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 The April unemployment numbers came out not too long ago and provided another economic head scratching moment for those of us following the statistics. Head scratching because in April the economy added a record 290,000 jobs (yeah) and at the same time national unemployment claims rose from 9.7 to 9.9%.   Hmm, more jobs, more unemployed people?  Turns out the increase in jobs brought out people who had given up looking (and therefore were no longer counted among the unemployed despite the fact that they had no job). 

President Obama’s take – “[April’s] job numbers come as a relief to Americans who’ve found a job, but it offers, obviously, little comfort to those who are still out of work.”  The number of people unemployed in the nation stood at 15.3 million in April this year.   Counting those who have given up looking for work and part timers who would prefer to be working full time, the so-called underemployment rate rose to 17.1 % in April.

“When you look at the employment report from 20,000 feet, it’s all good numbers,” said Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust in Chicago. “What happened [with the higher unemployment rate] is that people rushed back into the labor force.”

“That will slow down and we will see the unemployment rate come down. But in order for that to happen, we need job gains and we are getting that now.”

Indeed the jobless rate declined in 34 states in April. So things would seem to be looking up, right? Briefly. Then on May 20th NPR reported that number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week by the largest amount in three months, saying that the surge is evidence of how volatile the job market remains, even as the economy grows.  Applications for unemployment benefits rose to 471,000 last week, up by 25,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

 So for us job seekers it’s a bit of a roller coaster – hopes up, hopes down.  And depending on your demographics your outlook might be colored by other factors.  For instance if you were a secretary or travel agent the opinion recently voiced by a number of economists – that some lost jobs will never come back and some out of work people may never regain their economic place in society – might send your outlook right off the cliff.  In the past few months this idea has been the subject of articles with headlines like “Lost jobs are likely not coming back;” “Jobs That Aren’t Coming Back; “ and “Even in a Recovery, Some Jobs Won’t Return;“  All of which essentially say the same thing – many of the jobs lost in the recession – in industries as varied as construction, interior design and auto manufacturing are no longer deemed necessary.  During the past few years of belt tightening companies have automated processes, out-sourced work, shifted duties and learned work arounds for laid off employees (such as having managers file their own papers, make their own coffee and book their own travel – administrative staff took a big hit, 1.7 million jobs lost).  Sorry folks, the recovery has begun and employers are thinking they’ll just keep some of those cost-savings after 2 years of penny pinching!

 Other demographics come into play for the job seeker as well.  Geographic demographics for one.  While the job market may be getting better in some parts of the country, several states – Michigan, Nevada, and California topping the list – are not seeing any significant improvement. In April California’s unemployment rate was at 12.6 percent, nearly 3 points above the national average.  The good news was that it ‘held steady’ – unchanged from March.  2.3 million Californians remain unemployed while non-farm payroll jobs increased by 14,200 in April. At that rate…well, you do the math.

Then there’s age.  Oh to be 30 again!  Although nationally the youngest workers were hardest hit by the recession, older unemployed workers are finding it harder to land a new job and are remaining unemployed longer. 

 “Things have been very tough for older jobseekers. Duration of unemployment for persons aged 55 and older has soared since the start of the recession and remains higher than for younger workers,” according to an analysis by Sara Rix of the AARP Public Policy Institute. “Those numbers do not paint a rosy picture for millions of older Americans, many of whom may never find jobs comparable to the ones they have lost since December of 2007.”

 I understand the AARP is holding job workshops to help older workers find “meaningful” employment.

Add in being a single parent with a damaged credit rating and you’ll begin to see why I’m not celebrating the economic recovery just yet.  I admit to owning a bleak outlook but not, I’m sorry to say, one I believe is unrealistic. I’ve been out of work for 10 months now- about 9 months longer than I ever expected I’d go without a job!  I apply for jobs and even interview from time to time, without landing one.  I am discouraged. I see the recovery as hope that my children may yet have opportunities but I am no longer confident about remaking my life from the ground up.

For a sobering take on the jobless recovery and what it will mean for America check out this article: “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” in the Atlantic.

