Posted: Tuesday,September 16, 2014
By Will Bunch
DENISE THOMPSON used to think she had the most stable job in the world - working on an overnight shift at a large Mellon Bank office in Center City, processing checks.
It was what she did five nights a week for 17 years. Then one evening in March 2009, the company told her and her co-workers it was laying off her entire shift, due to both the Great Recession and changes in check-processing technology.
About 5 1/2 years later, Thompson - now 49, living in West Philadelphia - never found another job.
At first, she said, she wasn't looking too hard for new work because she lives mortgage-free in a home that she'd inherited from her mom. But soon, the everyday bills began to pile up. When she finally hit the job market in earnest, she learned that her experience in check-processing didn't match well with the few openings that were out there - and the longer she went without a job on her resume, the fewer responses she got.
"I thought for sure that my skills could transfer," Thompson said, although she now thinks her lack of customer-service experience has held her back.
Thompson's saga of long-term joblessness is not as unusual as you'd think. The recent spate of upbeat headlines about the economy - with national joblessness falling from 10 percent at the worst of the downturn in 2009-10 to 6.1 percent last month - has masked a grim reality: Long-term unemployment of at least six months or more remains near its worst levels since record-keeping began after World War II.
The most recent statistics from the U.S. Labor Department suggest there are as many as 100,000 Americans in the same boat as Thompson - unemployed and seeking work as long as five years - while there are as many as 1 million workers who have been jobless for at least two years. Many of the long-term jobless are in their late 40s, 50s or 60s and lacking advanced degrees or specialized skills - and easy solutions have eluded policy makers.
But Ofer Sharone, a professor specializing in work and career-development issues at MIT's Sloan School of Management, said that the latest research suggests that lack of matching skills may not be the biggest problem. The real obstacles lie in the psychology of joblessness. For employers, he said, there is a "stigma" attached - usually unfairly - to people who have been without work for months and years; that causes job-seekers to see their own confidence slide.
A frustrated job-seeker, Sharone has found, "gets the feeling that 'something may be wrong with me,' and they personalize that, and it makes it even harder for them to engage during their job search."
Locally, Tim Styer, who runs the weekly "jobs club" offered by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, said a lot of the problems for the long-term jobless are also logistical. Mid-career workers who held one steady job for 15 or 20 years before their layoff may find a greater obstacle than their job abilities: their lack of experience in networking.
"A lot has changed since the great crash of '08," said Styer, who said a constant theme at the PUP jobs club is encouraging the jobless to network with at least five brand-new contacts every week. "If you're out there looking, you have to do things differently."
Tell Joe Demory about it. Now 57, the Overbrook resident has done a series of jobs over the years - most recently as a groundskeeper for the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park - but since he sprained his ankle and gave up that work a couple of years ago, it's been a struggle. His biggest problem, he says, was his lack of experience with computers.
"I didn't know how to do all that stuff," Demory said, recalling his initial befuddlement when would-be employers explained to him that he could only fill out a new job application online. But in recent months, he received computer training through the Metropolitan Career Center in Center City, brought home a laptop, and says he can now attach a resume with the best of them.
William Dickens, chairman of the economics department at Boston's Northeastern University and a leading expert on joblessness, said the persistence of the long-term unemployment problem six years after the financial crisis points to one thing: that policy makers should take the problem more seriously.
"It may take a very aggressive policy, including accepting some inflation, to put the long-term unemployed back to work," Dickens said.
But in Washington, a gridlocked Congress has not only failed to consider new job-creation programs since the short-term stimulus measure enacted in 2009, it also allowed emergency extended unemployment benefits to expire at the end of last year.
The loss of the extended-benefit check this January - about $400 per week - was devastating to Stephanie Ferron, of Germantown. Her husband is employed but as she coped with both losing her longtime job as a court reporter in early 2013 and caring for an ailing daughter, she still found herself falling behind on bills.
"This job search is different from anything I remember," Ferron said, recalling when she was younger and able to land a new job in a single day. She said she'd been volunteering at her church's vacation Bible camp and gaining new job-seeking skills and confidence through the jobs club, but she also understands her dilemma.
"It stands to reason," she said, "that the longer you're unemployed, the more they would question why. And you can't speak to anyone to explain."
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