When the classroom clears, Grant Gibbons trades words for music. Packing his van with Peavey speakers, lights, amps, mixers, and a virtual library of today’s top hits, classic jams, and dance tracks, the high school English teacher becomes Music in Motion, mobile D.J. for hire. Chores such as laundry and grocery shopping are squeezed into whatever time remains between grading papers, writing lesson plans, booking gigs, and driving to and from events. Each week is a constant rush of switching hats, staying on his feet, paying bills, and trying not to dwell on what he’d rather be doing had he any downtime on his hands.
It isn’t something he saw coming years ago when he first became a teacher.
“I’m a teacher first,” he says. “But the reality is that I don’t really have the freedom to say no to a well-paying gig at this point. I have to be able to provide meals and clothes for my kids, keep a reliable roof over their heads, and get them to school. Without the extra income, I would simply be unable to do all of that.”
Gibbons isn’t alone in his predicament. Today, a staggering number of teachers and comparably skilled and educated workers are faced with the choice of going financially belly-up or taking on second, or, in some cases, even third jobs. Whether it is through traditional clock-in, clock-out outside employment, freelancing, odd jobs, or frequenting yard sales in search of collectibles to resell on eBay, the fact is that the number of skilled and well-educated people who have to burn the candle at both ends just to get by is rising sharply.
“I know teachers who supplement their income by working at Barnes & Noble or providing child care services,” Gibbons says. “I’ve been told a number of times that in South Carolina teaching was never designed to be a primary income. The problem is that when your primary job only provides you with a secondary income, you need to do something else as well to allow you to pay your bills.”
Economic watchdog agencies warn that today’s college graduates are entering the workforce significantly more debt-burdened than preceding generations. They are living month to month, often without money to set aside for emergencies or save for retirement, paying off colossal student loans, battling rising housing costs, and earning wages that do not increase at the same pace as the cost of living.
“This is not particular to the Lowcountry,” says Denny Ciganovic, director of career services at College of Charleston. “This is becoming a national issue.”
If we, as a society, value education and hard work, shouldn’t education and hard work be better rewarded than the data seems to indicate? If we measure economic stability in terms of the ability of the average working family to pay for their essential needs, we seem to be moving toward shaky ground.
According to studies by the Economic Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Washington, D.C., the inflation-adjusted earnings of skilled and college-educated workers have declined, in some cases significantly, over the last few years despite an apparent economic expansion. In fact, the same data indicates that only those in the top five percent of the wage scale enjoyed an increase, suggesting that while the economy may be expanding, it is expanding almost exclusively in favor of the wealthiest members of society. Corporate profits, no surprise, have been robust.
In terms of the widening income gap between the wealthiest and poorest wage earners, South Carolina has ranked tenth in the nation in recent years. Fueling the problem is the offshoring of skilled jobs and a resultant excess of talented individuals competing for a shrinking pool of positions.
Shrinking? But what about the two million jobs created in 2005 that President Bush spoke of in his State of the Union address? Two million, as a number, sounds great until one takes into consideration that it represents a growth of only 1.5 percent. According to a study by economist Lee Price of the Economic Policy Institute, the growth of new jobs averaged 3.5 percent from 1964 through 1995, more than double last year’s growth. Thus, despite what White House press releases may like to suggest, these are not prosperous times by any measure for the average working family.
Other critics of the purported economic expansion described in the State of the Union point to those who have been out of work so long that they have stopped actively seeking employment, skewing the unemployment figures, or those who have taken jobs inappropriate to their education and experience because it is the only work available. It also doesn’t count the college graduates who avoid lower-paying but socially important jobs such as teaching and working for nonprofits simply because their debt burden is too large.
“The thing is, I really do want to continue teaching,” Gibbons says. “You can’t really put a price on how important those moments are when a student lets on that something you said inspired them to read deeper into the text or explore other subjects. But if it were not for having a supplemental income, I’d be like other teachers I’ve known who, in the last few years, have had to get out of the field and try something new. The average life span of a teaching career seems to be about five years.”
And so he continues to sacrifice his evenings, weekends, and social life in the hope that it will all work out eventually.
“D.J. work can be a lot of fun,” he adds. “I’m comfortable behind the microphone and I love music. The only thing that bothers me is that I have no choice.”
Revenge of the Loans
Heavy student loan debt is often cited as one of the primary reasons for college graduates taking on additional jobs. Individual debts of over $20,000 are common for undergraduates, and those who go on to medical or law school may face six-figure debt burdens when they graduate. Worse, these rising tuition costs at colleges and universities have long outpaced any increases in starting salaries for the graduates they produce.
“The monthly payback is so high that it is difficult to break even or have a little extra,” notes Ciganovic.
