Long-Term Jobless Regroup to Fight the Odds

CORONA, Calif. — The analysts pore over the numbers every month, the full menagerie of economic indicators. President Obama and Mitt Romney trade barbs over who is at fault for a sluggish recovery. But here, in a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, other numbers often loom larger.

Job seeker Julia Gilgurd, center, waits in line to enter a Choice Career Fair in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, July 18, 2012.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Job seeker Julia Gilgurd, center, waits in line to enter a Choice Career Fair in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, July 18, 2012.

There are the roughly 1,600 résumés that Byron Reeves has sent out since he lost his job in accounting nearly four years ago, and the paltry 10 or so interviews they have produced. There is the $300 check that Yundra Thomas could not write to send his daughter to band camp, because he has been out of work for six months.

Each week, Mr. Reeves and Mr. Thomas gather with 40 or so other unemployed workers in a small, barren and fluorescent-lit room here, in a kind of self-help program that is part of California’s official effort to help residents find jobs. Most have been unemployed for months or years. Time spent with them at several gatherings over many months reveals a postrecession landscape where grim frustration battles with the simple desire to find a way out.

They were once advertising executives, engineers, social workers, teachers and purchasing managers. Now they come week after week, dressed for the office, carrying binders full of résumés and leads for potential jobs. They refine what they call their “60-second commercial” — a way to pitch themselves to nearly anyone they meet. When the three-hour meetings end, they mosey over, some reluctantly, to a table packed with day-old bread donated by a supermarket.

With a state unemployment rate of 10.7 percent, California officials struggle to find ways to get people back to work. In the sprawling suburbs east of Los Angeles that make up the Inland Empire, the job market seems more upbeat than it has been for months, but unemployment remains at 12.6 percent.

“You come in thinking you know everything, because you’ve been working for years,” Mr. Reeves, 55, said after one recent meeting. “You think you’ll bounce back quickly. Then, after a while, you get nothing and realize that in your entire career you’ve only had three or four jobs. So maybe asking other people what they’re doing would help.”

Finding a job is particularly difficult for people like those who gather here each week. These are not unskilled workers looking for entry-level jobs. They are men and women in their 40s and 50s who were midlevel managers with salaries that made them comfortable enough to buy homes and take vacations. Nearly all have college diplomas, and some have advanced degrees.

The group, called Experience Unlimited in a nod to its members’ abilities, functions as much as a support group as a training ground; participants offer each other encouragement that the next interview will turn out better as quickly as they exchange tips on résumé writing and networking. Less educated workers are still much more likely than college graduates to find themselves among the long-term unemployed, but that is little comfort to those like Mr. Reeves and Mr. Thomas.

At times, even with the most optimistic intentions, job-seeking can feel almost crushingly absurd. One recent morning, a human-resource manager for the local branches of the Lowe’shome-improvement chain made a pitch for floor sales jobs.

“What we’re looking for is someone who enjoys interacting with customers and closing the sale, so as long as you have some experience with customer service, we have a lot of opportunities,” the recruiter, Nikki Koontz, said in a cheery voice. Skeptical looks were obvious on many faces in the room.

“Won’t you just say we’re overqualified?” one woman wondered.

“Is there really the ability to move up the ranks?” another asked.

Some softened when Ms. Koontz said that she, too, had been laid off not too long ago, and that her job at Lowe’s involved a pay cut.

"You come in thinking you know everything, because you’ve been working for years." -Lost his accounting job four years ago, Byron Reeves

These are practical matters. Nobody directly asked how much the jobs would pay. (Answer: roughly $12 an hour, with benefits.) For many in the group, that would mean less money than they get from unemployment.

Roughly half the group still receives unemployment checks, and many have had multiple extensions to take them to the maximum of 99 weeks. Others were forced off the unemployment rolls this spring, when California did not meet the complex requirements for the extended benefits. Far more will lose their benefits within the next few months.

In California, nearly 930,000 people have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, roughly 45 percent of the total who are unemployed, according to state figures. An analysis by Beacon Economics, a consulting group in Los Angeles, found that the unemployed in the Inland Empire go for 55 weeks on average without a job, about 14 weeks longer than the average in the rest of the state.

Trish Polson, the director of Experience Unlimited in Corona, estimates that a third of the participants would “take anything they could.” The rest may have stopped holding out hope for the “perfect job,” but they remain reluctant to take something that pays, say, half the salary they once made or seems far below their qualifications.

“Your whole life your job defines who you are,” said Mr. Thomas, 48, who was laid off from his position as an advertising manager in February. “All of the sudden that’s gone, and you don’t know what to take pride in anymore.”

In the months since he lost his job, Mr. Thomas has gotten up each day and dressed in the same kind of crisp shirts he wore to the office. He still has not told his 11-year-old daughter directly that he is out of work, instead making sure to offer her treats like ice cream cones so she does not worry that anything has changed.

Mr. Thomas is one of the most engaged and gregarious participants in the group, frequently leading workshops on interviews and interpersonal skills. For him and many others, this is their new job.

“A lot of people don’t come here until they’ve spent some time at home licking their wounds,” Ms. Polson said. “By the time they get here, the hardest thing is for them to check their ego at the door. They think they can do it alone. Their pride hasn’t been hurt enough yet.”

But most of the time, that changes rather quickly.

Mr. Reeves lost his job at a distribution company in 2008. He had been laid off once before, a few years earlier, and assumed this time would be just the same — a few weeks of searching before finding a new job. But after two years, he had just one interview. His unemployment checks stopped coming long ago, and food stamps are a part of his life now.

Eventually, he moved into his mother’s home here, where he wakes up most mornings by 6 and walks to the library every weekday. Tuesdays, though, are reserved for the group.

“The only thing I can do is get out of the house and keep looking,” he said. “I can’t allow myself to get lazy, because giving up would just make me more depressed.”