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After two years, harsh view at corner of jobless and hopeless

An often overlooked segment of unemployed periodically gives up the fruitless search.

KRIS HUNDLEY
Published October 4, 2003

After two years of looking for work and coming up empty-handed, Charlie Ruvolo of Clearwater concedes he sometimes fits the federal government's definition of a "discouraged worker."

Ruvolo, 47, said he has taken at least three breaks from job hunting in the past 24 months, sometimes just to keep his sanity and more recently to re-energize his search.

"I crawled in a corner, went in a fetal position and wondered what I did wrong," said Ruvolo, who had been a manager for an IT service provider in Clearwater until October 2001. "I hopped in my car, went to New Jersey and spent a couple of days with my brothers. Then this summer I took off a month to re-engineer myself. I came up with a new resume and new format so I could do a big push for Labor Day. I had reached burnout."

Ruvolo is not alone.

News of the nation's economy often focuses on the officially unemployed, like the 9-million people who were jobless in September and had actively looked for work in the previous four weeks. The government reported Friday that employers added 57,000 jobs in September, the first increase in payrolls in eight months. Analysts and investors cheered that news, although the unemployment rate remained stuck at 6.1 percent.

The unemployment rate doesn't include another group of people - more than 1.5-million in September - who were out of work but had quit looking for a new job, at least temporarily.

Known as the marginally attached, this group fluctuates in size as long-jobless workers like Ruvolo tire of sending their resumes into a void.

People in this group say they are available to work but did not search for a job in the past four weeks. Most say they put their search on hold because they were in school or had family responsibilities. The number of marginally attached workers is about the same as a year ago and down from August, when the number reached nearly 1.7-million, a level not seen since June 1996.

Discouraged workers are a subset of the marginally attached. To be officially labeled "discouraged" by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who are out of work must say they've taken a break from the job hunt for one of several specific reasons: they couldn't find work, they lack necessary training, or employers think they're too young or too old.

Last month, about 388,000 people fell into the category, about the same as a year ago. September's figures were an improvement over August, when 500,000 people said they were "discouraged," the highest number since September 1994. About 60 percent of the group were male.

The data on the nation's labor force are gathered monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics through phone and in-person surveys of 60,000 households. Based on their responses, the jobless are categorized as unemployed, marginally attached, discouraged or no longer in the work force.

Though the terms used by government statisticians may seem irrelevant to the unemployed, economists say the large group of people who want a job but aren't looking has serious implications.

The job market is widely expected to improve in the coming months. But Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that doesn't necessarily mean the unemployment rate will fall.

He reasons that an improving job market will motivate the marginally attached, including discouraged workers, to get back into the hunt for work. Then they'll qualify as "unemployed," perpetuating an unemployment rate at about 6 percent, even as people are moving into the workplace.

"We'll increase the supply of workers without creating slots for them," he said. "Then we've got a problem."

* * *

Gloria Davis of St. Petersburg has been out of the work force since 1999. For the first two years, she was happily retired. In 2002, as the reality of her market-ravaged investment portfolio sank in, she fit the description of a "marginally attached" worker: interested but only sporadically looking. This year, she became officially unemployed - and frustrated.

"I've sent out in excess of 100 resumes with cover letters," Davis said of her active search. "I've had two interviews, both because I had contacts inside."

Though not "discouraged" officially because she hasn't stopped looking, Davis said the term fits her perfectly.

"It took me an hour this morning to write a cover letter that should have taken 10 minutes because I kept having to pump myself up," she said. "I kept thinking, "Why am I wasting my time doing this, when I'll never hear a word back?"'

Davis, 57, worked in computers and as a data processing manager for 30 years. As the manager of the Tampa office for tech consultant Keane Inc., she built it from fewer than 30 employees with $2-million a year in revenues to more than 180 employees and $15-million in revenues.

That experience seems to mean little as she searches for work today. So she's trying to keep her skills up-to-date by volunteering to do Excel spreadsheets for the group sponsoring the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. She also took an accounting course at the University of South Florida, trying to expand her marketability.

"It almost killed me, but I got an A," she said.

Beaten down by a job search that has left her feeling "old, ugly, unskilled and overqualified," Davis said her next step is calling every old colleague in her personal phone book.

"I need to tell my friends I'm really looking for work," she said. "I'm running out of money."

* * *

Peter Contardo, a marketing executive in Tampa, thinks it's not such a bad thing to become officially "discouraged" and take a break from the job search.

"Not sending out resumes doesn't mean you're not preparing yourself to look for a job," said Contardo, who organized ProNet of Tampa Bay, a network of unemployed professionals, while he was out of work. "Some of the people we work with are trying to sell a product into a market that's not buying it anymore. They need to step away and put together a comprehensive plan."

Contardo acknowledges that the notion of taking time off when you're out of work may not be popular with nonworking spouses. And by definition it makes you ineligible for unemployment benefits, which require an active job search. But he argues that stepping out of the fray temporarily can be re-energizing.

"Too many people use a shotgun approach (to job hunting). And with the Internet, it's very easy to do shotgun," said Contardo, who formed a consulting group that is marketing its services to create ProNet-style organizations throughout the state. "You've got to be laser-beam focused and have a long-term plan. Odds are, you're not going to find a job in 30 or 60 days."

After 300 resumes yielded five interviews and no job offers, Ruvolo, a member of ProNet, decided to hone his approach last summer.

"I deleted all my files and started all over again," said Ruvolo, who is marking two years of joblessness this month. "I made my resume a bit more generic, more toward an operational management-type resume. I can apply those tools to any company."

That doesn't mean potential employers agree. Ruvolo thought he was ideal for a job managing 30 service people at a trash compactor manufacturing company in the Northeast.

"The guy said, "I don't think you'd be happy with it,"' Ruvolo said of the lost opportunity. "I said, "You don't understand, I can be at work Monday."'

Ruvolo admits his decision to take a monthlong break from such frustrations was made easier because he's single and has no family relying on his wages. On the flip side, he has no spouse's earnings to fall back on.

To survive the long months of unemployment, Ruvolo has picked up occasional part-time retail work, refinanced his mortgage and cracked open his 401(k). Before he starves, he figures he can sell his one remaining toy, a restored 1947 Ford.

"I know too many people who've lost everything. They've just given up," Ruvolo said. "But I never ever thought this thing was going to last this long."

Like the economists, Ruvolo thinks people who have laid low, painting houses or caring for their kids during the downturn, will flock back to the job market at the first hint of improvement.

"When this thing really pops, you're going to see everybody come out of the woodwork," he said of the thousands of discouraged jobseekers waiting in the wings. "Employers are going to be so inundated with resumes, they won't know where to start."

- Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

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