Tough Times, Tough Choices

Tough Times, Tough Choices

The sluggish economy turned Steven L. Grevious’ professional life upside down. From the late 1990s until the middle of 2001, Grevious earned $150,000 a year as an independent contractor in the red-hot information technology sector. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get as many as five calls a day from agencies seeking to tap his expertise in enterprise resource planning. In fact, Grevious was able to support his family on his income alone; his wife, Yvonne, a former journalist, spent her days at home raising their three children, Njeri, 7, Nkosi, 5, and Njioma, 3.

Fast forward to 2002. Companies have sharply curtailed IT budgets and are no longer willing to pay a premium for high-tech professionals. Over the past 18 months, Grevious’ downtime — the period between contracts — has risen from a couple of weeks to months. This new climate has required him to develop a creative approach to his career as well as the family’s finances.

For years Grevious had plenty of work close to his home in Stoughton, Massachusetts. But recently he has had to travel farther to find work, sometimes living out of state for weeks at a time, and for smaller contracts. Now he may travel as far as Phoenix, and Omaha, Nebraska. To make matters worse, his annual compensation has been slashed by more than 50%, and it also takes longer for him to get paid. “It’s a painful process,” says Grevious, who discovered just how badly industry veterans were suffering when he saw salt-and-pepper-haired white men lined up at an NAACP job fair this past summer.

Many of us would find it difficult to follow the path Grevious has been forced to take, having to move from region to region to earn a fraction of his once six-figure income. But these days, hordes of professionals are being forced to make such tough choices. Hundreds of major corporations — from financial services firms to high-tech companies — are slashing payrolls. At the writing of this article, there had been 1.2 million layoff announcements so far in 2002, 176,000 layoffs in October alone, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Whether you’re employed as an investment banker, pilot, or engineer, you’re not exempt from becoming a casualty of corporate cutbacks. And making matters worse, job creation has slowed to a crawl so it isn’t easy finding a job after losing one.

The situation is even more alarming for African Americans: The black unemployment rate stands at 11%, compared to the national rate of 6%. Preston Edwards Sr., publisher and CEO of New Orleans-based media company IMDiversity Inc., says African Americans are at a disadvantage because, “We’re generally the least senior [in the corporate hierarchy] and, in many cases, we’re in noncritical areas” like staffing and public relations, instead of key positions like finance and sales. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), African Americans hold 8.3% of the managerial and professional specialty jobs in the country, representing just 6.6% of financial managers