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Long-term unemployed still waiting for recovery

1:51 PM, Feb 10, 2013   |    comments
Architect Lucas McGrail of Livonia, Mich. sits at his drafting table in his home on Jan. 24, 2013. McGrail, who is now in the masters program at Lawrence Technological University, was laid off in 2008 and has been under-employed or unemployed ever since. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
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DETROIT - Architect Lucas McGrail has been without regular employment for four years since losing his $75,000-a-year construction manager job when his industry imploded during the Great Recession.

Since then, the 38-year-old has cobbled together a patchwork of part-time gigs equaling about $10,000 a year. He has also submitted more than 3,000 resumes, generated a half-dozen interviews -- and still feels like a job could be just around the corner.

"I don't want to lose who I am and what I spent all these years and all this money to become and just fade into oblivion," he said.

Despite an improving economy and an unemployment rate ticking downward, many people remain unemployed, some for years. It's a situation that could threaten a still-fragile recovery.

Just last month, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned in a speech in Ann Arbor that long-term unemployment remains a serious problem, with 40 percent of the unemployed out of work six months or more. "That's a situation where there are too many people whose skills and talents are being wasted," he said.

Add to that a potential skills gap in Michigan -- where too few people have training needed for available jobs -- and it's a recipe for jobs growth stagnation, experts told the Detroit Free Press. Though some question whether a skills gap really exists, some corporate leaders call it one of the toughest obstacles they face.

As well, gridlock over the federal budget in Washington has some employers nervous about hiring. The average job search nationwide is now about six months for a person looking for a $40,000-$75,000 annual salary, said Pamela Moore, president and CEO of Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., a Michigan Works! agency.

Higher salary requirements usually equate to longer searches. And someone older than 55 could spend on average 30 weeks looking for a job, Moore said.

She said people with good communication and writing skills, and those with computer, administrative, health care and automotive backgrounds are having an easier time. Engineers, marketing professionals, analysts and Web developers will have the most challenging time, she said.

Moore said the auto industry and manufacturing are the biggest areas for the growth. Professional and business sectors and private education also are hiring.

What recovery?

Janet O'Brien, 34, of Ferndale was among the long-term unemployed Michigan residents profiled by the Free Press in 2011. She had lost her marketing and community outreach job at the Federal Reserve Bank's Detroit office in March 2008.

But early last year, she landed a job as an administrative assistant at Wayne State University's School of Medicine and is now rebuilding her financial life. She graduated in 2002 from Oakland University and has a master's degree in public policy from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

She said the four years without a good full-time job scarred her deeply.

"I don't think we're in this recovery that everyone keeps reporting," she said. "People are still going to be in recovery in 2015, especially around here."

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, forecasts the U.S. jobless rate near 7.5 percent by year-end, at about 7 percent by the end of 2014 and then closer to 6 percent by the end of 2015. With luck, it could go below 6 percent -- back to full employment -- by summer 2016, he said.

He said the biggest job gains in the next several years will be relating to housing -- including construction, manufacturing, transportation, financial services and landscaping. Energy also will add significantly to payrolls, he said. But layoffs are expected to continue in the news media industry, some local governments and big financial institutions.

"It is still very tough to find a job, but it is getting easier day-by-day," said

Some alternatives

If millions of Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, many are doing more than sitting at home and brooding. Alternatives to full-time work -- going back to school, becoming stay-at-home caregivers, joining the military -- have become options for many.

During his time without a regular job, McGrail has lectured on Detroit's architectural history, given tours at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel and consulted on space efficiency for homeowners. He has gone back to school to study for his master's degree, run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Livonia City Council and helped care for his elderly mother-in-law.

McGrail, who earned his undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Detroit Mercy, recently enrolled in master's degree classes at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. He also is prepping to take his state licensing exams in architecture, a long and expensive process.

Vicki Shy-McGrail, his wife, has been the main breadwinner the last several years. She works in industry as an executive assistant.

"My wife has been a real sport through the whole thing, very understanding, encouraging me," he said.

Some of his part-time gigs have come through friends and family, including his work helping families use space more efficiently in their homes.

He's been a finalist in a couple of recent job searches, which convinces him that things are turning around.

"When you're in this position for so long you think that it'll never change," he said. "At least I know I'm getting close. It's just that nothing has popped yet."

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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