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Unemployed for Over a Year: A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

07.06.10

My mom has been unemployed for over a year.

In that span, she has applied to hundreds of jobs — some she’s possibly qualified for; most others that she was beyond qualified for even a decade ago.  From those countless applications and resumes sent out to all those different hiring managers, she has only had six interviews.  And of those six, only three weren’t total jokes — what 50-something can afford to live on 12 bucks an hour?

She’s run the gamut of emotions.  Originally, she felt shame.  She avoided the topic when it came up in conversation with friends, offered up other excuses, anything she could to dull the humiliation of having to say that she didn’t have a job, that she couldn’t find a job, that she couldn’t even get an interview.  She felt unemployable.

Then the realization hit that she wasn’t the only one.  Many others were in the same boat as her.  While that helped ease the shame, it didn’t help the feelings anger or frustration, or helplessness.  The worst coming last winter when she was contacted by a recruiter for a coveted position in metro Detroit that promised a high salary, benefits, and other perks.

The preparation was intense.  It started off with regional phone calls and hours of studying for interviews, which she aced.  And then it was on to the big round, down in Detroit, where dozens of others were all going to try to win the precious few regional positions they had available in the state.  She spent hours studying material, doing mock interviews to prepare for anything that the hiring manager would throw at her.  She knew exact dates and times for all of her major accomplishments as well as her struggles and what she had done to overcome them throughout the past ten years of her job, and she was ready with specific work-related events and projects that she had done that would answer any and all of the possible questions they could throw at her.

By the time she drove the two hours down a few weeks later, she was ready.

And then came the interview.  She got stuck with one of the last interviews of the day, which didn’t bode well — after eight hours of interviewing, even the most seasoned interviewer would be tired and drained.  But she wasn’t deterred.  She sat down in front of the unsmiling man, ready for anything.  She had done her part, and expected him to do his.

“Okay, how about you walk me through your resume, starting with high school,” he said.

That just wasn’t what she had had in mind.  For all of her preparation, all her hard work, the manager simply wanted her to walk him through her resume, which he had no doubt had in his possession for weeks prior.  She abided, hoping that it would give way to some juicy interaction, but nothing ever did.  That was it.  They brought her in to just read through her resume, a well-prepared guide to be sure, but only meant as the Cliff’s Notes of her professional career to entice someone to bring you in for an interview to get to know the human being behind the collection of jobs on a piece of thick paper.

It was over before it even began.  They had no intention of ever hiring her, yet put her through the ringer as if she had a chance.  And it was months before she got another interview anywhere.

After that came the feeling of acceptance.  It wasn’t a lack of skills or experience.  It was just the state of everything right now.  Being in Michigan with its highest unemployment rate in the nation sure didn’t help things.  Neither did being over 50 years old battling with all of the recent graduates just entering the job market and asking for much lower wages than she.  Deciding that she might as well enjoy the time off – all the while continuing to search and send out resume after resume after resume – she picked up yoga, read more books for pleasure (which she rarely had had time for in the recent past), and finally found some relief for her excruciating and debilitating migraines that only got worse from the stress — being unemployed allowed her to check into an in-patient headache facility where they were able to get her pain under control and much more manageable, making her even more primed for getting back into the workforce.

Perhaps all of this contributed to the events of this week.  After having barely more interviews in one year than fingers on your hand, she’s now had nearly as many scheduled in the month of July.  She’s excited – for one in particular – but she’s trying to keep her expectations tempered.  It’s an optimistic trend, though, no matter how you look at it.  To go 12 months with nary an acknowledgment of applying for a job to actually getting called in for a face-to-face is quite the step in the right direction.

I’m feeling optimistic for her: based on what she’s told me, these job opportunities have legs.  They’re not piddly $25,000 a year jobs that don’t even bother utilizing her strengths and expertise.  They’re well-paying, solid positions for companies with room to grow.  After over a year of looking and hoping, and now with the unemployment extension being blocked in Congress, this turn of events couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

And I hope that this also bodes well for the American economy in general.  Too much of the news I hear and read is about deficits, balancing the budget, unemployment benefits, the way the stock market reacts to the European markets.  While all of those are important, they divert us to the big picture, the intangible, the ethereal.  Most of us can’t comprehend what owing trillions of dollars really means for anyone, let alone the federal government.  When money is simply a promissory note with a stamp of approval from the federal government declaring that this piece of paper is, in fact, money, how do the rules even apply to the entity that itself decides what is and is not money?

We’ve been going into debt for ten years, paying for these two wars on credit, and now it’s a huge problem that needs fixing immediately, without regard for those who are currently unemployed, scraping by, trying to make ends meet.  Now it’s vital to fix at this very instant.  Now it’s a matter of our grandchildren dealing with… what we’re dealing with now?  I don’t even know.  And whose grandchildren?  Mine?  I’m 28.  I don’t even have kids yet, but assuming that I did, I won’t have grandchildren who will even know how to pronounce the words “budget” or “economy” for another 30-plus years, at least.  Who knows what will be going on then?  Who knows what wars we will or won’t be fighting?  Who knows what the Euro will be doing or how strong the Zone will be at that point?

The news talks about falling unemployment rates, but says that’s actually a bad thing because that means that people are just giving up.  It’s not that they’ve actually found work, they’re just no longer collecting benefits from the state anymore; they’ve lost hope that they’ll find a job anytime soon.  They’ve stopped looking for work because there’s no work to be found.

Others who have jobs aren’t in much better positions: they’re finding that the only way they can keep their jobs is to take a 40 percent drop in salary and loss of all benefits just to stay employed.  But that’s not really working, is it?  You can’t buy a house on $12 an hour, not even here in Michigan.  You can’t build a savings.  You can’t invest.  You can’t pay for your children’s or grandchildren’s college tuition.

Some industries will never recover from this recession.  And what that really means is that the skills and training that many people have spent their whole lives honing may never again be profitable or marketable.  And that’s the real casualty of this entire mess, for which there’s no real remedy.

But, while the news is understandably bleak, there are pockets of hope if you skip over the broad strokes that make the airwaves and delve into the lives of those who are experiencing it right now.  I hope my mom gets one of these jobs.  I know she’ll flourish and succeed out of the gate.  She’s resilient and courageous.  And when she does finally join the workforce again, I hope that means that many others are also joining the ranks of the employed.  I hope it’s a sign.

Things have to get better eventually.  Might as well be now.

Photo by Ryan Mason.  Midland, MI, 2010.

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