Two years ago, I was like many who came Feb. 16 to Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The center hosted a roundtable for job seekers, volunteer career coaches, local leaders and employers to understand the problem of long-term unemployment better.
Joined by former Gov. Jim Florio and Rep. Frank Pallone, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez led a discussion as one person after another shared stories of devastation as they continue to look for employment to support their families.
Those stories felt too familiar. In January 2014, I was one of the nation’s then nearly 3.6 million long-term unemployed. I was 52 and had spent two of the previous three years jobless. The great recession hit everyone hard, but older workers like me had a particularly tough time bouncing back. Even now as the overall unemployment rate fell below 5 percent for the first time since 2008, more than 2 million people have been out of work for more than six months. Today, the typical duration of unemployment for workers between 45 and 64 is still about a month longer than it is for younger workers.
Ask someone – a relative, friend or neighbor – who is unemployed at this age, you hear the same things. Endless applications, unreturned calls, useless job searches, financial losses, anger, guilt and fear.
Late one day, I received an unexpected email from the executive director of my networking and support group asking if I would like to be part of the secretary’s first roundtable on the long-term unemployed. Eager for a change in a dismal routine, I joined him as we braved a nine-hour round trip on a typically cold Northeastern day to Washington. Like those I met that day, I was desperate. I was fearful for my family; knowing that I would soon lose my home without more than another temporary job.
I introduced myself and shared my work history of two decades as a writer and communications professional. My words then turned blunt, in typical New Jersey fashion. “Mr. Secretary, I must tell you that I battled an aggressive form of cancer into remission in 2006. As difficult as my cancer was, long-term unemployment has been worse,” I shared, in a hushed conference room, trying to bury my emotion. “If I failed to beat cancer, my family had my company insurance and would have been cared for. If I fail to beat unemployment, I will leave them with nothing.”
As luck would have it, my communication skills and experience made an impression on the Department of Labor, where I sought a position in the Office of Public Affairs. My unemployment ordeal ended in November 2014 when I accepted my current position with the department.
At the roundtable in New Brunswick, the secretary asked me to share my story. I did in the hope that, by opening up to those around me, I could help them see that the road ahead – challenging as it will be – is not a dead end.
Being jobless can be a soul-killing experience. For many, the work we do is an important part of our identity and a source of dignity. So it is important that the long-term unemployed have a community to which they can belong. Programs like the New Start initiative at Heldrich and others that received Ready to Work grants from the Department of Labor help participants re-establish their self-worth. Beyond providing tools and resources for a job search or writing a resume, they open an umbrella under which people can find career counseling, advice on handling finances, one-on-one coaching and even referrals for mental health support if needed.
The secretary visited New Jersey to learn about these efforts and, as is his custom, to hear from people who need help. For nearly two hours, he listened and learned. Perez shared his understanding of the complex issues the nation faces in addressing the challenges ahead. He cited the recent announcement of $10 million in grants to support job training at the state’s community colleges. The secretary pledged that there were “still 339 days before his weekend started,” and that he would continue to try to improve the situation even as his term neared its end.
In closing the event, Perez talked about how much the economy has improved since 2008. At the same time, he acknowledged those numbers mask the reality for those among the long-term unemployed. “I’ve learned that all that data is irrelevant if you are unemployed because to you, the rate is 100 percent.”
Kevin Meyer is a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor.