03 October 2009

From Project Manager To Bathroom Attendant

White-collar jobs go trailing after a sliding economy

Story from the Wall Street Journal

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. -- Dave Duncanson still isn't used to being on his feet all day.

The head custodian at Stoney Creek High School starts his day at 4 p.m. by logging onto a computer, reading a series of building reports and assigning cleaning tasks to his subordinates. Then he must march through dimly lit hallways to clean his designated area: the principal's offices, the counselor's wing and the media center. For hours each weeknight, he can be found pulling trash from bins, vacuuming carpets, putting desks and chairs back in place.

The job pays $15.05 an hour and comes with a pension and benefits. In that sense, Mr. Duncanson, 49 years old, feels fortunate. But the story of how he got here offers a window into the deteriorating economy of Michigan, once a bastion of middle-class prosperity, and the plight of tens of thousands of white-collar workers who have been displaced by the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry.

Less than a year ago, Mr. Duncanson was working a few miles away in Auburn Hills, at a desk on the fourth floor of Chrysler's tech center. There, he was a product-development manager making $109,000 a year in salary. At his current job, he'll make less than a third of that.

"At first, I just wanted to do something to bring in money," says Mr. Duncanson, who had spent eight and a half years at Chrysler and took a buyout last November as the company slid toward bankruptcy. "I figured things would bounce back."

They haven't. Michigan's unemployment rate has galloped to 15.2% in August from 9.6% in November, running roughly one and a half times the national rate and leading all states for at least 26 of the last 28 months. In metro Detroit -- home to all three big U.S. auto companies -- the jobless rate is 17.7%, the highest of any large urban area in the country, according to the Department of Labor.

"I sweep floors. I mop bathrooms. I clean up puke."

For Mr. Duncanson and former colleagues who left Chrysler in a swirl of white-collar job cuts last fall, the result has been a year of frustration, financial insecurity, swallowed pride and, inevitably, sacrifices.

Mr. Duncanson got his first auto-industry job in 1984, armed with just a teaching degree from Northern Michigan University. He joined Chrysler in 2000, working his way up through a series of managerial jobs in product development.

Though he wasn't an engineer, he oversaw large teams of Chrysler engineers during pivotal powertrain launches for vehicles such as the Dodge Ram pickup and Jeep Liberty SUV. His specialty was streamlining processes, which put him in a layer of management that Chrysler was eager to eliminate when it ran out of cash and slashed its product-development budget late last year. He left with a buyout package of $50,000 in cash, an amount based on his eight-plus years of service.

He had been out of work for three months when he approached his local school district, Rochester Community Schools, which serves this wealthy suburban community north of Detroit. He figured he could land a teaching job, only to find out that his teaching certificate had long expired. Eager to pass the time, he took the one district job that was available to him: substitute janitor, at $10 an hour.

His wife, a part-time teachers' aide in the same district, was supportive. His two teenage daughters were initially horrified at the thought of their friends seeing him pushing a broom or cleaning a bathroom after school. But the older one, 16-year-old Heather, says few students are comfortable talking about their parents' jobs lately.

"Some of my best friends, their parents could be out of a job and I wouldn't know," she says.

By July, unable to find other work, Mr. Duncanson seized an opportunity to take a custodian's job full-time. He was assigned to Stoney Creek, a crosstown rival of the school his daughters attend. With the promotion came a raise, though it was diminished that same week when the custodians' union accepted a 25% pay cut to avert outsourcing.

Mr. Duncanson proudly notes how has been able to transfer his experience in streamlining processes to his current job as head custodian. Still, he says, "How would you like to be the guy who runs into his old co-workers and says, 'Hey, I clean toilets'?"

As Stoney Creek opened last week for Mr. Duncanson's first school year as a custodian, he considered himself one of the lucky ones. A year after the exodus began at Chrysler, many of his former co-workers are still out of work and have no steady income, health-care coverage or retirement benefits. He has all three. Even the mortgage is taken care of: He used his $50,000 buyout package to pay it off. And he's hoping to gain a builders license to supplement his income.

The evenings at the school are long -- the shift ends at midnight, after his wife and daughters have gone to bed -- and the new job is tough on his feet. The family is watching spending carefully; dinners out and big family vacations are no longer an option.

But there are upsides. The heavy-set Mr. Duncanson has lost 25 pounds since giving up his desk job, and his cholesterol is down enough that he's off medication. The former efficiency expert has already gotten a promotion, in part for streamlining the school's daily cleanings.

More importantly, he says, his daughters have learned the value of a hard day's work, no matter what kind. Living in an affluent suburb where classmates routinely get new cars for their 16th birthdays, he says, that hasn't been easy.

"Well, yeah, it hurt," he says, of accepting a lower-paying job. "But every dollar counts."

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