Hope for the professionally unemployed

The market is booming for tales of the out-of-work.

Published January 9, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Andrea Nilsson doesn't need to see the latest unemployment figures to know that times are tough. The 44-year-old mother of two was laid off in September after working two years in the accounting department of a Connecticut semiconductor firm. Her husband has been out of work since his Internet company filed for bankruptcy in May.

"It seems like everyone's looking for work and no one's hiring," says Nilsson, while poring over employment leads at a job referral center in New Haven. "Thank God I managed to attract the attention of these nice folks."

Nilsson pointed to the dozen or so reporters and cameramen crowded around her as she made her way around the job referral center. Television lights shone brightly as Nilsson filled out an employment form, talked briefly to a career counselor and shook her head sadly while scanning the current job postings. She later repeated the head shake several times for a second group of cameramen.

"They've been wonderful," Nilsson says of the media pack. "CNN went along with me to two job interviews yesterday. Newsweek helped drop my kids off at school. Some guy from the Christian Science Monitor is taking us out to dinner tonight, and he's paying."

With the nation's unemployment rate surging to 5.8 percent, a six-year high, the market is booming for out-of-work people telling their stories to the media. Nilsson, in the past week alone, has appeared as the anecdotal lead in a Wall Street Journal story on the unemployment rate, as "a worried mom" in a Time magazine story on the recession and as a "casualty of the tech bust" on the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather." An upcoming "Nightline" segment will follow her to a series of disappointing job interviews, and later this month, a USA Today pie chart will break down her family's weekly budget.

Nilsson isn't the only unemployed person who's found work telling her story to the media. Tom McGee, an unemployed sheet metal worker from East Lansing, Mich., has been featured in more than two dozen media accounts since being laid off from his job in August.

"The 'ABC World News Tonight' piece, that was the big one," recalls McGee. "Once I landed that, everybody started calling. I've never been busier."

The market may be flourishing for unemployed workers with a good story to tell, but increased competition is forcing some to be more creative about how they present themselves to the media. When San Bruno, Calif., resident Antonia Moore was laid off by a pet Web site last year, the media flocked to her door.

"It was easy at first," recalls Moore. "All I had to do was sit in my living room petting my cat and looking sad, and I'd end up on the evening news every time. But then producers started telling me that the dot-com bust story was 'old news' and I knew I needed to come up with something new."

Moore began volunteering at a local SPCA, and was soon featured in a flurry of stories about laid off dot-com workers seeking more meaningful jobs. More recently, after announcing that she was delaying the purchase of a new pair of shoes, she's appeared in half a dozen stories about weak consumer confidence.

Experts say unemployed workers will need to be nimble if they hope to appear in upcoming stories about the sputtering economy.

"In today's market, out-of-work folks have to be much more creative about packaging themselves," says Bill Mueller, a former Stanford economist who was laid off from his job in November. "Is that good enough, or do you need another quote? I can give you another one, it's no problem."

According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Labor, the average unemployed person will change the story about why he's out of work five times before landing his next job. While unemployed, he'll be featured in eight print stories and four broadcast accounts, on average.

For Andrea Nilsson, the media attention has been a welcome distraction from the stress of looking for work. But as she trudged out of the job center, with a pack of reporters trailing close behind, she admitted that it's getting harder to make ends meet.

"With all the reporters I have to talk to, there's a lot less time to actually look for work," says Nilsson. "That's why I'm thinking of charging a fee for interviews."

Nilsson declined further unpaid comment.

By Tom Mcnichol

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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