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The Boston Globe

Business

Help wanted: The long-term unemployed, in their own words

Dina Rudick (left), MARK LORENZ (center), Jessica Rinaldi/Globe photos

More than 88,000 people in Massachusetts who want a job cannot find one after more than six months of searching — enough to fill Fenway Park twice, and nearly three times the number on long-term unemployment in 2007. Nationally, there are about 4.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, double the number from a decade ago. Many of these job hunters have extensive work histories and experience but struggle financially and personally in the face of repeated rejection. Three people tell their stories here.

-- Megan Woolhouse, Globe Staff

One person to rely on

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

By Jeri Lynn Ward

I grew up working. My family owned a business, Ward’s Laundromat in Dorchester and Mattapan, and I spent my teenage years there, folding clothes, making change, and troubleshooting problems with the machines. When my parents went away, my brothers, sister, and I ran the business, dividing up shifts for the seven-day-a-week operation.

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My father was my first and best boss. He taught me discipline, the value of work, and the importance of doing a job right. I’ve followed and lived by these principles ever since.

But these values don’t seem to matter as much anymore. I was laid off from a job as an administrative assistant in 2011 and haven’t worked since. I’ve applied for scores of jobs at dozens of companies without success. At one time, I was able to at least get temporary positions, but even those have dried up.

The last two years have been the most frustrating and frightening of my life. My unemployment benefits ran out, and I’m burning through my savings and going into debt. I’ve cut my household budget to the bone; I even eliminated my Internet service, which makes it that much harder to look for and apply for jobs. Every day I go to the library, where I can get online for free.

I’ve found that jobs like clerk and receptionist barely exist anymore. As far as administrative assistant, those positions require technical skills and education beyond what they have in the past. My age also seems to be a problem as I find myself competing with younger people fresh out of college.

I’ve looked into furthering my education to advance my skills, but I don’t know how I can afford it. I’m already worried about ending up homeless. I don’t see how I can further increase my growing debt.

There was a time when I could get a job with ease. I looked through The Boston Globe classifieds, circled the jobs that interested me, and made a phone call inquiring about the position. Eventually, I would get a call back with a date and time for an interview, and be off.

Most of the time today, you never hear back. I’ve had a few phone interviews, but, I have to admit, I’m really not comfortable with them. I have to keep reminding myself that things are different now.

But I also have to remind myself that I can do a lot of things. I have a degree in fashion merchandising from Fisher College and I worked for many years in retail for companies such as Banana Republic, Coach, and Ann Taylor. I have excellent organizational skills, too; I ran my own business for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, helping people organize their homes and lives.

Another lesson I learned from my father is not to feel sorry for yourself. I’ve had setbacks before and found a way to get past them until better times came. Even with economic and technological changes that only seem to happen faster, I know I can rely on myself.

I’m launching another business that offers a variety of personal services, from organizing closets to planning trips to shopping. I named it Fall Back on Me. I’ve obtained a business license, distributed fliers, and joined a social network to create a visual resume to promote my company. I recently landed my first client.

Over all these years of ups and downs, I have not only acquired experience, but also wisdom. I intend to use that, and everything else I have, to get what I want.

Still wanting to contribute

By Joseph Couture

Joseph Couture

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Joseph Couture

Ten years I spent with this company. We weathered the worst of the recession. Then a new owner decided to cut expenses, and I was let go, along with four others.

With 18 years in industrial distribution, I felt confident I would find another job. I always had. I polished my resume, improved my interview skills, and embarked on a series of one-on-one tutorials to increase my proficiency in Microsoft Office. “I’ll soon be back on the job,” I told myself.

That was two years ago. I am 61, and despite a successful career in middle management, making decisions and helping companies prosper, I found I was quickly passed over by human resource specialists. I am like many older Americans who have lost jobs. We have much practical experience. We work hard to update our skills. We peruse online job boards, network, and contact companies. We apply for jobs, one after another. But, all too often, we hear nothing.

I had an interview with a company in Newburyport. On the phone, a young woman told me I would first meet with her, then the plant manger. When I arrived for the interview, she did a poor job hiding her expression when she saw I was not 25. She excused herself, came back in five minutes, and proceeded to conduct the “interview” in the lobby.

On the phone she called me Joe. Now she addressed me as Mr. Couture. She asked just a few questions.

“Why did you leave your last job?”

Laid off.

“What were the circumstances?”

Business was bad; others were laid off, too.

“What about the job before that?”

