Job Jugglers, on the Tightrope

Category : CAREER

WHEN someone asks Roger Fierro “What do you do?” — which he knows is shorthand for “Where do you work?” — he laughs. Then he says, “I do everything.”

Mr. Fierro, who is 26, has four jobs: working as a bilingual-curriculum specialist for the textbook publisher Pearson; handling estate sales and online marketing for a store that sells vintage items; setting up an online store for a custom piñata maker; and developing reality-show ideas for a production company. So far this month, he’s made about $1,800.

Whereas most 9-to-5ers have some kind of structure in their lives, each workday can be wildly different for him. On a recent day, he worked on and off from 7 a.m. to midnight, making business calls, working on the piñata store’s Web site and visiting the vintage store, among other things. (To maintain his sanity, he made sure to schedule some “me” time from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8.)

“I have eight million things going on,” said Mr. Fierro, who lives in the West Town area of Chicago. “It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to take a nap.”

Some portions of the population — especially young, creative types like actors, artists and musicians — have always held multiple jobs to pay the bills. But people from all kinds of fields are now drawing income from several streams. Mr. Fierro, for one, has a degree in international studies and Latin American studies at the University of Chicago.

Some of these workers are patching together jobs out of choice. They may find full-time office work unfulfilling and are testing to see whether they can be their own boss. Certainly, the Internet has made working from home and trying out new businesses easier than ever.

But in many cases, necessity is driving the trend. “Young college graduates working multiple jobs is a natural consequence of a bad labor market and having, on average, $20,000 worth of student loans to pay off,” said Carl E. Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers.

“There are two types of people in this position: the graduate who can’t get a full-time job, and the person whose income isn’t sufficient to meet their expenses,” he said. “The only cure for young people in this position is an economic recovery of robust proportions.”

LOUISE GASSMAN, 28, has a rotating schedule of multiple jobs: as an actress; as an assistant to dance instructors at the Circle in the Square and Juilliard schools; as a baby-sitter; and in a variety of administrative roles and as a spinning instructor at SoulCycle, an indoor cycling studio in New York.

Ms. Gassman’s monthly income, which can vary greatly depending on whether she books an acting job, ranges from $1,800 to $4,000. Some months, almost all of her income goes to the $1,450 rent on her 290-square-foot studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Whatever is left after essentials goes toward paying off her remaining $16,000 in college loans.

“I worry about money all the time,” Ms. Gassman said. “I live on a really tight budget, and I live paycheck to paycheck.”

Periodically, the accountant who cuts her check at SoulCycle reminds her that someone her age should be putting away $300 a paycheck for retirement, an amount that is sometimes almost half of her pay. “I’m like, retirement?” she asks. “Then I have the ‘Oh my God, Oh my God’ feelings.”

Ms. Gassman has come up with creative ways to save money. She has a policy not to spend $5 bills and instead puts them in a Tupperware container. So far, she’s been able to use this cash to pay for a new air-conditioner, for three plane tickets, and for her dog to be neutered.

ON the brighter side, when or if these job jugglers get on a career path, they may offer an attractive skill set: they are expert multitaskers, hyper-organized and often very knowledgeable in technology. Having multiple jobs is an exercise in mental dexterity.

Ms. Branco says that because of her four jobs, which require skills as diverse as developing lesson plans and mastering an online ticketing system, she has become more adept at dealing with a wide range of people and situations: “I’ve learned to be very adaptable, because one day I’m corporate, the next day I’m start-up, and the next day I’m nonprofit.”

Mr. Fierro describes himself as “MacGyver.” He might have to transport some furniture, “read and synthesize documents, find obscure bits of information on Google and give presentations in Spanish, all in one day,” he says.

But beware: Too much multitasking makes it harder to sustain attention, according to Kirk Snyder, an assistant professor of communications at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, who researches the changing workplace values of Gen Y.

More college graduates are working in second jobs that don’t require college degrees, part of a phenomenon called “mal-employment.” In short, many baby-sitters, sales clerks, telemarketers and bartenders are overqualified for their jobs.

Last year, 1.9 million college graduates were mal-employed and had multiple jobs, up 17 percent from 2007, according to federal data. Almost half of all college graduates have a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree.

The goal for most, Mr. Sum said, is to be upgraded to full-time jobs. “That is where there is the most payoff for a college degree,” he said.

But full-time jobs don’t suit everyone. Ms. Gassman, for example, has been offered a full-time job at SoulCycle, complete with full benefits, but she doesn’t want it. “I wouldn’t be able to go on auditions in the middle of the day,” she explained. “Of course, it stresses me out not to have health insurance, but what is my choice? Work in an office and be unhappy? Being happy is a superhigh value to me.”

Mr. Fierro is much happier now than when he was working as a bilingual reading specialist for a public school in Chicago. “I was working 12 hours a day and making $38,000 a year and it wasn’t making a dent in the $120,000 in loans I had to pay off. Plus, I was miserable.”

Mr. Fierro, who calls himself an “aesthetic consultant,” would ultimately like to create his own line of merchandise, along the lines of Marc Jacobs. He is optimistic that he is more likely to achieve his goal by working on many projects than if he held a traditional job.

Ms. Branco says that while she is often exhausted and hasn’t had two consecutive days off in months, she isn’t ready to commit to one employer. “The jobs are allowing me to wander and figure out what I really want to do,” she said.

Professor Snyder at Southern Cal doesn’t see multiple job-holding as a trend that will disappear anytime soon.

“The likelihood of this generation devoting their professional life to just one job or career at the same time is simply counterintuitive to their worldview,” he said. “I think we would be seeing this generation pursuing multiple jobs and careers at once even in a robust economy.”