Shari Hull always thought she'd be just like Donna Reed: stay at home, raise the kids, and when the time came, retire comfortably with her husband. But that only happens in sitcoms.
Hull's husband died last year of cancer at age 53, and now she's had to join the vast army of baby boomers and senior citizens headed back to work. Like thousands of others, Hull, 58, has discovered that finding work is the toughest job she's ever had. She's been to four job fairs over the past several months, filled out a mountain of application forms and made dozens of phone calls. At best, she gets "We'd love to hire you, but . . ."
In the meantime, she took a computer class through AARP and takes part-time jobs for minimum wage until she can renew her nursing license.
"I wasn't looking for a CEO job,'' she said from the Pinellas Park home she recently put on the market. "Just something basic. But I guess now all bets are off. Every job you apply for, there are 50 or 100 other people also applying for it.
"The only consolation,'' she added, "is that I know I'm not alone.''
Indeed, forecasters say the Tampa Bay area will lose 42,900 jobs by the end of this year, on top of the 30,600 jobs lost in 2008, pushing the area's unemployment rate to nearly 9 percent.
With incredibly shrinking nest eggs, many of those in their 50s and older are finding the going especially rough. The number of seniors filing for bankruptcy is soaring, and as they try to re-enter the work force, seniors are finding the competition fierce, and not just from younger workers. Florida had 1.44-million workers age 55 and older in 2007, and the number is growing by about 80,000 a year, according to state figures.
Every day Bob Yakubisen, a work search director for AARP in St. Petersburg, has a front-row seat to the trouble. "I probably have enrollment papers for 50 people waiting to get in (the program),'' Yakubisen said. "I don't turn anybody away. But we're just backed up, and there's nothing I can do. I wish there were.''
One of the problems Yakubisen said seniors encounter is a lack of computer skills, something he tries to get them to overcome through introductory classes. One senior told him she stood at an in-store computer for four hours trying to figure out how to fill out an application.
Money can also be a problem. Another senior Yakubisen tried to place was offered a good job but wouldn't take it because he'd have to give back much of his Social Security benefit. That's because people who receive Social Security benefits before age 65 or 66 can earn no more than $14,160 a year before their benefits start to drop.
Another problem is that some seniors view entry level work as degrading.
"But things have changed,'' Yakubisen said. "You may have to go in as the janitor and show them what you can do. Most employers understand the value of showing up on time with a good attitude.''
And the Internet, he said, is not always the answer. "It's networking. Tell everybody you know you're looking for a job.''
Increasingly, the last stop on the line for those who can't find work is bankruptcy. Stetson University College of Law professors Rebecca Morgan and Theresa Pulley Radwan are completing a study on elderly people in Central Florida who file for bankruptcy and why they do it.
"We expected to find a lot of medical debt, and we haven't,'' Pulley Radwan said. "We've seen quite a bit of credit card debt, and that raises more questions than answers.''
They say that for many seniors, personal savings are at zero, equity in homes has disappeared, and the average retirement plan took a 45 percent hit in 2008. "This,'' Morgan said, "is a very tough time.''
Joe Pezzano would agree. A Vietnam War veteran from Pinellas Park, Pezzano, 55, has been looking for work for nearly two years and has exhausted his savings. He has experience in computers and regularly scours the want ads, WorkNet Pinellas, monster.com and the AARP work search program. All he can find is an 18-hour a week job at minimum wage.
But he'll land a good job, he said. Something that pays the bills and gives him a sense of accomplishment. It's all a matter of attitude.
"Don't become discouraged,'' he said. "If you do, you'll quit looking, and that could drag you down further.
"Remember that you have something to offer.''