Jobless professionals seek work at Alcatraz

In an odd turn, the recession is sending formerly well-paid professionals to prison. Well, sort of. Alcatraz is hiring! And this season, the island has attracted an unprecedented number and mix of applicants to contend for the chance to hand out audio tour guides or ring up jailhouse souvenirs for $12 an hour. But can they survive on the Rock?

In a sign of the tough job market, a single day's Craigslist posting in early March attracted 260 résumés, more than five times the number submitted last year, says Nicki Phelps, director of visitor programs and services at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which runs Alcatraz. This year's unusual cast of applicants includes a cartographer, software engineers, lawyers, and, for those craving schadenfreude, former employees of bailed-out financial institutions. "We anticipate that we're going to get very, very good employees this year," Phelps says.

Working on Alcatraz is no picnic. Cold Pacific winds swirl into a workspace best described as incarceration chic. Getting to work requires hiking up a hill the height of a 13-story building. The work can be repetitive ("This is how you use the audio tour guide"), the crowds dense (325 people every half hour for 14 hours), and visitors bombard staff with the same questions all day ("When did Alcatraz become a national park?"' and "Where's the restroom?"). Also, employees must remember to bring all the food, water, clothes, and reading material they need for the day, or suffer like a convict in the hole. "You don't want to forget your lunch, because eight hours with no food on Alcatraz, you really start to feel the privation," Phelps says.

Island life also has plenty of charms: a panoramic view of the Bay Area, a pleasant and congestion-free boat ride to work, and a private library full of island lore. Kat McAllister, an Alcatraz tour guide for seven years, says the remote island brings the world to her. "The world shows up on the Rock," she says. "You get to experience a large variety of cultures and see how they respond to the island's history." Prison talk also plays well at cocktail parties, says Katy Olds, a 12-year veteran who gave up a law career to be a project manager on the Rock. "When you work on Alcatraz and you say that, the first reaction is disbelief, and the second reaction is people start gathering around you wanting to hear the stories," she says.

This year's applicant pool is deep, but fancy degrees matter less than the right attitude. Successful candidates will "have an absolutely happy, open, friendly demeanor," Phelps says. "You have to want to work with people, because you're going to see 5,000 people a day." Well, guess that means banking executives are out.

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