Long-term jobless face bleak future

Several types of jobs may not return to Georgia

And, unlike previous recessions, men remain unemployed longer than women and whites longer than blacks, according to statistics compiled last week by the Georgia Department of Labor.

The jobless pain may get worse. Congress left town last month without extending benefits for the nation’s 15 million unemployed. In Georgia, an estimated 5,000 people a week could lose financial safety nets if the Senate fails to restore the benefits.

Stop-gap payments, though, won’t mask the possible long-term erosion of Georgia’s economy. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, economists predict it will take years of above-average economic growth for Georgia to regain full employment.

Yet many of the jobs once held by the long-term unemployed — manufacturing, construction, information technology — may never return, creating, perhaps, a permanently unemployed class of worker.

“I’m one of those old-fashioned folks whose fathers and uncles had jobs with companies for a long time and then retired,” said Hans Prorok, whose last IT paycheck came in January 2007. “But automation has taken the place of a lot of manual work that would’ve been done by real people and those jobs won’t come back when the economy improves.”

Not since World War II has the country experienced such a record level of long-term unemployment. Nearly 46 percent of unemployed Americans have been jobless for at least 27 weeks, the federal barometer for long-term joblessness. Prior to the recession, 18 percent of unemployed Americans fit the bill.

In Georgia, 498,700 people were unemployed in April, the labor department reports. More than 215,000 — or 43.1 percent — have been unable to find work for a minimum of 27 weeks.

This is shaping up as the worst year on record (the state has only compiled long-term unemployment rates since 1976) for Georgia’s chronically unemployed.

A recovering economy clouds the recession’s continued impact on the long-term jobless. Georgia’s unemployment rate dropped to 10.4 percent in April, its first decline since the recession started in December 2007.

“It’s a hidden crisis because the plight of the long-term unemployed is often lost in the celebration of the decline in the unemployment rate,” said Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. “While that’s good news, it’s really not having an impact on those who’ve been unemployed longer and are most in need of a job.”

Rose Mary Robinson lost her MARTA asset-management job two summers ago. Savings, home equity, cash from a son and a Census Bureau temporary job have since sustained the 50-something MBA grad living in Cobb County.

Hundreds of interviews, resume postings, networking events and contacts haven’t produced a job. Robinson needs the bank to lower her monthly mortgage payment. Retirement will get pushed back. A return to Louisville, Ky., seems likely unless the latest round of interviews pans out.

“People look at me and say, ‘You’ve been doing this for two years?’ ” Robinson said. “But that’s just the way things are. There haven’t been a whole lot of opportunities, not when you’ve got 15 or 20 people looking for every one job.”

Before the recession, 1.5 Americans competed for every job opening, according to the federal government. Today, 5.6 people do — which is why it takes so long to get a job.

The median length of time it took an American to find a job before the recession started was 8.4 weeks, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington think tank. In April, it took 21.6 weeks.

Length between jobs isn’t color-blind. Surprisingly, Robinson, a black woman, stands a better chance of getting a job in Georgia than Prorok, a white man.

More blacks than whites were long-term unemployed when the recession began. Today, though, the opposite is true. The number of chronically jobless whites in Georgia skyrocketed 717 percent — from 13,200 to 107,900 — during the recession, according to the labor department. African-American long-term joblessness rose at half that percentage.

And, since December 2007, the percentage of long-term unemployed males rose by 686 percent — from 16,100 to 126,700 — more than twice the rate for females.

“This recession, focused on manufacturing and construction, was primarily devastating to a demographic that had previously been somewhat insulated from downturns,” Commissioner Thurmond said. “It’s counterintuitive — whites and white men have been hurt the most.”

In addition, health care and nursing — women-friendly industries — added jobs during the recession.

Prorok, 50, last earned a Hewlett-Packard paycheck in January 2007. He has since tried a job advising Wall Street investors. He dabbles in home renovations. Wife Krista took a nursing job.

The Proroks refinanced their Dunwoody home, tapped retirement accounts, maxed out a Visa card and, last week, began selling three bikes on Craigs-list. They’ve given up on Atlanta, long-term, and plan to move back to Colorado.

“Companies took advantage of the downturn in the economy to get lean,” Prorok said last week soon after his old company announced another 9,000 layoffs nationwide. “As long as we’re a global society, it’s going to be hard to compete with other [lower-wage] countries.”

Many economists doubt that the pace of economic growth — 3 percent the last quarter — will create enough jobs for the 15.3 million unemployed. It takes that amount of GDP growth just to keep up with the U.S. population increase.

“The record-breaking long-term unemployment is due to the record-breaking weakness in the labor market,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with EPI in Washington. “Layoffs may be coming way down, but hiring is still extremely low so the unemployed aren’t finding work. This is what a broad, wide recession looks like.”

How we got the story

In reporting the monthly unemployment statistics compiled by the Georgia Department of Labor, reporter Dan Chapman was struck by the number of Georgians unable to find work month after month – the recession’s long-term victims.

Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond wrote a “white paper” last summer detailing the demographics of the long-term unemployed. Upon the AJC’s request, the Labor Department further crunched long-term jobless data through April 2010.

Its statisticians used information compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to break down long-term unemployment by age, sex, race and education.

Through Job Seekers, a faith-based job networking group in Atlanta, Chapman found many people who have been without a job for months, if not years.

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