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Languishing in a bad economy

Workers seen frustrated, anxious for new opportunities

Ed Leppert was suffering from a common affliction in today's economy: career reversal.

His employer downsized, his paycheck shrank, and the customer relations group he managed was disbanded. He was left handling a single client, just as he had years earlier. Leppert, 43, and in his prime earning years, thought, ''I've got 20 more years to go" to retirement, ''and I was going the wrong direction."

Career stagnation and backsliding go hand in hand with the worst job market in decades. The US economy generated a paltry 21,000 jobs in February -- the March unemployment report comes out today -- while Massachusetts lost 9,500. For the growing numbers of employees who are unhappy, unchallenged or unsettled at work, it is difficult to escape to a new job and a fresh start that will put their careers back on track.

Leppert, one of the lucky few, moved on, landing a position last fall as head of East Coast sales and operations for @stake Inc., a computer security firm in Cambridge.

But the nation's corporate offices teem with dissatisfied workers. Their feelings of frustration, recruiters say, are heightened by vivid memories of the late-1990s boom, when employment opportunities were plentiful. If hiring picks up this year, as President Bush predicts, corporate turnover is expected to rise.

''There will be an incredible number of job moves by American professionals once the economy and the job market opens up again," said Joseph Daniel McCool, editor of Executive Recruiter News, a monthly newsletter.

An unusually high number of US managerial and executive employees -- 83 percent -- said they would likely seek new employment when the job market improves, and 56 percent of employers said they expect their turnover rates to rise, according to a 2003 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization. CareerBuilder.com, a recruitment website, asks workers each year whether they plan to look for a new job in the coming 12 months. At the end of last year 40 percent said that they would look during 2004, up from 35 percent who planned to look during 2003.

People ''are going to make the move because they've had it," said Jack Mohan, president of Management Recruiters International in Boston. Employees often are ''doing the jobs of two, three, four people," said David Sanford, executive vice president of Winter, Wyman & Co., a New England recruiter. ''When they say to their bosses, 'I'm underloved and underappreciated,' they say, 'tough.' "

That's how Michael Hamilton felt when his employer, a New York bank, began outsourcing his duties as systems manager to a large computer company. Adding to the gloom at his office, he and coworkers were removed from the bank's payroll, and their checks started coming from the outsourcing firm.

Reduced to handling routine systems maintenance, Hamilton felt ''pigeonholed," despite an MBA and certification in various hardware and software products. The outsourcing firm performed the challenging projects, and his skills began to lose their edge, he said. ''As much as some companies want to say they value the individuals and care about you, I didn't really feel that," he said.

Last month, Hamilton started a new job as data center manager for Rockland-based Serono Inc., the US unit of the European biotechnology giant. At Serono, he is responsible for the entire North America computer system. He received a small raise. More important, he said, ''I feel very passionate. I've got a spring in my step."

Sources of employee dissatisfaction range from a lack of promotions and pay raises to feeling undervalued and overworked. Many corporations have stopped laying people off but have yet to begin hiring. That contrasts with the boom years when employers bent over backward to retain employees and lure new ones.

In 2000, as the longest economic expansion in US history was peaking, just 15 percent of employees expressed unhappiness with their work, said CareerBuilder.com. Dissatisfaction surged to 29 percent by December 2002, as the recession lingered. It dipped to 25 percent at the end of 2003, but website spokeswoman Jennifer Sullivan said that doesn't necessarily mean workers are happier. She said it may simply mean they feel ''grateful" to be employed at all in a terrible job market.

For job seekers, searches can drag on for months. Leppert tapped every professional contact during a six-month job hunt. To snare his position at @stake, he was up against some 230 candidates, including six who also passed rigorous screenings by Taylor/Haley Search Partners, which was retained by the firm to fill the position, said Steven LaKind, cofounder. Leppert is glad to be managing again, and at a growing company in a hot technology field, security. There is also a promise of better pay if he meets specific performance goals.

His ability to make a positive move in a tough market speaks to his reputation and abilities, LaKind said. But, in this job market, the stories of the 229 rejected applicants -- many of them qualified -- are more typical.

''We eliminated everyone and Ed was the guy," LaKind said.

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

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