Sunday, June 24, 2018

Florida's economic rebound skips over long-term jobless

The odds were against Bob Pantano.

The unemployed 53-year-old was trying to claw his way back into the high-paying electrical engineering field after getting laid off by St. Petersburg's Jabil Circuit. But he was learning one of the Great Recession's dark lessons: The longer you are out of work, the longer it will take to find work.

To get by, Pantano relied on his music, both as hobby and moneymaker. From a mini studio in his Palm Harbor home, he wrote or arranged more than 100 compositions, producing YouTube videos that put nature's grandeur to soothing classical strains.

He led karaoke sessions and played piano at assisted living centers, passing out tambourines, noisemakers and mariachi instruments for residents to chime in. The pay: $50 a pop. More of a "labor of love," he said.

It wasn't enough. Not financially or mentally. For decades, engineering was his identity. His nickname in college was Engineer Bob.

But six months turned into a year which turned into two years, and still no job. Like so many of the long-term unemployed, Pantano fought constantly against isolation, depression and loneliness.

He began to doubt he would ever find a path back to the professional world he left behind.

• • •

Florida's jobs rebound has been nothing short of dramatic, with unemployment tumbling from the double digits to an impressive 6.2 percent. Yet, for the long-term jobless, the agony persists. Florida remains one of just two states where more than 45 percent of the unemployed have been looking for work for six months or more.

During the economic downturns of the '70s and '80s, most people did not stay out of work this long. The number of long-term jobless in the country last peaked at 26 percent in June 1983. After reaching 45 percent several times during 2010 and 2011, it still remains a stubbornly high 36 percent.

About 3.6 million Americans have been looking for a job at least six months, and nearly 900,000 have been out of work for at least a year.

"Folks who are long-term unemployed are at the back of the line when it comes to hiring," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.

Christine Owens of the worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project, put it another way. It's "perverse," she said, "that job seekers need to have a job in order to get a job."

Long-term unemployment remains an economic millstone that hampers productivity, crimps consumer spending and fuels higher government payouts through disability and social assistance programs. With older workers disproportionately affected, it also jeopardizes retirement plans for millions.

• • •

Finding the next job never used to be a hurdle for Pantano. Back in 1982, he lined up work with Texas Instruments in Dallas-Fort Worth immediately after graduating from Stony Brook University in New York with a bachelor's degree in engineering.

He spent 10 years at TI before moving to jobs in Leesburg, Va; Austin, Texas; and Little Rock, Ark., until arriving in St. Petersburg in 2004 to work for Jabil in electrical design, "value engineering" as it's known.

By then, Jabil was well-established as one of Tampa Bay's biggest public companies, making circuit boards and other electronics out of factories in more than 20 countries.

In 2008, Jabil began a series of layoffs as the company outsourced jobs to China and elsewhere. Pantano got hit in the third round.

He wasn't overly anxious. The time off was a chance to care for his cancer-stricken mother. He figured he would take a few months, maybe a year, away and then go back to work. How hard could it be?

• • •

Time is never a job seeker's friend.

One reason: Job skills atrophy. Ed Peachey, who runs the state's CareerSource workforce training agencies in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said it's up to displaced workers to take classes or improve their skills. The problem, he said, is many are reluctant to take the steps needed to carve out a new career.

"We have a lot of employers that want to hire but can't find the right person with the right skills."

And even if their skills don't diminish, the long-term jobless still bear an inescapable stigma. Companies simply don't want them.

If someone out of work six months goes up against someone who's looking for a month or two, "who's going to get the job?" said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial. "It's a cruel reality."

Tampa real estate attorney Ron Weaver, who has labored for years to help displaced colleagues find jobs, notices a shift in attitude tied to the length of a job search.

"One, two or three months is positively normal and almost a badge of honor among those still looking," Weaver said. "The seventh or eighth or 20th month becomes an, "Oh dear!'"

• • •

About two years after Pantano left Jabil, his mother had recovered enough to move into an assisted living center. He transitioned from full-time caregiver to full-time job hunter.

He might as well have worn the scarlet letter "L" — L for looking for work, L for long-term unemployed, L for loser. He fought hard not to feel that way.

Pantano drew inspiration and a roadmap by reading Dana Manciagli's book, Cut the Crap and Get a Job! Networking became his guidepost. He took four classes through WorkNet Pinellas that addressed his eroded skills in interviewing, networking and targeting resumes.

Shy by nature, he learned how to cold-call job prospects. The feedback was encouraging, even if it didn't lead directly to a job. "People are willing to help," he found. "It's in their nature to try to help."