Working part-time while attending school helps, but the gap between how much a student is able to earn at a minimum-wage job and the expenses incurred each semester continues to widen. About 40 percent of current students will carry what many financial experts consider to be an unmanageable debt burden upon graduation, making getting started all the more difficult.
“The pay in the Southeast is five to 10 percent lower than in many other parts of the country and that just exacerbates this problem,” Ciganovic adds. “Some people say that because it is cheaper to live here, you can manage on a lower salary, but this is becoming less true.”
As heavy a burden as student loan debt can be, studies suggest that housing costs create the single greatest financial obstacle working families face, particularly anywhere on the coast. The lower one moves on the wage scale, the worse the problem becomes. As journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, has noted, for those on the lower end of the wage scale, a minimum of two jobs is needed just to be able to live indoors.
“If you follow the rule of thumb that your rent or mortgage should be about one week’s pay, we just don’t make enough to do that, not here,” says Gibbons. “The cost of housing in the Charleston area is out of control. Rent has doubled in some places over the last ten years. The pressure is on, for a lot of people, to find another source of income just so they can have a place to live.”
What is needed, according to ongoing efforts by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and other advocacy groups, is a living wage, defined as having sufficient funds to pay for basic necessities such as rent or mortgage, food, utilities, taxes, health and child care, and transportation within a particular community.
Larry Struck, facilitator for the Charleston Career Transition Group, a networking circle that meets at Circular Congregational Church, has seen firsthand how even talented, educated workers can have a hard time getting by. “Many of the career and living wage obstacles in the Charleston area that have been discussed, such as lower wages and a workforce geared more toward retail and food-and-beverage, are not just subjective impressions but are in fact backed up by national data,” he notes. This is, in fact, a large part of why he established the networking group. “Professionals who have trained in one area and now have to think about changing fields, be it due to downsizing or a change in status or needs, can experience feelings that they’ve been unproductive, feelings that time has been wasted. It really helps for them to discuss their job situation with and get support from others.”
Between 1991 and 2001, moonlighting appeared to be on the decline, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures, but since 2001 the numbers have been steadily rising. Traditionally, men have been more likely to moonlight, but recent years have seen an upswing in the number of women taking on extra jobs. It’s easy to burn through more than 75 hours per week, and relationships and marriages can suffer accordingly.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between seven and eight million Americans are moonlighting. This figure, however, does not count those who take on extra work “under the radar.” Often, the primary employer disapproves of workers taking on outside work and this leads to covert moonlighting. Other times, workers may take on more easily concealable odd jobs such as manual labor or tutoring. Sometimes they want to conceal the extra work from their primary employer and sometimes they want to conceal the extra income from Uncle Sam, something that can easily come back to bite them.
Do you do it for money or for love?
Debt, of course, is not the only reason that people take on outside employment. For those considering a career switch, moonlighting may be a means of testing the waters, gaining experience, or establishing a reputation in another field. This is especially likely to be the case when transitioning into a career such as music, theatre, or art. Individuals edging toward self-employment or freelance work in areas such as writing, graphic design, or bookkeeping often keep their day job while steadily building a reliable client base. Benefits, such as health insurance, are another reason that people may keep a foot in one door even though their heart is leading them in another direction.
The physical toll that the long hours exact remains but studies indicate that those who are working extra hours in a field unrelated to their day job are most satisfied when they are doing it out of love for that particular kind of work.
When the time comes to make a choice between two jobs, however, transition anxiety still results.
“Many people tend to isolate their situation when faced with a transition, especially if it continues for any length of time,” Struck adds. “They begin to feel they are alone in their predicament. The support of others who are or have been in the same situation helps them to feel that career transition is a normal experience.”
If you want a pill, you pay the bill
The rising cost of health care has a direct impact on the financial well-being of working families, in particular when children are involved. The reality is that less than half of the workforce receives health coverage through their employer. The percentage just gets lower and lower the farther down one looks on the wage scale.
With or without insurance coverage, in an economy where everyone’s budget is stretched, if you want a pill, there will be a bill. Rising health care costs have led to less coverage as insurers strive to maintain their profit margins. “Health insurance is becoming more like auto insurance,” says Steve Latour, who offers health insurance plans to the self-employed, as well as food and beverage workers who do not receive coverage through their jobs. “You don’t expect your auto insurance plan to pay for an oil change; you expect it to cover you if an accident happens. What we’re seeing is that routine things like annual physicals are being covered less and less.”
And so for the young worker, just out of college, it is often a wake-up call when the first doctor’s bill arrives, a bill likely to take a substantial chunk out of an already stretched budget. And this is becoming an increasingly significant factor in the inability of many working families to make appreciable gains year to year.