“Flapjack I’m sorry but we’re running low on food, water, and overall enthusiasm.”
Bubbie, in “The marvelous misadventures of Flapjack”

So, when I was laid off at the end of July I focused on what needed to be done then and there, assuming it was an interim situation and we would manage to survive it.  No matter what, we could deal with it together in the short-term.  When we pulled out of the driveway of our rented house (leaving the keys in the mailbox) with the car stuffed to the brim with camping equipment, cooler, dog crate and 4 kids, I spun it as a great adventure.  It didn’t hurt that I started us out with a week at a campground with a water park.  We were camping!  Lanterns and campfires and marshmallows.  What fun!  It was a fantasy that didn’t last long – and by the end of 2 months of moving in and out of a more barebones campground it had become real drudgery.  Oh we moved with a practiced efficiency, setting up and tearing down camp, and packing the van by rote.  My pre-teen became quite the chef on the Coleman camp stove and we no longer flinched at the specks of dirt or insects that ended up in the meal (I took heart in recalling  my grad school buddy who lived for months with the pygmies in Africa and on her return thrilled and disgusted us with her culinary tales- if she could do that, we ought to be able to deal with ‘civilized camping’).  But we were sunburned, bug- bitten, dirty, and tired and dispirited.  The longer the situation wore on, the more it took from us.

Purchasing and moving into the trailer gave us such uplift.  Yes, we could tell from the beginning that it was a small space – perhaps not much larger than our two tents put together, but the security (a door that locked after being in a tent that wouldn’t zip up), and the amenities – real beds, our own bathroom – no trekking together across the campground to a shared public toilet, the air conditioning, the refrigerator (!!) – Oh it seemed like heaven.  Our own little cozy cabin.  But again, in my mind it was a short-term solution; a better, safer, more comfortable and efficient (wireless internet) place from which to find the next job.  I never doubted (then) that I would find another job – I’ve worked all my life since I landed my first job at the age of 14 and when I wanted to leave a job, I’ve always easily lined up another.  I don’t suppose I’m the only unemployed person to discover that the economy trumps my personal experience and skills.  But it’s been a blow, nevertheless!  Like other job seekers I watch the news, looking for signs that we have entered into a ‘recovery’; but like a cloudy crystal ball, the signs are nebulous and indecipherable.  The economic indicators shift like a flag on a windy day, pointing first one way then another.  The pundits, like the competing groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil and Wiarton Willie, disagree on whether a recovery is on the horizon or whether we’ll endure another year of economic winter.  And then there are the particularly scary predictions for a ‘jobless recovery.’  I think that’s where the banks make money but the rest of us stay on the bread lines.

I won’t lie and say I’ve been a Pollyanna filled with hope and sunshine for the past few months.  My job search has become like setting up and tearing down the campsite was by the end of the summer.  I do it by rote.  I’m no longer excited when I find a job opening and I don’t linger by the phone or check my email several times an hour after sending in an application.  I send it in and forget about it and get on with life.  For the past few months I’ve been trying to ignore a nagging fear that a job might not appear in the short term.  And yesterday, an in-depth article published in the New York Times, titled “The New Poor: Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs” tolled the death knoll for any Pollyanna tendencies I still harbored, it blew out my candle of hope when I read it.    

Economists fear that the nascent recovery will leave more people behind than in past recessions, failing to create jobs in sufficient numbers to absorb the record-setting ranks of the long-term unemployed.

Call them the new poor: people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives — potentially for years to come.

The place we are in, the solution that we could put up with short-term, may be the place we are in for, well, for much longer.  And like Bubbie says in the quote at the beginning of this post – we are running low on overall enthusiasm.  This was meant to be a stop-gap measure and I am absolutely sure that it is NOT a healthy situation beyond that.  At the very least we need more space and privacy to avoid the cracks in our family becoming fissures we are unable to traverse, much less repair. As much as I have felt unable to make long-term plans, it appears that I may be naïve if I don’t try.

“Employment is so much more than a paycheck. It is structure to the day. It is sense of self-worth, value.” Brenda Weitzberg, founder of Aspiritech.

No, no one has actually asked me that question but I’m sure some people have wondered. How do you fill your days if you are unemployed? Well, I don’t sit around watching TV and eating Bonbons all day. We don’t have TV and I can’t afford Bonbons – buying them would eat into my already bare bones wine budget :-)!

Obviously I look for a job, but with the internet it’s not like the days of old when you pounded the pavement, going door to door hat in hand or laboriously copied your resume using carbon paper on a typewriter. My resume is posted on numerous job sites and I have job searches set up with Monster.com and others whereby they send me new job postings that fit what I’m looking for. It generally takes only minutes to read their periodic emails, check out the recommended jobs and browse through craigslist and the local paper online. If there’s a job I can apply for it’s a quick process to send the cover letter and resume through cyberspace (where it usually disappears without further acknowledgement). I do a little networking, although after 6 months of this there’s only so many times you can call up your connections and ask, ‘so, heard of any good possible jobs?” without finding your calls going straight to voicemail.