He tried mock interviews with fellow job hunters and practiced his elevator speech, boiling down his message of what he could bring to a job in 20 seconds or so. "Hi. I'm Bob Pantano. I have a reputation for being a problem solver."

He scored a couple of interviews via LinkedIn; one through Craigs­list.

Like many in the same situation, he sent more than 100 resumes to human resource reps through online job listings. But he found it "such a low-payout activity." He preferred networking, cold-calling and following up on opportunities that sounded most promising.

Case in point: GE subsidiary Instrument Transformers Inc., which announced in November it was adding more than 260 jobs in Clearwater. "I must have sent four resumes to that one company," he said. "I really thought I was going to get in."

A pet peeve soon surfaced: Companies would take months to review their hiring options, and say they were on the cusp of a decision, only to cast their net again in a broader search. Maybe they were looking for the perfect fit. Maybe they were just indecisive.

"Paralysis by analysis," Pantano called it.

• • •

In January, CareerBuilder conducted a survey targeting people who have been unemployed at least a year and are still actively seeking work. Many said the stresses were piling up:

• 25 percent said they didn't have enough money for food.

• 12 percent had maxed out credit cards to pay other bills.

• 10 percent had lost their home or apartment due to the inability to pay the mortgage or rent.

• 25 percent reported strained relationships with family and friends.

• • •

"Whoever isolates himself pursues his own selfish desires; He rejects all practical wisdom." — Proverbs 18:1

As a longtime Jehovah's Witness, Pantano used to talk about that verse teaching Bible classes. During his relentless job search, he clung to it to keep his spirits up as emotional and financial stresses mounted.

His wife, Sonya, who shored up their finances working as a dental hygienist, spent a long time out-of-town after her mother died a year ago and her father's health worsened. Pantano had no children at home, either.

Pantano took solace in his music. He golfed and took long walks. Rocky, his 11-year-old Pomeranian, provided comfort throughout. During networking meetings, he heard others talk about the power of a pet as an emotional lift. "If you're worried or sad, they pick up on that," he said.

In the fall, he hit one of those inescapable lows.

"Sometimes it's easier to just stay at home and veg, but you need to do something," he said. "I think we're made to be productive. When you can't find work, it's a downward spiral."

A financial toll came in tandem with the emotional toll.

The initial year of his job search, he received unemployment benefits. Getting $275 a week for 40 weeks was pivotal, but he felt it also gave him a false sense of security. "It makes you feel like you're getting a paycheck."

When benefits ran out, he tapped his 401(k) to keep up with the bills. His job search didn't get any easier. It just got more urgent.

• • •

By December, the jobs crisis seemed like yesterday's story. Much of America wanted to move past talk of the recession.

With unemployment steadily falling, sympathy for the jobless was waning. A majority of Congress had tired of extending federal unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless and let those extra weeks of aid lapse as the page turned to 2014.

About 72,000 more people lose long-term benefits every week. Without renewing the program, the number of jobless workers without access to federal jobless aid is expected to top 3 million by the middle of this year.

President Barack Obama called on employers in his State of the Union address last month to hire those out of work a long time. Obama called it "a cruel Catch-22 that the longer you're unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem." He cited one study indicating if you've been out of work eight months, you're likely to get called back for an interview only about half as often as if you've been out of work one month — even with the identical resumé.

More than 300 employers, including Wal-Mart and Ford, have signed the pledge.

• • •

Just before Christmas, Pantano received his best job lead yet.

A friend he met through a job club gave him a strong recommendation at a Clearwater aviation company with an opening for a project engineer.

Pantano hit it off with the manager and got a job offer. "I had actually applied there a couple of times, but having that word of mouth, that inside connection, really helped," he said.

The pay was only slightly less than the $73,000-a-year job he had at Jabil. Benefits were basic medical and dental. No 401(k) like his last job. No matter.

"It felt good" to get that first paycheck, he said.

He chuckled at seeing the FICA payroll tax automatically taken out to fund Social Security and Medicare. "They still do that?" he laughed.

The shift took some adjustment. He had grown accustomed to sleeping in before tackling his daily job search. Now after a full day's work, he leaves the office at 5:30 p.m. and fatigue overtakes him just a few hours later.

"Nine o'clock at night," he says, "and I'm running on fumes."

Pantano knows the world has changed. Job security has become ephemeral. He may have to go through it all again someday. But for this moment, he's relishing the paycheck, the challenges of a new workplace.

Fatigue never felt so good.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]

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