“There are a lot of kids, ages 22 through 25, who are out there with no coverage once they are off their parents’ plan,” Latour adds. “But accidents happen and they do have financial repercussions.” In terms of protracted hospitalizations, these repercussions could easily run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The reality is that for many of her citizens, even those who contribute long hours and hard work to the economy, the only healthcare plan the United States offers is this: keep working and hope you don’t get sick.
But how long can you maintain?
But how long can anyone maintain relentless work schedules, juggling jobs just to keep up on monthly expenses? “I know people who have left teaching because they looked at their lives and realized that they were never getting ahead on their bills, their student loans weren’t being chiseled down, and they realized that 30 years from now they might still be in the same situation,” Gibbons says. “They worried that they might end up with nothing over and above this.”
“DJ work is seasonal,” he notes of his own situation. “I catch up on my financial obligations in the best months: June, when there are so many people getting married, and December. I try not to fall behind too much the rest of the year when work is slower.”
“Plus, it has made my life a lot larger, having this outside work. I’ve been to huge events at Boone Hall and Lowndes Grove Plantations, the South Carolina Aquarium, about a half-dozen harbor cruises, and some very nice homes and penthouse apartments throughout the Lowcountry.”
Larry Struck, of the Career Transition Group, agrees that the versatility displayed by today’s struggling moonlighters should be applauded. “Professionals and other hard-working people are, for the most part, skilled and resourceful individuals who bring to the table a lot of useful traits that will serve them in a variety of fields,” he says. The long, late hours may exact their toll, but there is hope, even if that hope is long in the distance.
“I’ve found, as an adult, that you can do things as long as you have to,” Gibbons says. “Whether that’s just long enough to pay off a specific expense or for the duration.
“I’m usually one of the last to leave an event,” he adds. “Sometimes the catering staff is still there, other times I’m locking the door behind me. Even if I’m only actually playing music for a few hours, it still can add up to more than a full 8-hour day in terms of loading my equipment, driving to the event, unloading and setting up, doing the show, cleaning up afterwards and coming back home.”
The fatigue can’t show, however, not in the classroom and not at a gig. That’s often the most difficult part of moonlighting, not letting the effect of the long hours show through, especially when the second job requires you to keep the dance floor packed and the mood upbeat.
“For that,” he says, “you have to have a kid’s sense of fun, but an adult’s sense of responsibility.”
CHARLESTON CAREER TRANSITION GROUP (CCTG)
Meets the first and third Monday of every month from 7 to 8:30 PM in upper Lance Hall next to the Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St. Free, open to the public.
For more information:
Substitute teacher at James Island High School
“My roommate moved out and I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills, so I’ve been working two jobs since February.”
“It’s really difficult to get a day off, because if you get off one job, usually the other won’t let you off.”
“My bosses don’t like it because it hurts my availability.”
“My income is 50/50 from both jobs.”
“This is only temporary. I hope to have just one job by this summer.”
Part-time DJ at The Bridge at 105.5
Writes obituaries forThe Postand Courier
Mows lawns and cleans pools
“The majority of my income comes from the newspaper because radio doesn’t pay a damn thing.”
“I would rather have just one job that I enjoy, but I can’t. But, this isn’t all out of necessity. If I quit one job tomorrow I wouldn’t be right on the street. I’m the exception to the rule.”
Veterinary Tech Assistant
Tour guide at Boone Hall Plantation
Trivia Host at The Map Room
“When I moved from Athens, Ga., the rent here was triple what we paid before. I make only a dollar more an hour here, too.”
“I’d rather be firefighting. That’s what I have a degree in, and what I did before.”
“I barely make enough money with two jobs. I’m really living paycheck to paycheck.”
“I work at the vet’s primarily because I get health insurance.”
Some Things to Consider Before Taking on a Second (or Third, or Fourth…) Job
1. How will this impact your day job? Many employers have specific policies concerning outside employment. Half-open eyes, dragging feet, and a surly attitude do tend to be noticed the next morning, after all.
2. Are you moonlighting to reach a specific goal, such as paying off a definable amount of credit card or student loan debt? It’s best to know going in what your expectations are and approximately how long it will take to accomplish what you set out to do.
3. Extra work hours add stress. Consider ways to make the best of it, such as pursuing outside work in a field that provides a change of pace or a different work style from your day job.
4. Take into account how much time you’ll need to commute between jobs, especially during peak traffic times. Changing clothes while inching along Ashley Phosphate may be doable, but it’s not the safest practice.
5. Know thyself. If all joy is being sucked out of your life and you are staring at the unrecognizable mug of a zombie drone each time you look in the mirror, it may be time to ask yourself if the extra income is worth the eventual cost to your physical and emotional well-being.