cram everything into the eight-hour day, and just more about the fact that work now has expanded to include all of our time. And so, the idea that there was this clear boundary when you worked and your personal time was has just disappeared.

Vigeland: Let's talk a little bit about today's economy. There doesn't seem to have a lot of agreement about kind of where we are in the recession -- is there going to be a double dip? Are we actually in a recovery? But one thing everyone agrees on is if it is a recovery, it's a jobless one. Why is that so clear and what does that mean?

Challenger: Normally, recessions are followed by a jobless recovery period. So, after the early 90s recession, it took 15 months of jobless recovery before the jobs started to turn around. It took 18 to 19 months in 2000-2001. So we're now into about 11, 12 months of that same period. We don't know how long it's going to go, but what happens is the jobs start to get created, a lot of people who were sitting on the sidelines come back in, they want those jobs. So unemployment stays high, even as the economy starts to recover. Then also, you have a lot of businesses that are very cautious about hiring, for fear we're going to go back into, say, a double-dip recession, or their businesses are just going to turn south.

Vigeland: As we've been talking to folks here in Chicago about the job situation, one story that we're hearing a lot is that folks are having to take almost whatever job they can, because there's so much competition. And, you know, they're taking these jobs at significantly lower paychecks. Do you ever get your hiring power back once you've done that?

Challenger: I think you do. I think it's the right thing for some people to do after a long recession, to go take jobs to get back to work, to bring in income. And as the economy recovers, I think they'll be able to find jobs. In fact, I think it'll in their favor to say, "I worked through this. I wasn't going to sit and wait for the job to come to me." And I do think that some of those jobs, those better jobs, are going to start returning. I think people will find those jobs.

Vigeland: What's going to get us back to where we need to be? There's an awful lot of ground to make up.

Challenger: I think the economy depends on the growth and exports, our ability to tap into what happens around the world, and really dominate that market. Also, energy is crucial, health care is crucial, those are probably the industries that are going to drive change. Last, I think it's entrepreneurship and innovation. Most of job growth comes from small businesses, so I think that that's a key to the future.

Vigeland: What is the primary piece of advice that you're giving to your clients who are looking for your help right now?

Challenger: Well, stay really engaged. It's so easy when you lose your job to... You feel like you've been rejected by your former company; that everybody you go out and see, in some way or another, rejects you because you haven't got the job. So you just have to keep at it, because it's so easy to sit at home in front of the computer and wait for the job to come to you, and you can't in this environment.

Vigeland: John Challenger, thanks so much for joining us today.

Challenger: Thank you for having me.

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