When joblessness persists

How millions of Americans coping with prolonged unemployment hang tough, and hold it together.

For the first three months he was out of work, Luis Vega avoided the networking scene. But when the electrical engineer hadn't been called for a single interview, he realized he was losing his conversational skills.

Now, with his knees tucked under a scuffed-up wooden Sunday school table, he's exchanging business cards with other job seekers. Since January, Mr. Vega has been coming to this weekly meeting, held in a peach-colored room at Foxboro's First Baptist Church.

"I got into a routine of getting up in the morning and checking the Internet, and the next thing I knew, the day was gone," Vega says during a break for some tea in the church kitchen. "I was pretty down before I started coming here.... Coming here keeps me going."

Vega's story is all too familiar to those coping with long-term unemployment. The stages often include isolation while griev- ing the loss of a job, an internal struggle to put ego aside, and finally, a willingness to seek expert advice - and to try new strategies.

When they do start talking to each other, the unemployed find common threads in their stories - stories of frustration as health insurance runs out and bills pile up, stories of prayer and of plowing through motivational books, stories of downsizing from a six-figure lifestyle, and sometimes coming out happier on the other side.

Knowing they're not alone, however, is a double-edged sword, because it forces them to acknowledge a rising level of competition for every open position.

That competition can become a prolonged affair. Of the nearly 8.8 million Americans who are officially unemployed, about 2 million have been looking longer than six months, the highest rate in 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A group approach

Before the formal introductions, the humorous chatter around the networking table hints at the desperate straits people envision when they're jobless. One woman mentions a study looking for paid volunteers, but in the fine print, she says, it asks you to live at a lab for 72 days. "Who would pick up the mail?" she jokes.

These drop-in meetings cost $10 a week and are hosted by WIND (the name stands for Wednesday Is Networking Day, though this branch, south of Boston, meets on Thursdays). A table in the church lobby is covered with binders full of contacts at local companies, and a bulletin board announces upcoming skills workshops.

Some prefer to meet with the same people week to week, to exchange not just job-search tips, but emotional support as well.

"Attention to the emotional and mental part is so important," says Diane Wilson, a career consultant in Chicago who is writing a book on long-term unemployment.

There's only so much that family members can do, she says. "Sharing your anxieties with people who are dependent on you can be really counterproductive.... I've heard wives or husbands say, 'I'll do anything - wash the car, take care of the kids - but don't let me have to sit through [and listen to] another interview experience my [spouse] had.' "

Being accountable to a group also keeps the gears moving during a job search - counteracting the desire to procrastinate. Martha Plotkin, who counsels small groups at Boston's Jewish Vocational Service, tells of one woman who kept putting off writing a cover letter.

Finally, a member of their "Success Group" said she would call her midweek to check in.

That did the trick. "It's very simple stuff, but having the support of people you've gotten to know ... makes such a difference," Ms. Plotkin says.

People should start networking as soon as they lose a job, experts say, but often they don't.

"The biggest problem I see, at virtually any level, is people's ego - 'Why do I want to go to a networking meeting with all these unemployed people?' " says David Theobald, CEO of the executive job site www.NETSHARE.com.

Vega, who hopes to find a job with a start-up, says he used to think he knew enough about job hunting, but the WIND meetings have taught him new strategies.

Rather than waiting for jobs to be posted, he now walks into companies he'd like to work for and asks for someone to contact him.

"There's a lot of stuff I said I wouldn't do which I'm doing now," Vega says, including thinking about leaving the Boston area now that his youngest daughter is graduating from high school.

As important as it is to maintain contacts, the struggle to maintain hope is a more solitary venture.

'Keeping my nose above water'

Stan Browderhas had only two interviews in the past two years. He has nearly 30 years of experience in state and local government work, most recently overseeing contracts for workforce development in San Antonio, Texas.

Part-time jobs as a substitute teacher and a convenience store cashier are "keeping my nose above the water just a hair," Mr. Browder says. At 58, he's convinced age discrimination is standing in his way. But he holds onto his faith.

"My son, he keeps saying, 'Now you know, if He takes care of the sparrow, He's gonna take care of us too.' And I say, 'Yeah, I know that, but I don't know if the creditors know that.' I get frustrated, and then I have to back off and have a quiet moment in my mind, and just kind of pray and hope."

When that precious interview finally comes through, the next challenge is to avoid coming across as depressed or resentful.

