The unemployment rate has ticked down in recent months, nationally and here in Idaho. Two of the people StateImpact Idaho has followed through its “Jobless in Idaho” series are among those who have made progress in finding work. But they haven’t simply landed jobs and resumed the lives they had before unemployment.
When we first met Kelly Barker, a single mom in her mid-40s who lives in Meridian, she had been out of work for seven months. She talked about the “what-ifs” – the fears she couldn’t shake from her mind.
“What if my car doesn’t start?” she asked. “What if I get sick and have to go to the doctor? I don’t have that, you know, money to do it. I have enough to pay my house payment, and to pay my utilities, and to put food on the table.”
Barker said she and her eight-year-old daughter were getting by on a daily food allowance of about five dollars. Transportation was also a problem. “Gas is a little iffy – car gas,” she said. “I have to be very careful about where I go. Ride my bike!”
That was just before Thanksgiving. Weeks later, just after Christmas, Barker sent an email full of exclamation points. She’d found work. We met again to talk about it. “I’m working in human resources,” Barker said. “I do filing, I do background checks, put together new hire paperwork.”
She’s at Idaho Power, a company she’s wanted to work for for a long time. But there’s a catch. It’s through a temp agency, and it’s short-term. “I’m so thrilled and I feel so good about it, but at the same time you have that uneasy feeling of, “Gosh, at the end of six weeks do I have to start this process all over again?” and it’s just – I dread having to do that,” she says.
Barker is glad for a chance to prove herself with a good employer, but her situation is far from stable.
Nathan Bussey, a former Hewlett-Packard employee, has gone through a different kind of adjustment. At HP, Bussey worked his way up from the company call center to a good job setting up printing systems for Fortune 500 companies. Now, he’s back to where he began: call center work, but no longer for HP. “The big difference, I think, is just that when I started my call center with Hewlett-Packard, that was before I even finished my undergraduate degree the first time, and I actually am making significantly less money today than I was when I first started my job at Hewlett-Packard,” Bussey says.
And that’s saying something, considering that Bussey went back to school and earned an MBA after he got laid off in 2008. He started at the new call center in November. He hopes he’ll move up over time. His wife also works, and they can get by, for now. But Bussey can’t help thinking about the time that’s been lost.
“It’s kind of a sigh of regret, but it’s not something that I wallow in it’s just – ‘Okay, so this is starting over, almost.’” he says. “And yeah, the degrees and education is there, but it might as well be the day after I graduated from college the first time, because there’s nothing that’s been built up now.”
The course of his life has shifted, and Bussey expects to feel the economic effects of that for years. Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, says that will be the case for many American workers who lost jobs in the recession.
“On average, looking across the experience of many thousands of dismissed workers, what we see is that the earnings loss that people sustain when they lose good-paying jobs tends to persist for quite a while,” Burtless says.
According to a Brookings study, workers who lose their jobs during recessions experience a 19 percent earnings loss over the next 25 years. That’s not the only broad trend of the labor market that applies to Nathan Bussey and Kelly Barker. Another hard truth is that there’s less and less demand for workers like them – people with mid-level skills. “The kinds of positions they once held are declining in number relative to jobs at the bottom of the skill distribution and jobs at the very top of the skill distribution,” says Burtless.
That’s due to outsourcing and mechanization, which chip away at the need for mid-level workers and increase competition for the jobs that remain. Nathan Bussey says he knows that reality is part of what he’s living through. In fact, he says, he wouldn’t be surprised if he and Kelly Barker have applied for the same jobs as they’ve looked for work – positions that require organization and initiative, but a fairly generic set of skills.
Despite those grim observations, Bussey and Barker both say there’s nothing to do but keep trying and hoping and trusting. But Barker can’t help that each workday is laced with a feeling of yearning. She can’t help looking around at work, noticing who is permanent and who is a temporary. “I look at the badges. You know, everybody wears badges on a lanyard,” she says. “And because I’m a contractor – they call me a contractor – I have red around the edge. And I really notice that. Everybody I meet in walking or in passing, I look at their badge.”
She gravitates toward the other temporary employees. She wants to know what they’ve been through. But she hopes, very much, that she won’t be among them for long.