Worker's new gig is finding a new job

About a half-hour before noon Friday, Kevin McLaughlin pulled his two-door Toyota coupe into a parking lot off East Boulevard, climbed out and walked toward an office building. A medical practice had interviewed him for a technology support job earlier in the week, and he had to drop off more information for a background check.

Then it was off to uptown, where McLaughlin had a 1p.m. lunch to brainstorm with a couple of colleagues about other job opportunities.

Spending his days searching for a job is a switch for McLaughlin, 42, who was laid off from his information technology job last month at a big uptown law firm. It's the first time since before he hawked newspapers at age 12 that he's has been out of work without another job lined up, he said.

Now, he's among the nearly 1.2million people nationwide who have lost jobs this year and part of a growing number of Carolinas residents whose jobs have fallen victim to the souring economy.

On Friday, the Labor Department said the U.S. unemployment rate climbed to 6.5 percent in October, the highest in more than 14 years.

Nationally, companies shed 240,000 workers last month, bringing the total number of unemployed Americans to more than 10million – the most in a quarter-century.

State and local unemployment numbers for October won't be released until later this month, but jobless rates for North Carolina and the Charlotte region generally have been higher than national unemployment this year.

‘You can't ever be negative'

A Colorado native, McLaughlin took his first IT job 12 years ago. Before that, he was a mental health case manager. The career switch came after he found himself increasingly interested in technology in his free time.

“I just love working with computers,” he said.

McLaughlin said it didn't take long for him to advance from a customer service call center to on-site tech support. Yet the landscape now is much different from when he took his last two jobs.

When he applied for a tech support position at the American Red Cross eight years ago, only a few other candidates had the same skills, he said: “The pool was a lot lower.”

In 2006, he moved from the Red Cross to the law firm, which was adding staff to handle more business from Charlotte's banks – namely Bank of America and Wachovia.

One day last month started like any other, with him helping lawyers and other employees solve computer problems. Then he was called into a manager's office and told the staff was being cut by almost 40 people. What began as a typical Wednesday turned out to be his last day at the job.

While sudden, the layoff wasn't a surprise, McLaughlin said. The firm does a lot of business with banks, the banks have been struggling, and McLaughlin had the least seniority in his work group.

“I knew that things had been slowing down,” he said. “It wasn't anything personal … It's just the times we're in.”

At the time he was laid off, McLaughlin said, he was earning about $50,000 a year. He's married with two daughters ages 11 and 7.

A good severance package will take care of his family for at least a few months, McLaughlin said. They live in the same modest house they bought in 1999 – resisting the temptation in recent years to buy something bigger – and don't have any big debts beyond the mortgage on their east Charlotte home.

“We're fairly frugal,” he said. “We've always been on the cautious and conservative side.”

While he hopes to get a job that pays the same as his last one, McLaughlin said he may have to accept less, which is fine as long as he gets health coverage for his family. That's not necessarily a given, he added, since more companies are hiring technology support workers on a contract basis, which also can pay lower wages – about $15 to $18 an hour.

“Finding something at $25 or $30 an hour,” he said, “is going to be a lot harder.”

Still, McLaughlin remains optimistic. Part of it is his faith in God. Part of it is his willingness to be flexible and adapt his aspirations – never more important than in today's troubled economy.

“You can't ever be negative,” he said.

So his 9 a.m.-6 p.m. shift at the law firm has given way to tapping a list of almost 100 contacts – friends in other IT jobs, former bosses and others – for potential leads. Higher unemployment means more competition for jobs, but McLaughlin said he already has had a few interviews and hopes something will open up before his severance pay and health benefits run out in January.

“Most people are willing to help you out,” he said. “You just have to network and get around.”