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Richard-John Mensing, Jr.

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Talent Sits Idle on the Hudson

Posted: 07/26/2013 5:00 pm

Young, old, conservative, liberal, BA's and PhD's, bikini's and surf trunks; welcome to "unemployment beach" -- where in today's economy, higher education buys you a place in the sun.

Clear blue skies, low humidity, with a forecast high of 82 and a slight breeze bouncing off the Hudson River -- conditions ideal for tanning, absolutely -- yet for numerous Manhattanites, this weather is even more important for helping to maintain a sunny frame of mind and sustain relevance while going through the now "daily and increasingly desperate routine" of searching for a job.

Nestled between the West side highway and the river walk, this three block stretch of freshly cut, green grass in the West Village plays host to what could be viewed as some of the best and brightest talent across a variety of business sectors still out of work - some of them dating back to when this economic upheaval began in earnest, late in 2008.

My introduction to "unemployment beach" (UEB) came in the summer of 2011.

Having myself, been laid-off in 2009 from CBS Television Network -- where I had served as the VP of Daytime Programming and Development -- you'd think I would have discovered it sooner. If not for the fact the "massacre at Black Rock" was levied that January coupled with being fortunate enough to get a consulting job in Europe, I probably would have been a "founding member" of this refuge along the river. Instead, (prior to heading to Europe -- March of 09) I, along with what seemed like thousands of fellow New Yorkers, who'd just been handed their pink slips that winter, became part of what I referred to as the "coffeehouse and wine-bar day-brigade." Places like these were packed from sunrise to sunset. Computers on every table, CV's (resume) on every screen, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, THE NEW YORK TIMES and various trade magazines all serving a purpose -- part resource, part barometer and part "comfort food."

So imagine my surprise on that spectacular Wednesday in the summer of 2011 (when I literally hopped on my crutches in a cast up to my knee while recovering from foot surgery - after breaking it twice - while working as a Strength and Conditioning Coach & Nutritionist) to discover the amount of people who were down at the river to take sun -- after all this was a workday. Within in minutes of my arrival and assessing the crowd it dawned on me, these weren't just sunbathers taking a day away from the office, this was their "office." It was the 2009 coffeehouse scenario all over again, only this time a beach towel served as a computer table and a "take-away" cup held their beverage of choice. The unemployed had migrated west to get a strong dose of Vitamin D and continue their hunt.

Relative to previous economic downturns, this current recession has taken out a larger portion of top-level executives and senior management than even most analysts expected -- a subject matter few media outlets cover when discussing the economy and the unemployed. A group usually protected from heavy job losses had been hammered hard. Five years later, they continue to find it more difficult than those who were laid-off at lower level positions to re-enter the work force.

It's not for lack of trying or because they have less urgency due to a bigger "nest egg" to live off. These people are not the 1% often discussed on cable news. These are hard working, creative and innovative individuals whose successes were direct results of such attributes and who - like many others -- have suffered the harsh consequences of long-term unemployment and just want to get back in the game.

Most of those I've spoken to over the past several years on UEB, tell a similar story about their efforts to land a position, what they've run up against, how their dealing with professional failures - often for the first time in their careers and the financial and health toll it has taken, not only on them, but those around them.

As one former executive told me, "It basically boils down to Economics 101. Supply (unemployed, senior management) far outweighs the demand (number of positions available) making the competition for such a scarce and premium commodity (a job) a true dogfight. My experience has been they usually awarded to someone they elevate from within. As much as I commend company loyalty it still smarts, like a bloody hard slap to the face."

Today's excess, of this once highly sought-after group, has left recruits, executive search firms and companies in a quandary. With fewer being placed in top-level jobs, fewer agencies are taking on new job seekers and fewer corporations are seeking their services.

"It's how I landed my first two jobs," Katherine, who carries an MBA from Cornell, said when the subject came up. After being laid-off last year, the search firm who was previously instrumental in her employment, couldn't take her on as a client. She's sent out over 200 resumes and applied on-line to countless internal HR departments who post available jobs - with only several contacting her based on her submissions. "It's tough enough for me and I have experience. I can't imagine what it's like for those who are set to graduate or have recently done so."

It would be wrong to perceive those down at UEB as just sitting around idle -- watching the boats go by. This is the part of their day -- used to inspire, exchange ideas and look at life through a broader lens, as they "think differently" about ways to re-enter the marketplace. It is this kind of foresight that previously made these executives successful. They understand the importance of the pivot -- the need to re-think, to enhance and push past the status quo in order to improve. Invaluable assets -- many would argue -- companies have yet to appreciate and apply to their own hiring philosophies in these ever changing times.

While going through the everyday challenges that being unemployed present, some volunteer, others work at non-profits, a few bartend or work at local shops -- anything to keep their minds sharp and their spirits from deflating. No "woe is me" tunes are sung here -- well, at least not out loud -- even though it is evident they are feeling the squeeze.

Regardless of one's education, experience and financial status, anyone struggling to find employment, understands the common denominators that exist across the country. Factors, such as the perception and dangers associated with remaining out of the work force for too long. Shrinking resources, expanding expenses, expiring COBRA plans -- if you have insurance at all, ageism, and the toll stress takes on their physical and mental well-being. To make matters worse -- a recent study from France -- found that those who leave the work force or retire later in life reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 3.2 percent.

Will studies like this one -- a decade from now -- reveal a greater number of individual's with early-onset dementia and other health issues due to the overwhelming numbers of unemployed this recession has produced? It's hard to say but it's another dimension being added to the narrative of those on "unemployment beach" about the lengths they will go to re-invent themselves and re-start their careers -- including leaving New York City.

"I feel confident of being able to secure a job in finance elsewhere, despite the shrinking industry," says a former VP of Securities at Bank Of America. "However, New York is not only home but the arena in which I want to work and compete. Leaving would be the equivalent of losing."

This struggle and inner conflict is on going for many. Scouring the country for work has proven both disappointing and successful. While often being met with the same realities they face here, others are more fortunate -- packing up their lives in the big city, saying adios to unemployment beach and moving forward.

To be successful in today's landscape of slim opportunities many executives realized they had to first look at how they did their previous jobs. Determined to capitalize on their findings -- they began to think differently and tap into far-reaching ideas on how their skill set and vision could now transcend across numerous platforms to finally land a job.

In doing so, despite CV's pronouncing a long list of accomplishments and years of experience, these former high level executives have sought lower paying, less heralding positions, either within their respective fields, or in a new arenas altogether...hoping the combination of their past successes and their new and leading edge approaches would be seen as key assets worth hiring.

Unfortunately, many are met with "over-qualified," "under-qualified," "I just don't see how your job history is applicable here."

These phrases and many like them -- cut across all industries. Not only do they seem upside down, shortsighted and counter productive. It would seem advantageous for the cost-conscious employers to seize on the wealth of smart and talented individuals willing to work for less -- who bring a world of unique and diversified experiences to the marketplace. Those looking to be employed have shifted their thinking, their focus and are doing things in a new way. Perhaps it's time for those hiring to do the same. Should that happen, they might want to consider taking a little trip to the beach -- "unemployment beach."

 

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