FRAMINGHAM — Roger Ahlfeld wakes up each morning at about 5:30, and before taking his first sip of coffee he grabs his iPad to check his e-mail.
He showers, shaves, checks his e-mail. He fixes breakfast, walks his daughter to the bus stop, and checks his e-mail. By the end of the day, Ahlfeld will have checked his e-mail dozens of times, unable to suppress the hope that his inbox will deliver a message from an interested recruiter, a date for an interview, or, at long last, a job offer.
The routine has become familiar for the gray-haired 45-year-old, who lost his job as a human resources executive two years ago. He scours job boards, follows up job leads, and hunts for any information that can help him get past résumé-screening software and closer to full-time work.
Much is at stake. Ahlfeld’s unemployment benefits ran out long ago, and the savings he uses to pay his mortgage and keep his two children fed and clothed have dwindled.
“I’ve had stressful jobs,” he said. “Nothing compares to this.”
Ahlfeld is among the millions of Americans grappling with long stretches of joblessness and mustering the courage each day to keep looking even as they face a cruel Catch-22: The longer they remain unemployed, the less likely they are to get hired. Despite career successes, long experience, and deeply engrained work ethics, the long-term unemployed are frequently viewed by companies as having outdated skills — or worse, as damaged goods.
Recent research by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, has shown that employers frequently screen out job candidates who have been unemployed for more than six months. Ghayad mailed 4,800 fictitious résumés, differing only in work experience and length of unemployment, to employers across the United States. He found that employers showed about four times more interest in applicants out of work for six months or less, even if they had less experience and fewer qualifications than candidates unemployed for longer periods.
“That’s surprising and depressing,” Ghayad said. “Anybody unemployed for six months or more, companies don’t even look at those résumés, where they went to school, where they worked. All they’re looking at is how long they’ve been out of work.”
Ahlfeld’s résumé offers 20 years of experience in the restaurant business, a master’s degree in hospitality administration from Cornell University, and a bachelor’s degree in business from James Madison University in Virginia. For most of his career, he worked at one company, Uno Restaurant Holdings Corp. in West Roxbury, working his way up from training manager to senior vice president for human resources overseeing recruitment, pay, and benefits for nearly 15,000 employees at 125 restaurants around the world.
Ahlfeld lost his job in early 2011, in the aftermath of the recession. Fewer families were dining out, the company declared bankruptcy, and he was let go as the company reorganized, replaced by someone who had worked under him.
“Was I angry? Yes,” he said. “Deep down, I was very disappointed.”
He knew finding a job would be a challenge, but not as difficult as it has been. Some mornings, he struggles to get out of bed. Some nights, he tosses and turns. In between, he may get an e-mail from a recruiter, telling him he is not a good fit for a job, or worse, get no response at all about a job prospect that seemed so promising.
“I try not to get too excited about things,” he said. “Initially, I would get really excited, really gung-ho, and then your heart’s broken.”
So he keeps plugging away — not just waiting for e-mails but sending them to a vast network of connections. After years of waking up early to commute to work, he still does. He dons shorts and flip-flops most days, working in a tiny room next to his daughter’s bedroom. It is just big enough for a desk, chair, and his 6-foot frame.
From there, he spends hours looking for clues and connections, checking job boards such as Bright, Indeed, JobFox, and Monster. He searches the websites of recruiters regularly, contacting them if he sees an interesting prospect.
He attends a weekly networking group for unemployed human resources executives, all acutely aware of the labor market’s gyrations. Companies are less inclined to need their skills if they are not hiring.
On a recent Wednesday morning, a dozen people, including Ahlfeld, sat around a conference table in a Framingham recruiter’s office. Two announced they had landed jobs, including a woman who was out of work for about a year. “It was a very long process, and I caught myself getting discouraged,” she told the group.
Ahlfeld, the group’s leader, checked his e-mail. When it was his turn to speak, he said he had made it through several screeners to get to the next phase of the hiring process and had an interview lined up at a Nashville company.
“I had activity last week, so I can put the razor away temporarily,” Ahlfeld said dryly, as the others smiled.
After a three-hour networking meeting, where he traded tips and leads, Ahlfeld returned to his home, a split-level on a dead-end. All was quiet as he headed to the kitchen to microwave a bowl of chicken soup. Sitting at the kitchen table, he checked his e-mail on his phone.
The biggest battle he fights is against the monotony that comes with unemployment. He misses the sense of accomplishment that work brought daily. When former Uno colleagues call to ask questions about company procedures, he said, he still helps them.
He knows it is all too easy to pick up a book, or flick on the TV and lose hours. He is also well aware that each day he is out of work makes it less likely he will land a job. So, he volunteers as a member on his town’s personnel board and oversees the networking group.
And he checks his e-mail. He estimated he has applied for 200 positions and interviewed with 70 people at 15 companies. Most of the time, he hears nothing after submitting an application, so any response — even a computer-generated e-mail — is welcome.
Ahlfeld’s family’s savings have been a lifeline, but he doesn’t think they can last much longer. His wife recently began working as a waitress at an Outback restaurant to help make ends meet.
For the next several hours, Ahlfeld investigated about a dozen job leads generated through his networking group, researching companies and executives online and looking for any connections he may have. From his second-floor office, he heard his children, home from school, watching television.
Just before 5 p.m. he checked his e-mail again. Suddenly, good news. A recruiter thinks he may be a promising candidate for a position. Ahlfeld said this recruiter knows his background and experience, and the last time she contacted him, he ended up as one of two finalists for a job.
It is enough to keep him going, to keep him looking for work against increasing odds. But he stops himself from getting too excited.
“You have to assume it’s not going to happen,” he said, “and keep reaching out.”