Good skills and a good attitude no longer ensure steady employment, even when the economy is humming. This is the first in an occasional series about job loss and the changing nature of employment.
The center of greater Barrington, population 40,000, is a compact village reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Radiating in all directions are six affiliated communities offering winding roads with 5-acre lots and gated enclaves. Nearby corporate headquarters include Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Sears Holdings Corp. in Hoffman Estates, Allstate Corp. in Northbrook, and Baxter International Inc. and Walgreen Co., both in Deerfield. Eighty-six percent of greater Barrington's employed adults work as managers and professionals, or in sales and office jobs. The median household income tops $110,000.
"There's more recycling going on, faster cycling," said retired consultant Philip Roussel, who sits on the board of the Barrington Career Center, which helps job seekers in the northwest suburbs. Despite low unemployment, attendance at a weekly networking meeting is up 37 percent.
People find jobs faster in a good economy "but more people are losing jobs than you might think," Roussel says.
Barrington's awakening to a national trend of rising rates of job loss for better-educated workers is a mirror for profound changes in white-collar employment. More than a decade after economists declared the old system of steady lifetime jobs dead, white-collar workers are struggling with the fact they can be laid off even in good times, more than once during a career.
It wasn't always the case.
When Barrington residents were asked in 1996 to check which of 10 difficulties their household faced, "difficulty finding child care" got the biggest score. It was the first survey by a coalition of 20 non-profit and government groups.
By 2005, "involuntary job loss due to downsizing or other reason" topped the list, followed closely by "difficulty paying bills" and "put off health care" because of cost or lack of insurance. By comparison, child care had become a minor issue.
The 2005 survey, the latest one, came as a shock because 16 percent of residents who responded said someone in their household had lost a job within the previous 12 months -- more than eight times the 1996 rate.
"We were surprised by it," said Sylvia Boeder, community relations director at Barrington's Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, who heads a committee studying the issue.
The responses were puzzling because the economy generated more jobs than were lost in 2005. Yet the recycling created losers. Employers in the north and northwest suburbs shed more than 3,600 jobs that year because of shutdowns or restructuring, according to state data.
Barrington officials don't have answers, but they wonder whether job churn contributes to changes they see surfacing.
Deborah Villers sensed something was different several years ago when it came time to get ready for annual "Giving Day" in mid-December. Organizers invite needy families to a school gymnasium filled with donated toys, clothes and food.
Villers' job at Barrington Community Unit School District 220 was to prepare a mailing list of households that received free or subsidized school lunches. But unlike years past, the schools' allotment of 300 invitations wasn't enough to cover all the families. Unnerved, she pared the list to free lunch recipients, but there were still 50 too many. Familiar addresses leaped out at her. They were from affluent neighborhoods, not just lower-income communities on Barrington's fringes.
"They were all over the place, they were names you knew and recognized on this list," she recalls. "It was disturbing."
Activity is brisk at the non-profit Barrington Career Center, which served 600 people from 100 communities last year.
"The information that comes out from the Department of Labor makes it look like it's a really rosy picture, but that's not what we see at all," says Monica Keane, the center's director.
Linda Spinelli, out of work since her position as vice president of purchasing for a local home builder was eliminated in February, visited the center for the first time this spring.