BIG BEND, Wis.
Cheri Schober has been here before, between jobs, waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about the future. Yet Schober, 60, has never faced a job market like this one, so rough, so tight and so unforgiving, especially for older workers like her.
Unemployed since October 2009, Schober has gotten precisely three job interviews since. Despite all the networking and the hundreds of resumes she has sent out, this electrical engineer fears that time and age may be working against her.
"I don't expect people to think about age, to think if I'm a girl or a guy," she said. "I'm an engineer. I work hard. I don't ever plan on retiring."
Schober's plight is hardly unique. The Great Recession has dealt a harsh blow to job veterans. Although older workers still have unemployment rates lower than the national average, they often remain without jobs for longer periods than younger workers.
They're trying to cling to a middle-class way of life that often hangs by a thread as unemployment lingers for weeks, and then months, and sometimes even years.
For those who have been in the work force for decades, and who are suddenly without work, the journey is difficult as they try to regain jobs in factories and offices. They have to market themselves in a virtual world of online resumes and job boards, while also retaining work skills and trying, however they can, to maintain their self-esteem.
"It's like a roller coaster," Schober said. "You get pumped up, and then you go down."
She is a mother of three and grandmother of eight. She and her husband, Jim, built their dream home 13 years ago. She designed it and then watched it go up, log by log.
During the 1982 recession, when Schober's husband was on extended layoff, she decided she would never go through something like that again. Her children were young, but she returned to school. Six years later, she emerged from Marquette University with a degree in electrical engineering.
She knows her way around nuclear generators, jets and mining equipment. Her last job was as a process improvement engineer with P&H Mining Equipment. Her dad and uncle worked at the firm for 40 years. Her husband has been there for decades and is still on the job, trying to get as much overtime as he can so the couple can keep afloat financially.
In 2009, three weeks after the death of her mother, Schober was laid off. She had to start over again. The unemployment runs out in April.
Here's what relieves the pressure, tells her she's not in this alone: networking. In churches, shopping malls and community centers, older job seekers have long banded together to provide one another guidance as they try to find work. Part informational and part inspirational, job networking support groups provide a vital link.
Schober has gained friendships and job tips at Pewaukee Opportunities Networking Group, or PONG, which meets Monday mornings at the Goodwill Community Services Center in Waukesha, Wis. In the past year, the group has catered to around 200 people. At least 40 have found jobs.
Finding work "is probably the hardest job you'll ever have," said Pat Katisch, the volunteer who leads PONG. Katisch, in her 60s, has wide experience in marketing and continuing education. She, too, is looking for work.
Newcomers to the group, Katisch said, often feel "alone and isolated." But then they hear the stories of others, and realize they're part of a larger community dealing with a troubled economy.
The job seekers come from all walks of life, salespeople, secretaries, engineers, software professionals, even a former school principal.
"All of the (political) discussions about the joblessness and the unemployed are statistic-oriented," Katisch said. "We sometimes lose track of the psychological side of it, families, people spending down savings, people close to losing their homes, the fear factor. What happens in a marriage when one person who has always been the breadwinner hasn't had a job for a year or two?"
Among those looking for work is Pete Marrari, 54, of Milwaukee, a certified electronics technician. Laid off in March 2009 from the Gordon Flesch Co., where he had a steady middle-class job, Marrari's unemployment benefits are nearly exhausted. His wife has a good job. But he misses driving around town, fixing copiers and faxes, interacting with customers."I've been working since I was 12 years old and had a paper route," he said.
He still wakes up every day at 4:21 a.m. and is in the downtown YMCA gym by 5 a.m. A former bodybuilder (a 5-foot-tall trophy sits in the corner of his living room, along with dozens of other prizes), Marrari exercises to keep in shape and to maintain his spirit.
His business card reads "Like Ferrari — it's Marrari" and features a photo of a tool kit. He has a binder filled with his resume, letters of reference and transcripts of training courses he has completed for several lines of business machines. "This isn't the 1980s anymore where you could just walk into an office to get a job," he said. "You have to get online, network."
He has sent out hundreds of resumes and gotten a handful of interviews.
"We can't look like we're desperate," Marrari said. "I'm out of work. I'm a job seeker. There's something down the road for me."