The employment situation has eked out some small gains over the past year. But there's still a millstone hanging from the neck of the job market: long-term unemployment — being out of work 27 weeks or more.
In December, about 6.4 million Americans were considered long-term unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those people represented 44.3 percent of all the unemployed. They also amounted to 4.2 percent of the civilian labor force.
Unemployment benefits last longer than previously. Before the recent recession, unemployment insurance lasted six months. These days, extended benefits can last up to 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states.
For many people, losing a job in the worst recession in decades has meant more than a temporary bout of unemployment. It has meant many months or years of networking and knocking on doors — plus career damage, emotional challenges and financial hardship.
"There's a growing dichotomy between the fortunes of people who are at work and people who have lost their jobs," said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Things have turned up for the employed, but they're still very, very grim for the unemployed."
Platt applied for a $12-an-hour job at a retail warehouse club, but the store told him no, predicting he'd simply leave when the economy improved, he said.
Some say they have seen an uptick in interest from employers in recent weeks; still, it'll take a lot of hiring to improve unemployment.
"I've been unemployed since June 2009, and I've been applying for everything I can," said Cheryl Marchand, 54, a commercial interior designer in Fort Worth, Texas. Her benefits run out in the spring.
Plano, Texas, resident Kenneth Conte, 60, spent 30 years in the home mortgage business and worked his way up to six-figure pay. He closed his sole proprietorship in early 2008 as the mortgage market plummeted, then landed a job selling rugs in Texas and Oklahoma. He was laid off in April 2009 and has been looking for work since.
At Crossroads Bible Church in Double Oak, Texas, about a dozen job seekers gathered recently for a weekly career-networking meeting.
They discussed job interview strategies, led by group leader Rex Jones, a human resources executive at Dallas electric power company Energy Future Holdings.
They practiced drills in which they took two minutes to answer the classic job interview question: "Tell me about yourself."
When one woman mentioned she had an upcoming job interview at a local company, Kirk Taylor said he knew the human resources manager there — a potentially valuable connection.
Taylor, 58, worked 30 years with automobile manufacturers as a contact with dealers. He lost his job in April 2009 as car sales swooned.
Since then, he has done some substitute teaching and applied for jobs with automotive-related businesses. Now a typical day consists of six hours of networking and communicating with potential employers.
"It's an emotional roller coaster," he said. He has already had to tap into his retirement savings, and his unemployment benefits run out in a couple of months. But he has some promising job possibilities in the works.
"Overall, I remain optimistic," he said.
Nationally, from 2007 to 2010, unemployment rates jumped across age groups, education levels and occupations.
Frisco, Texas, resident Brien Caldwell, 42, was laid off from his marketing job with American Airlines in January 2008, just as the U.S. recession was beginning.
He taught himself social media marketing skills and joined a trade group. He has gone to potential employers and offered to work for free for several weeks so they can get a sense of his skills.
Dee Blackerby's benefits of about $300 a week ran out last month.
Blackerby, 54, began working at age 16, she said. In the 1990s and much of the past decade, she worked as a paralegal. She also volunteered as a crisis counselor.
She earned a psychology degree in 2007 and got a job working with mentally ill patients, but she lost it in May 2009. "I'd like to go out and help people, to use my skills as a crisis counselor and my paralegal background," she said. "I can't not have a job. I just can't not have a job."