Before I knew it, she was saying, “Thank you for coming in.” She hadn’t said a word about the position. When I asked about meeting the plant manager, she told me he wasn’t in the building. I offered to wait or come back another time. Her response: “I don’t want to inconvenience you. We’ll call if there’s any interest!” (Translation: Now, please go off and die somewhere.)

I am registered with 14 employment agencies. I check with each regularly. Sometimes I send unsolicited letters to companies where I know I could contribute. I learn the names of department heads, compose a letter to introduce myself and briefly describe my experience, abilities, accomplishments, and what I could do for their company. I ask only to be remembered when an appropriate position opens. (I did get two interviews this way.)

After a while, it can get very discouraging. My unemployment benefits ran out a year ago, and my savings are taking a beating. I only purchase what I absolutely need. No theater, no restaurants, no trips.

I’ve spoken with people out of work for three or more years. These are good, professional people, who worked all their adult (and often teen) years, but were laid off for reasons not of their making. Their companies were bought. Their work was subcontracted to India. Or maybe the CEO decided he needed another bonus and downsized again.

When corporations get into trouble, it’s the people who come in every day to answer the phones, take orders, process invoices, assemble, package, ship, and receive who are considered expendable, while corporate officers award themselves “retention” bonuses. It can gnaw at your professional confidence, even your self-esteem. But keep trying. Keep looking. Don’t let this brave, new world beat you down!

Every day, I read some drivel by some right-wing pundit about how we long-term unemployed are “milking it”, how we don’t want to work, how we prefer to have the wealthy support us. As Colonel Potter, of the television series “M*A*S*H,” would say, “Horsehockey!” Most of us are active seven days a week, scanning computers, networking, and pursuing any avenue that might lead to a job.

I am not far from being able to collect Social Security. But I’m too young to retire. I have skills, experience, and knowledge built over a lifetime that would benefit many employers. I have a deeply ingrained work ethic that brings me to work on time, every day, and a sense of company loyalty that drives me to work with fellow employees toward a common goal.

Like many older workers, I have much to offer. Any takers?

Unemployment becomes underemployment

Ann O’Connor.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ann O’Connor.

By Ann O’Connor

In official government statistics, I’m not counted among the long-term unemployed. But I consider myself one of them. I’ve struggled for more than two years now to find a full-time job, make ends meet, and convince employers that I still have value in this fast-changing economy and labor market.

I was laid off from my job in labor relations in March 2012. Five weeks later, I was able to find a part-time job, working a few hours a week as a guest services agent for the port services company Intercruises Inc. to supplement my unemployment benefits as I looked for full-time work in my profession.

I knew the labor market had changed since I last looked for a job and the search could be long. But I did not bargain on just how long it would be.

Part of the reason I expected to get back to full-time employment in shorter order was my resume. I have a college degree, computer skills, excellent references, and many years of experience. My job search was careful and methodical: I kept a spreadsheet that tracked my applications, follow-up efforts, company contacts, and results.

But after applying for over 300 jobs and getting 20 interviews, none of which led to offers, the process got depressing. I’m still doing it, but without that early sense of hope and belief that I was getting somewhere. The spreadsheet now has 420 entries.

I have looked at the job search academically. I have read at least five books and countless publications on the subject. In addition, I have taken advantage of workshops through the state’s One-Stop Career Centers, taken classes in Cambridge and Woburn on job search strategies, used local job club services, and taken classes about job search strategies.

As a member of the 45- to 65-year-old group, I know I haven’t been alone as my job search stretched from weeks to months to years. I have met many unemployed and underemployed workers of all ages holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees, including registered nurses and engineers. I mention these two professions because I find it frightening: Those careers are supposed to be recession-proof.

I am now piecing together three part-time jobs to earn one-third of what I made before I was laid off. I had to give up an apartment I loved and rent a room to cut expenses. I never eat out, travel, or go clothes shopping. I’ve canceled my cable TV and telephone landline.

The cuts that I and other unemployed and underemployed workers have made in our household budgets cannot be good for economic growth in our consumer-driven economy. Nor can the loss of so much experience, knowledge, and productivity.

For nearly a decade, I worked in health care, coordinating admissions, helping both patients and doctors, and performing other administrative tasks. But I left the industry to fulfill my lifelong dream of getting a college degree.

I now hold a bachelor’s in labor studies and management from University of Massachusetts Boston, so I understand how labor markets work. I have studied how unemployment can become underemployment once jobless benefits run out. I just never thought I would experience it firsthand.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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