I’m a mom so it goes without saying that a fair amount of my time, as before when I was employed, goes to taking care of the family. Feeding, shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, helping with homework, and chauffeuring kids to and from school and a variety of activities, all take time. For logistical reasons they all take more time now than when I had a job. I drive a lot more now. For instance because our food storage space is so much smaller I make more trips to the store. Getting the mail means driving to the UPS store where we have a box, instead of walking to the end of the driveway. The trailer park is farther from the kids’ school and if we need to take things to or get things out of our storage unit there’s another extra trip involved.

I attend estate sales and cruise yard sales, looking for things I can pick up for cheap and hopefully sell for more on eBay or via other ways (I’m looking into alternatives to eBay due to their high fees and heavy restrictions on sellers). I have to say that from a financial point of view this has not really been very successful. It requires money to invest and the amount I have limits the quality or quantity of the things I can buy. Sometimes I pick up things that no one is interested in buying from me, sometimes the amount I make after fees and shipping is so small that it’s like working for pennies. But it does provide me with something to do, and a reason to get out of the trailer, so there’s a non-financial benefit of sorts.

I look at ads on Craigslist for larger trailers. Not that we have any money for a larger trailer but this fantasy search has replaced the window shopping that I used to do when employed! I used to love to shop, to just browse through stores, sometimes buying, sometimes not. These days I try to stay clear of stores, aside from buying groceries or making a trip to the .99-cent store to reward the kids.

I listen to NPR. I surf the web. I read a lot; both looking for articles and posts that might help me in my situation and those that might tie into future blog themes. I write. I generally have 2 or 3 posts in draft form that I’m working on – researching and writing.  I consider this work, even though it isn’t a ‘real job.’ It provides intellectual stimulation and makes me feel somewhat connected to other people.  Lately I’ve been working on developing an archaeology workshop which I will present next month at the local children’s museum – another somewhat intellectual endeavor.

And I worry and wonder about our future.

That’s what I do now that I don’t ‘work.’

 BTW – a Google search on the topic of “what do the unemployed do all day” turned up 13.5 million results. After perusing about half of them (yep, that’s what I did today :-)) I’m reminded again of the quote at the beginning of this post – ‘employment is structure to the day’.

Have I been looking for a job?  Yes!  And I’ve applied for several jobs in my field (environmental permitting) locally.  As well as several jobs in my field that aren’t local (Hawaii), and several jobs that aren’t even in my field but that are local.  I’ve had two interviews.  One job (in my field) went to an entry level person at an extremely low salary and the other job (out of my field) went to someone with more experience.  Most of the resumes and applications I send out disappear into the Ethernet without any response.

 I get a lot of comments suggesting that I really need to just take any old job that I can, so I wanted to address the financial realities of that.  A low paying job, after taxes and deductions are taken out, will not meet even our lowered barebones expenses.  A job paying $15 an hour – which is actually a higher wage than a lot of the ‘any old jobs’ listed these days (most pay around $10-11 an hour) after taxes and deductions (I’m estimating those combined at around 25%) would net around $1800 a month.  That’s what unemployment pays now.  But since I would have to put all 4 children in an afterschool program (and camps during breaks), that expense would increase by $924 a month over the $308 I pay now (and camps would be much more – summer camp for 4 kids runs around $540 a week/$2160 a month).  So I’d have the same income but almost a thousand dollars more in expense just in childcare during the school year. 

Plus if I took a temporary job paying $15 an hour I would reset the amount of unemployment for which I am eligible (currently I’m eligible for the maximum amount) and if I had to file again would not in any way be able to support my family. 

So why not retool for a new career?  Aside from the fact that the idea of starting over again at my age is daunting, if I want to train for another career I would have to give up our only income (unemployment) while training, which combined with the fees for attending classes and the possible additional childcare expenses, makes it impossible.  Despite all the ads from trade schools proclaiming a plethora of jobs in their fields it’s entirely possible that I could retrain and not find a job as other factors come into play when looking for employment.  As I’ve mentioned before (and as is documented in this economy across the country) things like age and credit score are considered by employers. 

