Still looking: update on four long-term job seekers

No offense to people who make a living doing retail work, but Bruce Ferguson is eager to have a "real job" again. A former vice president at Putnam Investments, he has spent the past 2-1/2 years job hunting and doing "survival" work in the Boston area - including selling recreational equipment at REI.

And in the past two months, he's turned optimistic. Four former executives who were working the cash register with him at REI finally landed jobs back in the corporate world. "That has made me feel like, 'Oh man, pretty soon they're going to get to me,' " Mr. Ferguson says.

The door to employment may finally be opening a crack. Construction companies, restaurants, and small businesses have been hiring cautiously in recent months. Especially encouraging, some observers say, is the pickup at temp agencies and in college recruiting.

But good economic news won't necessarily translate quickly into bright prospects for the 8.7 million Americans who are officially unemployed. Getting a foot in the door doesn't seem any easier yet - especially for the nearly 2.5 million people who have been looking for work for at least six months or have stopped looking out of discouragement. That's because, compared with the recessions of the 1980s and '90s, this one resulted in more permanent job losses, says Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist at Economy.com in West Chester, Pa. The reasons: overinvestment in technology in the '90s, an accelerated shift of jobs overseas, and dramatic growth in productivity.

Many people will now have to change gears altogether, learning new skills or finding creative ways to apply their experience to new ventures. "Employment growth will be modest until the end of 2004," Ms. Koropeckyj adds.

The Monitor recently caught up with Ferguson and three other long-term unemployed workers originally introduced to readers last summer ("When Joblessness Persists," June 2, 2003). None has found a job comparable to the one he lost. Each continues the hunt while piecing together jobs to make up for unemployment insurance that has long since run dry. Some feel stuck, short on hope. Others feel optimism dawning.

Ferguson is excited about a pending interview. Two days after he updated his résumé on Monster.com, a search firm contacted him about a position in Texas. It's a rare fit with his background in annuities, he says, so he's considering it if they make an offer, even though his wife would have to leave a good teaching job. "I've been away from doing 'real work' for so long, I'm prepared to pull up stakes if I have to to get back into the game."

When that elusive job finally comes through, Ferguson

hopes to continue to teach writing, a talent he discovered in a part-time job at a local business college. The more flexible lifestyle has been a plus, too, he says.

"The problem is ... I'm just gradually sliding deeper and deeper in debt." Working at REI and the college brings in less than 20 percent of his former salary.

Avoiding bankruptcy

Finances are even tighter for Stan Browder. "If something doesn't give pretty soon, the only way out I see is bankruptcy, and I don't want that," says the former local- and state-government manager from San Antonio.

Last month, he took a test for an airport luggage-screening job. "Do I really want to look at luggage X-rays? No. But can I do it? Yes.... But I think it's just awful to get to that point," he says.

Nearing 60, Mr. Browder firmly believes age bias is the culprit. It's no comfort to him to hear that unemployment rates for people over 55 are lower than for people 25 to 54.

Nearly three years of unemployment have taken a psychological toll. "When you have to go apply for food stamps, that kind of tears into your value system, but that's the way it is," Browder says.

The unemployed normally get 26 weeks of state benefits. An extra 13 weeks were tacked on by the federal government in March 2002, and twice more since then. But workers whose state unemployment ran out in December did not get an extension. Supporters in Congress plan to push for one again this month.

"The argument on the other side is that if you lengthen the [duration of] insurance, you lengthen the time people are out of work ... because they can afford to be picky about what kind of job they'll take," says Richard Vedder, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Hiring a career coach

Nicholas Masi, who once earned a six-figure salary at a telecom company in New Jersey, knows plenty of colleagues who have long passed the point of being picky. One is now a janitor and tax-preparer; another, a limo driver.

Mr. Masi works part time for Asbury Park Press, delivering papers that were missed by the original carrier. His schedule leaves two business days free for his job search - something he's stepped up in recent months by hiring career coach Donna Coulson. She calls him to check in on his weekly goals - and his morale.

"A lot of people think that it's just a bad economy and when the tide comes back in they're going to get up and surf again," says Ms. Coulson, founder of Live Your Life, a staff development and training company in Red Bank, N.J. "The one key thing I try to get across to everybody is that you need to reinvent yourself."

Masi's paper delivery route sparked his curiosity about some companies in an industrial park. He found out how to look them up on databases at the library, and even if his follow-up letters don't yield a job, he says, "at least maybe they can refer me to someone else or let me do an informational interview."

What frustrates Masi is being told he's overqualified: "They're not realizing that our work ethic is such that we'd love to do that job, especially if we're solving problems, using our brains. There's a lot of good things that come out of work besides the paycheck."

An engineer at Radio Shack

Luis Vega found that to be true when he started working at Radio Shack last year, a place where he had been "hanging out" after losing his electrical-engineering job in the Boston area in the fall of 2002. "I felt good since I was keeping my body and mind busy, although my free time to look for work lessened, and the pay is about half of what I was getting on unemployment," he writes in an e-mail.

The other big change - one that seems small at first glance - is that he started carrying a cellphone. "I inherited this one after one of my daughters sent it through a cycle in the washing machine. Surprisingly (to me) every call I have gotten about a job or interview has been on this cellphone when I was away from the house."

How soon job seekers' phones will start ringing off the hook is the big question for 2004. Companies have found ways to do more with fewer workers, so they may be slow to hire.

But high productivity isn't always bad news for the employment picture, says Mr. Vedder of the Independent Institute, who is also an economics professor at Ohio University. "The one thing that looks extremely promising right now is the very sharp decline in the cost of hiring workers - taking into account the output workers are producing.... There's more profit potential in hiring. I would anticipate in the next six months a sharp growth."

So far, indicators suggest a mild rebound, according to Manpower Inc. Some 20 percent of the companies it surveyed expect to increase hiring in the first three months of 2004. Adjusting for seasonal factors, that amounts to a 3 percentage-point improvement in the jobs outlook from the past quarter.

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