Search for job breeds frustration

Local woman one of many in U.S. unemployed for at least 6 months

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Kitty Cook has been knocking on the doors of employers since March 2009, when she was laid off from her job loading furnaces at a semiconductor plant in Oregon.

After more than two years of unsuccessfully hunting for a job, the 60-year-old Vancouver resident feels like she’s running out of options. She’s exhausted all of her allowable jobless benefits. She’s living with her daughter in an apartment.

Maybe she can hold on long enough to reach retirement, she said recently as she stood outside the Vancouver Worksource office, where she had been tapping job searches into a computer.

“I’d rather just go in a corner,” she said. “I can’t do that, but that’s how I feel.”

Cook is one of an estimated 6 million Americans who, three years after the U.S. economy cratered, remain stuck in a category the government calls the long-term unemployed, or people who’ve been out of work for six months or longer. Millions more are stuck in various other levels of unemployment and underemployment. People with a high school education or less have been especially hard-hit by the recession, seeing unemployment rates hovering in the 12 to 19 percent range. By contrast, those with college degrees, or some college education, have experienced jobless rates in the 5 percent to 8.6 percent range.

In Clark County, where the jobless rate was 12.3 percent in June (about 3 percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent), there are more than 8,000 people who’ve been out of work for six months or longer, according to Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

And that’s counting only those people who’ve filed for Washington state jobless benefits. When you add Clark County residents who are claiming jobless benefits in Oregon, the long-term unemployed population in Clark County reaches more than 10,000, Bailey said.

“It sort of sets people adrift when they lose that economic hope of having what they view as a respectable life,” Bailey said.

Too few jobs

With Labor Day here — a day meant to pay tribute to the social and economic achievements of workers — many Americans like Cook are hardly in a celebratory mood. Consumer confidence is low. And jobs are hard to come by. “If I can find just something …” Cook said, her voice trailing away.

Meanwhile, the economic and social costs of long-term unemployment pile up.

The loss in productive output can be measured in trillions of dollars, said Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon. The children of unemployed parents tend to do worse in school. And a lack of work — and therefore the lack of income — exacerbates existing inequalities, Thoma said.

What’s more, the longer you’re out of work, the tougher it becomes to get the attention of an employer.

“The evidence suggests you get tainted,” Thoma said. “The worker is getting tainted with the stamp of unemployment when, in a lot of cases, it’s not their fault.”

While job retraining and more schooling help improve job seekers’ chances, there simply aren’t enough jobs for the number of people who want to work.

And the reason businesses aren’t hiring has more to do with a lack of consumer demand and less to do with people lacking the skills or education, Thoma said. “At the current level of demand, it’s hard to find jobs,” he added.

For the last two-and-a-half years, the nation’s ratio of job seekers to job openings “has been substantially above 4-to-1, which means there are no jobs to be had for three out of four unemployed workers,” according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.,-based think tank.

Earlier this year, Bailey estimated there were about 14 unemployed job seekers for every job vacancy in Southwest Washington.

Many interviews, no success

Cook is aware that job re-training isn’t necessarily a ticket to re-entering the labor market. She’s gone back to school and been through retraining programs to prepare for office or administrative support jobs — to no avail.

She’s also been on multiple interviews with semiconductor companies, even making it into the later rounds. She’s figured her experience in the field would be a lock. But the answer’s been no.

She suspects her age has something to do with it as younger workers get the nod.

A recent survey by the state Employment Security Department suggests Cook’s suspicion has merit. The survey of 5,000 people, conducted in April, aimed to learn about job seekers who’d run out of all their allowable jobless benefits.

Of those who still hadn’t found work, more than 86 percent were still looking for work, and nearly half said age was their greatest barrier to finding work.

The study also found that eight in 10 people who returned to work were earning less money than they did before they were laid off.

Boosting skills important

With education playing such a major role in unemployment rates, experts in job training say job seekers would do well to increase their skills and to boost their education levels.

That’s the best way for people to find their way back into the labor market, said Jordana Barclay, director of employment and training programs for the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.

Barclay said the reality is that employers are managing to produce more goods and services with fewer workers.

That’s “not necessarily our favorite thing because we want people to have jobs, but it’s better than (the company) completely going under and employing no one,” she said.

Thoma said the Obama stimulus focused more on long-term investments in growth, rather than creating a lot of jobs now. It also contained tax cuts, which households don’t typically spend, opting instead to keep the savings and pay down debt.

Thoma said the situation calls for more fiscal stimulus to boost demand, say a package of projects with a “high labor-to-capital” ratio that would create more positions to fill with workers.

However, there’s little — if any — political will on the part of federal lawmakers to pursue another round of government spending, particularly in light of the fight over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

For Kitty Cook, the search for a job will go on. She’ll keep driving her 1999 Daewoo to the Vancouver Worksource office, hoping to find a lead to something better.

In the meantime, she counts family, including a sister in California who helped her put together a new résumé, among the things she takes solace in.

Asked to gauge her chances of landing a job, Cook said she puts them at about “fair to middlin’.” She’s survived other economic hardships. But this one — triggered by the worst recession in decades — is different.

“I had no idea,” she said, “how bad this was going to be.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com