An article about middle-aged job seekers competing with teenagers, interviewed a 57-year old job seeking ex-freighter captain at a job fair in Irvine, reporting that:

Seasoned workers have been especially hard-hit as the economy sheds job because with their experience comes a bigger salary.
“What’s happening is companies have laid off massive numbers of workers; typically what happens is they lay off the most expensive workers first,” said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange.
That ends affecting youths as well, because the newly jobless “try to find jobs in other sectors for much less pay,” Adibi said.
That was clear Saturday as Yang waited for an interview as a retail store greeter, a relatively lucrative job fair opening, thanks to its $13-an-hour wage.

The article went on to say, that unlike his youthful competitors Yang at least had savings to fall back on.

Another article sent a dire warning to job seekers- “sweat the small stuff because hiring managers are knocking candidates out of the running for the smallest mistake.”

The irony is that there are so many middle-aged, middle class professionals out of work that they’ve created a little niche market for entrepreneurs.  For instance there are websites that cater to the middle-aged  job seeker – some of which, judging from comments (e.g., “I’ve signed up at retiredbrains.com and all I get are email postings for casinos or the Army”)  appear to be more of a benefit to their creators than to the job seeker who visits them.  And there’s a new movie that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival – “Company Men” directed by John Wells that deals with this subject. 

In the case of “Company Men,” the three main characters played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are laid off from a conglomerate and lose their comfortable boardrooms-and-golf existence.

Opening with a scene of Affleck’s character smugly enjoying a pre-work golf game at the country club just before he finds out he’s fired, the film follows all three as they are forced to re-evaluate their careers and lives, stripped of jobs that provided not only a paycheck but confidence and self worth. 

Add another factor- poor credit score- which affects job seekers who have had to deal with foreclosure into the competitive market and you begin to understand why your applications disappear into the Ethernet without response.

“In today’s job market, the expectation is that employers can afford to be extremely selective about candidates,” says Bob Schoenbaum, principal of KeyStone Search, an executive recruiting firm in Minneapolis. “While credit might not be the most important factor in a hiring decision, bad credit can be a tipping point between one candidate and others competing for the job.”

Obviously remaining on unemployment indefinitely is not an option – it runs out eventually – and it’s clearly not a healthy situation.  It’s hell on one’s self-esteem.  Towards the end of the school year I intend to start searching farther afield for a job – but will try and stay in the warmer climes as we will probably have to maintain our trailer home for some time and frankly because I hate the cold!  But that won’t change my age or credit score.  Over the next few months I’ll continue to explore the idea of moving to China to teach English. Perhaps after a year of that the economy will be better here and there would be more development, and thus more jobs in my field. I do think that would have its own stresses (not the least of which is that the kids are not enthusiastic about it).  And I’ll continue to write.  And in the dark predawn hours I’ll reflect on the truth of Anonymous’ comment that social security survivor benefits are more than unemployment and wonder if the kids would be better off without me. But I won’t be applying for retail or other low paying jobs.

If, as George Bernard Shaw was purported to have said, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven” what is an unhappy family?

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating.  Becoming homeless has a severe negative effect on families. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless:  “It disrupts virtually every aspect of family life, damaging the physical and emotional health of family members, interfering with children’s education and development, and frequently resulting in the separation of family members.”  Lest you think this sort of strong language only applies to impoverished, uneducated, substance abusing families headed by young single moms who were victims of domestic abuse (in other words the stereotypical homeless families), let me assure you it does not.  While being educated, mature and relatively healthy, undoubtedly helps a parent deal with the difficulties of becoming homeless, those characteristics alone are not enough to counteract the stress and strain on the family. 

Homelessness frequently breaks up families. Families may be separated as a result of shelter policies which deny access to older boys or fathers. Separations may also be caused by placement of children into foster care when their parents become homeless. In addition, parents may leave their children with relatives and friends in order to save them from the ordeal of homelessness or to permit them to continue attending their regular school. The break-up of families is a well-documented phenomenon: in 56% of the 27 cities surveyed in 2004, homeless families had to break up in order to enter emergency shelters (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2004). http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/families.html

I have been proud to have managed to keep my family together during these past 6 months, but with increasing frequency I wonder if it’s really something of which to be proud?  Granted these thoughts occur most often during my 3 AM insomnia period when all seems gloomiest and most hopeless, but they come to me in the daylight as well.  Are the children being irreparably harmed by our situation?  Would they benefit from living with another family or families in a more stable situation? What am I really providing for them and does it make up in any way for all that is denied them now?

