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Unemployed Keep Busy As Weeks Become Months

February's job numbers indicate the economy may be close to the point where it will begin steadily creating more jobs than it loses. That turnaround can't come soon enough for the millions of people who are unemployed — and staying that way for record lengths of time.

The economy shed 36,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate held firm at 9.7 percent. Though economists generally see this as a good sign, there are now 6.1 million people who have been out of work for six months or more. The average duration of unemployment now is well past what the U.S. saw in its last three recessions.

For Trenda Kennedy in Springfield, Ill., it's been more than a year.

"It's tough," Kennedy says. She's 41 and had been working at a construction firm that was hit hard by the downturn.

"They decided to close their office here in Illinois because they couldn't get enough bids, couldn't get enough jobs, so me being the person that ran the office, obviously lost my job."

Kennedy is hoping to get a job in the criminal justice field, working with ex-offenders. When she's not sending out resumes, she's doing volunteer work in that field. She says her life has changed dramatically.

"I had to go and file for food stamps, which I've never done in my whole life," she says, "just because I didn't want my son to go hungry."

She had a job interview this week and thinks it went well.

A Need To Work

Charles McKimmy, 39, has been out of work for two years — since getting laid off from his job as a contract worker at a Toyota assembly plant in Indiana.

"You just feel like you need to work," McKimmy says. "You feel like you need to be a provider and that bothered me, because even though I had unemployment coming in, when I got laid off, my income dropped by two-thirds."

McKimmy decided the best thing he could do was go back to college to pick up some new skills. He's learning how to repair the computer systems and robots found in modern auto factories.

"It's just everything is going to that nowadays," he says. "You've just either got to learn it, or be out in the cold." He's applying for jobs and has gotten a few nibbles.

Meanwhile ...

So what do people do when the job search drags on? Frank Zilinyi got creative.

"Basically, it's like, OK, I'm off of Wall Street, and it doesn't look like my specialty is going to be wanting me anytime soon. What do I do now?"

Two years after getting laid off from well-paying Wall Street, he is substitute teaching, he's got a paying gig singing in a church choir, and he is teaching voice lessons. He's also trying to get voiceover work.

"I've stitched together a number of jobs just knocking on all kinds of doors that I haven't thought about knocking on in a long time," says Zilinyi, 49. "But with the unemployment status, I suddenly have the time to try things again."

Lowering Expectations

Ralph Fuhr, 56, has been in the job market for four months. He spent the past 20 years as an IT manager and now finds himself applying for jobs that require only five years of experience.

"The salaries I am going after are probably 60 percent of what I made back in 2003 and [2004]," Fuhr says. "It's better than zero money or $560 of unemployment that's soon to run out."

He's interviewing for jobs all over the country — and preparing for the possibility of selling the house he shares with his wife and 10-year-old son.

"I have a little hobby now," he says. "I've decided I need to find some money so I now sold my first items on eBay, so I'm cleaning out the basement and selling things."

What Fuhr and the others seem to understand intuitively is that the longer they are out of the workforce, the harder it will be to get back in.

"And the question that a lot of employers ask themselves when they look at these applications is why has this person been unemployed so long," says Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution.

But with 6 million people in the same situation, Burtless figures some employers might be a little more understanding.

"Maybe the stigmatizing effects of being unemployed so long will diminish, because more of us will know, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "

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Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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