"People can develop really bad attitudes - for really good reasons," Ms. Wilson says. "But if they convey that sense of 'You owe me something,' or even a hint of crabbiness, it just doesn't work in their favor. They need mental and physical prepping," as if they were an Olympic athlete about to compete.

Julius Harris knows such preparation is important. He worked as a quality manager for a container manufacturer in Chicago when he got laid off last October. The 300 résumés he's sent out have yielded just a few interviews.

"I have to pump myself up when I go for an interview," he says. "I [look] at it like, I do have this job and I'm going to start work soon. And that's what has gotten me to the second interview."

A time to reassess career paths

"Coping" doesn't always describe the stance people take after losing a job. "For some, it will be an opportunity to look at their values and figure out they were stuck in something that was maybe materially richer, but psychologically a big trap," Wilson says.

That's what Robyn Sklar discovered when she went from a high six-figure salary to a stint working in a hot-dog wagon.

She lost two executive-level jobs in 2001, and for the first time in her life she had trouble finding another one. A career-transition course gave her a framework for reflection, and the hot-dog job supplemented her unemployment payments.

"I learned that you shouldn't identify yourself by your title in a company. And most people do," Ms. Sklar says.

Her two college-age daughters were supportive, she says, except when it came to the hot-dog wagon. "[That] kind of did them in. They're like, 'What?' And I said 'Get real. This is putting bread on the table. You lived one way, and now we have to live another way."

She moved to a smaller apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., and took in a roommate. For a time, she went without health insurance. One source of inspiration for Sklar was the book "Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor Frankl.

"I said, listen, if I end up being homeless, then that's where I'm going to be.... That gave me the courage to say, 'Nothing is going to get me down,' " she says. "Job is one of the Bible stories that kept me going. If Job can do it, I can do it."

She made plans to buy the hot-dog wagon, but when that fell through, she decided to start her own recruiting and HR consulting business.

At the end of 2002, two months after starting her business, Sklar declared bankruptcy to clear out some debts.

"I've simplified my life," she says. "I feel like I'm doing OK, and better, even, than when I was in corporate, because I ... don't get anxiety attacks."

Nicholas Masi, another New Jersey resident, says that being unemployed was at first a relief. A lot of pressures came along with his nearly $100,000-a-year job as a director of operations at a telecom company.

But unlike some people he knows, Mr. Masi didn't feel safe treating unemployment as a vacation. "It's a funny thing: You're either on the inside looking out - 'I want time off' - or you're on the outside looking in, saying, 'I wish I was working.' You're never satisfied."

For nearly a year, his job search occupied him daily, but he also fitted in lunch with friends and volunteer work for his Italian-American club. A recent job fair led to an opportunity as an insurance salesman.

Being paid by commission is not ideal, Masi says, and he won't have benefits for the first three months, but he's eager to get back to work - and get back to feeling the sense of accomplishment work gives him.

Temporary solutions

One option that should always be considered during a job search is project work, Mr. Theobold says.

People in their 50s or 60s often dismiss the idea because they have an image of "Kelly girl" temp workers, but many companies bring people in short term for important tasks, he says. And the contract may lead to a fulltime position down the road.

What Theobold warns against is letting project work put a halt to the hunt for a permanent job.

Envisioning a brighter future

Bruce Ferguson of Stoughton, Mass., is trying to strike that balance. To pay the bills, he teaches part time at a business college and sells outdoor-recreation equipment at an REI store.

Mr. Ferguson started attending the WIND meetings in May, about two years after losing his job as an assistant vice president in a financial-services company.

To keep up the search for a management job at his previous level, he recently decided to scale back his hours at REI.

"When I ultimately find that job, I know I'm going to be very happy," Ferguson says. "That's what you do to keep yourself going - envision all the things you'll be able to do when you get the job, like buying that new car, or taking your wife out for a nice dinner."

Feeling pinch of joblessness

To probe how joblessness is affecting Americans, the National Employment Law Project conducted a national telephone survey of some 400 unemployed adults in April. Among the survey's findings:

83% said their current job search has been harder than past searches.

61% were concerned that they would have to accept work that pays less than their previous job.

56% said they had been forced to cut back on food spending.

33% had interrupted their own or a family member's education.

33% of those who previously had health insurance said they were no longer covered.

26% had moved to other housing or moved in with relatives or friends.

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