Initially I was certain that I would quickly find a new job and things would return to normal.  But as the months of fruitlessly submitting job applications pass by my hopes dim. I cannot believe my lack of progress and suspect my applications are being screened out in the early phase.  I begin to wonder if my age or credit score are playing into employers’ decisions not to even interview me.  It is extremely frustrating as prior to this I have never had a problem securing a new position.  It is also very depressing.

Inasmuch as I try to put on my Pollyanna face in this blog, proclaiming our tiny trailer to be sufficient, I am sure no one really believes that I think it can meet the needs of a family of 5 indefinitely. Living in this small space on a paltry, inadequate income (unemployment) is unbelievably difficult and has affected our health and outlook on life.  We are irritable, and pessimistic.  I don’t know how much longer I can continue in this situation and I feel certain it would be better for the children if we didn’t.  Too bad the options are so limited.

If I won’t relocate, and I’m reluctant to do so at this point since relocating is involved and expensive when you have a family, my job options locally are limited.  I have applications in to the two currently listed jobs in my field and have branched out to apply for a non-profit job that interested me.  Sadly I’ve already heard from the latter- they had 175 applicants, and although I made it to stage 2, someone else was offered the position. 

I comb the job listings daily, as well as having established job searches and searchable resumes on several sites like monster.com.  Surprisingly there are a lot of local listings.  Even after I filter out the jobs I have no qualifications for like product engineer, LVN, RN, Instructor in Radiological Technology, behavioral therapist, and barber there are still plenty of options.  So next I discard all the jobs that pay minimum wage since those jobs would not support a family of 5 and are actually a pay cut from unemployment!  Let’s see- that leaves… jobs with a bilingual requirement, jobs that pay better than minimum wage but require 3-5 years of experience in theparticular field (insurance, dental front office, bar back, tennis instructor, paralegal, etc.), the miscellaneous stuff like weight loss study seeks volunteers, personal assistant to do house cleaning and grocery shopping 5 hours a week, sales of all sorts- commission only, psychic, dog sitter and various work at home scams.  I feel so inadequate.  How can there be so many jobs that I just can’t apply for or have no hope of getting if I do apply?

I did send an email in response to an ad for a manager of a self storage facility because it came with free housing and a storage unit but of course my resume doesn’t put me at the front of the line. 

I wonder if it’s worth retraining for another career at my age?

After the New Year I plan to re-evaluate the idea of relocation.

Click for Audio.  No longer just a song for people in unsatisfying or dysfunctional relationships, but also a refrain that plays in the head of the unemployed job seeker.  There have always been people who travel for work, not ‘business travel,’ but picking up and moving to follow the jobs.  People working in industries like construction, drilling, and agriculture.  But for the most part middle class professionals tend to stay put- work at the same firm, live in the same town, and put down roots- at least for years at a time.  In my childhood we moved once- not because my father was changing jobs, just to a larger house in a neighboring community. 

But now, as more people lose their homes and jobs, and job searches drag on over months and months, you have to ask yourself – should I leave?  Should I move from this state with over 12% unemployment and look for work somewhere else?  According to a report by Challenger, Gray and Christmas, many people are answering that question in the affirmative – the job-seeker relocation rate at 18.2% is the highest since the second quarter 2006. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (as of September 2009) North Dakota is still holding up well with a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of around 4.2% and South Dakota is close behind with a rate of 4.8%.  Iowa, Montana,Wyoming, Virginia, Vermont, Utah and Oklahoma all have unemployment rates under 7%. 

So folks in those areas are staying put.  With the exception of Salt Lake, UT none of these places seem to be drawing job seekers, they may not be laying people off but they aren’t hiring either.  The top 10 ranking metropolitan areas in terms of job postings per capita as of the third quarter 2009 are: Washington, DC; Baltimore MD; San Jose CA; Boston MA; Seattle WA, Salt Lake City UT; San Francisco CA; Austin TX; Charlotte NC; and Hartford CT. 

Should we stay or should we go?  Are those 18.2% of job seekers right?  Every day my job search alert at monster.com informs me that there are no job matches in the 30-mile distance I’m willing to commute and I mull over extending that range- statewide? nationwide?  I don’t though.  For now we are staying.  I have no reason to believe a job would be easier to come by in any other state and  I wouldn’t move us without the job already in hand.  The kids don’t want to move again. We’ve moved already – to the mountain state and back again- and it’s a hard, expensive and difficult process for all of us.  We may be hanging on by a thread but we aren’t at the end of our rope yet.