Like the national unemployment rate, which now stands at 8.3 percent, Idaho’s jobless rate has ticked down in recent months. In December, the state’s rate stood at 8.4 percent. Put in other terms, Idaho’s economy has added 8,000 jobs since September of last year. What’s harder to know is what kinds of jobs people are finding, and what kinds of compromises — lower wages, odd hours? — they’re having to make. For an anecdotal response to those questions, StateImpact sat down with Larry Willis, a workforce consultant in the Idaho Department of Labor’s Meridian office.
Q: This office assists people in lots of ways. They can file for unemployment insurance benefits, or use computers here to search for jobs or work on resumes. How many people pass through most days?
A: That’s a tough question, but particularly on Mondays — that’s generally our busy day — you’re probably going to see couple of hundred people come through here. There’s probably, at any given time, 20 or 30 people in our lobby, and it just rotates throughout the day.
Q: You coordinate a professional networking group. What have you observed about individuals’ experiences as they try to get jobs at this particular moment?
A: You know, it’s really a mix. I wish we could be a little more positive than we may be. It’s still difficult to find jobs in this environment. The number of people losing their jobs obviously in the last year to two years has significantly dropped, but people are still losing their jobs for various reasons, and the job creation has not increased at the rate we hope it would have by now.
For people coming into the office, the professional people especially, we’re running into a couple of challenges. One, if they’ve been out of work for a year or more, it becomes even more difficult to find a job. Because employers are looking for current skills. The second one that’s really difficult is the perception of being overqualified. That’s a difficult challenge to overcome.
The real challenge is for the candidates, when they go for an interview, to really be prepared to bring that up themselves, to really sell themselves. They want to work for that company, and they want to do that job they’re hiring for. That’s really the key thing to convey.
Q: When you talk to people who maybe had the same job for 10 years, or worked their way up in a company, or didn’t previously have trouble getting a job, what do you hear from them? You must hear a lot of personal stories — people’s frustrations and sorrows.
A: A lot of people, particularly those who come into our professional networking group, they get frustrated very early, because it’s difficult to find a job today, and in the past they have had no problem finding jobs. One of the things we stress a lot is networking. There are statistics that 80 percent of the jobs that are filled in the U.S. today are never advertised. You have to build contacts, make new acquaintances, and find those open doors.
When we have our meetings with our professionals and our job club, we don’t call them support groups, but it’s amazing how many people comment on the fact that, “I received encouragement while I was there to continue my job search.” Most of us that in the past have found it easy to find jobs, it can get very discouraging very quickly when you find out difficult it is today. They have the skills, they are the people companies would want to hire, but they have to be able to convey that in an interview.
Q: What have you witnessed people go through emotionally?
A: A whole range. People who have been angry. People who, when they start telling their background, their stories, they’ve actually broken down in tears. It’s a feeling of abandonment, a lot of times. “I’ve put all these years in, I’ve worked really hard, and now somebody tells me they don’t need me.” It’s hard for them to grab the concept that it isn’t anything they did wrong necessarily. It’s just the trend of the economy. A lot of people have lost jobs that never thought they would have lost jobs. We have people coming through that have been presidents of companies, airline pilots, banking people, engineers, project managers, sales people regionally and nationally. That have all had high-level jobs. Never thought they would have to be in this situation.
Q: How much have those people had to compromise? How much have they had to say, “Well, this is what I can get now.”
A: There is a mix. We find people who are able to go back, and at the same level as before. I would say that’s not the norm. Most are having to go do some kind of a job that’s somewhat less than before or quite a bit less than before. Really, it comes down to a person’s individual need — their finances and stage of life. Going back to the frustration, the anger. That comes from knowing there’s not a lot out there in the same industry or field or level of expertise and income that they had before. There are some, though! I’ve got a folder of emails from people who have gone back to work in the same industries, same jobs, same income. It can happen. It’s just more challenging than it has been.
I’m never going to tell someone not to take a job that’s lower level if that’s something they need to do. But if they don’t have to, I encourage them to hang on and wait and try a little bit harder, because there are jobs out there.
Q: So you really are encouraging people to hold out. That’s interesting, in this economy, that you still say, in some cases, “Wait a year, if you have to.”
A: I do, because the risk you run if you go to a lower-level job is that your skills aren’t going to be current, and the more difficult it’s going to be to go back up to the higher level job again. I always encourage people to wait as long as they can. Keep looking for the things you’re interested in, the things you like to do, the things you’re going to be happy doing, because that’s the best thing for you if you can do it.
Q: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought the Department of Labor would take that position.
A: Well, I’m only one representative, and I’m giving you my viewpoint. It comes from the experience of being through situations like this personally, and from talking to lots of people over the last few years.
I went back and looked at our records that we keep for our professional networking group. We’ve had 384 individuals come through in the last three years. Out of that, 65 percent have gone back to work, and I would say the vast majority have gone back to similar work — income-wise, at least — that they had before. So that’s pretty significant! Some of those have taken a year or more, but they have found jobs that were similar to what they were doing before.
This interview has been edited and shortened.