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After years on sidelines, work feels good to them

After years without work, those who are back on the job say they appreciate the paycheck, as well as the psychological reward of having a job again.
Image: Steve Kelly
After more than two years of being unemployed, Steve Kelley, 63, found work as a construction superintendent in Richland, Wash.Jim Seida /

Call them lucky. Call them persistent. But don’t call them unemployed anymore.

As the economy slowly hobbles back to health, some long-term jobseekers are finally getting the thing they and millions of others have dreamed of, in some cases for years: a job.

“I’m having a chance to grow again and come back. That’s what my wife and I are saying —  2011 is the year of the comeback. We just don’t look back,” said Steve Kelley, 63, who recently returned to work as a construction superintendent after more than two years of unemployment.

The recession and its aftermath have been brutal for jobseekers, not just because there are so many of them but also because it is taking them so long — an average of nearly nine months  — to find new work.

As the economy starts slowly to add jobs again, many of those who are finding a job again say the psychological relief of returning to work is as important as the paycheck.

“I’m able to buy decent shoes again," said Gary Drake, 66, who recently started working again after 14 months of unemployment.

"I can go out for dinner once a month or twice a month easily. I am able to put money away for retirement,” he said. “I went from being on tenterhooks and just freaking out about where my next meal (was coming) from to a place where I really see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Drake, who estimates he sent out 200 resumes, said the long period of joblessness took a heavy psychological toll.

“You get so many rejections and you start thinking, ‘What’s the matter with me?’” said Drake, of Dunedin, Fla.

When he finally did land a job in quality management, he added, “I was like doing handsprings for, like, five or six days.”

Now whenever he has the slightest urge to complain about something, he says he tells himself, “You know what, there are 5,000 people who would come stand in this parking lot for a week to be able to sit at this desk.”

For many, a yearlong job search
That’s not just hyperbole. More than a year and a half after the economy officially emerged from recession, the unemployment rate remains at 9 percent. Although the U.S. economy is slowly but steadily adding new jobs again, the length of most job searches remains far above historical norms.

As of December, 30 percent of unemployed people, or about 4.2 million people, had been out of work at least a year, according to a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s the highest percentage since World War II, according to Pew.

The average duration of unemployment stood at 36.9 weeks in January — the highest level since at least 1948, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a reflection of the growing problem of long-term joblessness, the BLS has begun counting unemployment durations of up to five years. Previously the agency only reported durations up to two years.

While lengthy unemployment is more frequent for workers over 55, in this recession even younger workers have often had to contend with job searches that last a year or more.

A comeback year
After more than 30 years in the construction industry, Kelley figured he was a few years away from retirement in August 2008, when he was laid off from his job as a construction superintendent for a major project in Colorado’s Vail Valley.

That began a domino effect that forced him to short-sell the 3,100-square-foot home he’d built, say goodbye to his retirement plans and retreat with his wife to their 700-square-foot cabin in rural Wyoming.

For more than two years, Kelley searched for a job. When online applications seemed to be going nowhere, the couple even packed up a small travel trailer and traveled south through the Sunbelt so he could hand out resumes in person. Nothing panned out.

Desperate for work and humiliated by unemployment, Kelley started his own business in the hope that people would be more willing to hire him as a contract worker. It didn’t work.

So last fall he hopped on his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle and drove from Wyoming to Portland, Ore., hoping an in-person visit would be enough to convince a former employer to give him a job.

“It was more probably of an escape, and just a way of saying, ‘You know what, I’m still alive. I can still work. I’m healthy,’” he said.

A couple of weeks later, the company called him up and offered him a job as a construction superintendent on a site in Richland, Wash. The pay was about $20,000 less than he had been making and the job was far from home, but Kelley didn’t hesitate.

He and his wife packed up the 290-square-foot travel trailer and moved west, setting up home in an RV park.

Kelley worried that it would be hard to adjust to being back at work, or that he had lost his edge. Instead, he said he feels like he’s returned to work with a vengeance.

Jill Kelley, Steve’s wife of nearly 27 years, makes hats in the tiny travel trailer, using the kitchen counter as her ironing board and her car as a storage space.

The living space is tight, as is their budget, and they know their future will be more humble than they once anticipated. But the couple tries not to dwell on what they’ve lost.

“I really think we’re the lucky ones,” Steve Kelley said.

Although they are trying to save any extra cash they earn for retirement, the Kelleys did splurge on one thing after he got a new job: They used some money they had socked away for an emergency to buy a new Harley.

“We’re doing pretty good,” Jill Kelley said. “Well, this year we’re doing good.”

Regaining your footing, identity
Now that they are back at work, those who were unemployed for a long time say they appreciate the things they once took for granted, such as health insurance, work-based friendships and the structure a job gives you.

When Dave Carter, now 58, was laid off from his job as an executive with an industrial gas company , he lost more than just a paycheck.

“When you do the things that I was doing, it is who you are. Your friends are your customers and your colleagues and your suppliers. And when that disappears – all that’s gone – you lose your identity,” he said.

Carter accepted a major salary cut when he took a sales job in the same field a few weeks ago. But after looking for a job for about three years, during which he endured a failed attempt to start a family entertainment center, the Titusville, Fla., resident said he is happy just to have work.

"It’s extremely exciting to be contributing again,” he said.

Dave Dickson also accepted a major cut in pay when he took a job as a warehouse receiving inspector after about two years of unemployment. But Dickson, who lives in Solon, Ohio, sees it as a sign of the times.

“I’ve learned to live with a lot less,” he said.

That’s a perspective gained from having been on the other end of the financial spectrum, relying on family members to help out with basic expenses such as medication while he searched for a job.

At 58 and a self-described couch potato, he said he worried that it would be hard to adjust to the long days of working, but he’s quickly gotten used to it.

“It was beautiful to go back to work,” he said.

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