Unemployed Americans are facing a more daunting job search now than at any time in the past 60 years.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it takes the average unemployed person about 10 months to find a job - twice as long as it took in every previous recession since the 1940s. That 10-month average has barely budged in the past year.
In Charlotte, some of the people having the hardest time getting back to work had successful white-collar careers before the financial crisis.
'It's Like This Baseball Bat To The Chest'
Chuck and Tina Spencer’s daughter, Madison, was 9 years old when she started having a lot of seizures. Tina says it wasn’t like what you see in the movies.
"Her seizures were more like," Tina snaps her fingers, "drop seizures where she loses all muscle control and falls. She was having about 12 to 15 of those a day before we got them under control, and then she was having seizures through the night."
As Tina and Chuck were seeing specialists with their daughter to find a solution, Chuck lost his job.
“It's like this baseball bat to the chest when you lose a job,” he said.
He’d been a managing director at a financial services consulting firm for about five years. It paid well, but it also included health care benefits he and Tina now had to pay for on their own.
“And the tough part is the uncertainty of when you're going to work again,” Chuck said. “You wake up in the middle of the night and you start thinking to yourself, ‘God, I'm not going to work again tomorrow.’ And you're thinking, ‘When am I next going to go to work?’”
It’s a question tormenting many of Charlotte's long-term unemployed.
Unemployed And Underemployed With A Master's Degree
“You think about it when you’re sleeping,” says Lerone Langston. “You think about it when you wake up.”
Before the recession, Langston had a job he loved working in marketing for a NASCAR team. But it got eliminated in 2008. In his scramble to find income, he started working at an ALDI grocery store.
“I was able to use my master’s degree as a kind of step into getting into that particular environment,” Langston says. “I was training as an assistant manager.”
But then ALDI laid him off a year and a half ago.
“As individuals who are unemployed or displaced nowadays, we want to survive,” Langston says. “We don't want to be seen as displaced; we don't want to look like we need a handout, so you have to do whatever you have to do. You put out applications - three, four, five, six seven a day. You're up all night. You're up all morning. You’re trying to figure out how do I get out of my current position?”
The stress wears on him, but he says his girlfriend helps him manage.
“I've offered her a couple times, if you feel like you need to leave because it's too tough, feel free,” Langston says. “She's always told me she's here, regardless of what it is. We still do our date nights. It's gone down from going out to eat to possibly doing a picnic in the park with some leftovers in the refrigerator.”
'The Face Of Unemployment Has Changed'
There are so many stories like Langston and Spencer’s in Charlotte that Central Piedmont Community College created a program specifically to help white-collar people get back to work. It’s called Re-Careering Services, and its director is Dana McDonald.
“The face of unemployment has changed,” McDonald says. “Approximately 60 percent of our participants have a college degree. Of that 60 percent, 40 percent have graduate degrees. These individuals have a significant number of years of experience. Our average age is over 50.”
McDonald says they’re typically unemployed a year to a year and a half. CPCC works with them on marketing themselves and getting professional certifications to show their skills are up to date.
'I've Been Where You Are'
Sacha Adele Soja helps with the certifications, and she always introduces herself to the people working toward them.
“Number one, we’re thrilled that you all are here in class today. Are you enjoying it?” Soja asked recently and was greeted with a chorus of “Yes!”
Soja knows the program all too well. About a year ago, she was one of the unemployed people sitting here, and she tells the classes that.
“I’ve been where you are,” Soja said. “Any questions that come up about the program, about the classes, or just about what you’re going through, please reach out.”
A Long Transition From California
Soja used to be an executive at a non-profit foundation in Los Angeles. But she and her husband wanted a change from the L.A. scene for their young daughter. They had savings and figured they could find work, so they left their jobs and moved east.
“Of course, that was December of '07 when the bottom fell out shortly thereafter, and that's when our transition really began,” she says.
Their first stop was Nashville. When that didn’t work, it was on to Charlotte. After a few years, they burned through almost all their savings. But Soja stayed upbeat.
“I probably overuse the phrase, ‘It's all good,’ which is definitely a West Coast phrase,” Soja says. “I remember my daughter at one point saying, ‘Mommy, not everything is all good.’ I said, it's not. But you're always given opportunities, and what you choose to do and the decisions you make are all good.”
And that’s the message she conveys to people like Lerone Langston and Chuck Spencer in her new job with CPCC.
'Glad To Be Back To Work!'
Across Charlotte, Spencer drops his daughter off at school most weekdays. On one of those recently, he was in especially good spirits.
“I’m just glad to be back to work!” Spencer said.
He’s about three weeks into a new job. He’s now managing a large account for a company that does underwriting and mortgage services for banks.
The job includes good health insurance for his family, which is huge as doctors continue to treat his daughter for seizures. Spencer says they’ve got the seizures under control and are working to get rid of them.
His first day with his new company was on an odd anniversary.
“Fourteen months to the day since I'd been laid off from my old company,” Spencer said with a laugh. “It was a good feeling to get back to work, but I didn't expect it to be 14 months long,”
And right before Spencer turns his car back on and pulls out of the school parking lot, he said he couldn’t be more excited to drive off to work.