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America and the Struggle for Jobs

Job seekers wait in line to enter a job fair on September 1 in San Mateo, California
Job seekers wait in line to enter a job fair on September 1 in San Mateo, California

FAITH LAPIDUS: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

DOUG JOHNSON: And I’m Doug Johnson. This week on our program, we look at the job situation in the United States. There was zero job growth last month. The national unemployment rate was the same as in July, 9.1 percent. That does not even include people who have stopped looking for work or part-time workers unable to get full-time jobs.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Coming up, we talk to Don Peck, author of a new book called “Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.” And we hear from two people about what they had to do to find a job.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Americans face different economic issues. Which one worries them most? A Pew Research Center-Washington Post opinion poll asked a thousand people earlier this month. Forty-three percent said the job situation. About half as many said the federal budget deficit.

Smaller numbers said rising prices and the financial and housing markets were their biggest economic worries.

Three out of four people said additional spending on roads, bridges and other public works would improve the job situation at least a little. Many said the same about cutting business taxes, the federal budget and personal income taxes. But there was no clear agreement about which ideas would do a lot to help.

DOUG JOHNSON: Last Thursday night, President Obama spoke to Congress to present his plan for job growth. His proposals include an extension of jobless benefits for workers who have been unemployed for extended periods. The plan also includes tax breaks for companies to hire more workers and money for projects to fix roads and schools.

The Labor Department counts about fourteen million workers as unemployed. Millions more are working part time as they try to find full-time employment.

The so-called Great Recession officially lasted from December of two thousand seven to June of two thousand nine. Unemployment was five percent at the start. It reached 10.1 percent in late two thousand nine. This year the jobless rate has been stuck around nine percent.

There are concerns that the United States -- and the world -- could face another recession. Some economists say a "double-dip" could be more painful for average Americans because the economy is weaker than it was before the first recession.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Don Peck is a writer and editor at the Atlantic magazine. In his new book, “Pinched,” he says economic conditions are limiting opportunities for millions of Americans. He says the generation of young Americans known as millennials -- those now graduating from high school and college -- are especially affected.

DON PECK: “The first few years on the job market are extremely important to setting the career track and life path of young people. When young people struggle -- when whole generations struggle in their first few years in the job market -- academic research shows that not only do they start out behind, they never catch up to where they otherwise would’ve been.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Mr. Peck says early in the recession, millennials thought any period of unemployment would be short. There was even a name for this kind of thinking: "funemployment."

DON PECK: “The idea that a few months perhaps of unemployment during the recession, could not only be easily overcome but could be kind of fun. You know, people were getting unemployment checks, they didn’t have many financial commitments.

"Many of them took that opportunity to reassess career, to take vacations, and I think in part millennials were just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

DOUG JOHNSON: But now, he says, young people are thinking differently.

DON PECK: “That idea that this period is something that can be easily enjoyed and that will not materially affect millennials in the rest of their careers is clearly waning within that generation. I think today you see among millennials much higher job tenure -- they’re clinging to their jobs more tightly, they’ve expressed a desire for a single job, a single employer throughout their career rather than the ability to switch careers. So that notion of funemployment which many millennials began the recession with, I think, is long gone today.”

In today’s economy, says Mr. Peck, any work is better than no work.

DON PECK: “This is a time where young people need to be extremely aggressive and entrepreneurial and have humility. You know, say yes to whatever job offers one gets because it’s certainly better to be working than have the stigma of unemployment all together.”


FAITH LAPIDUS: Twenty-two year old Jessie Way finished college in less than four years and with honors. She graduated from George Mason University in Virginia with a degree in technical writing in January. After that, she spent three months helping her mother who got sick. Then she spent five months searching for a job.

Jessie was lucky. She recently landed a position as a legal assistant with a law firm.

JESSIE WAY: "The problem I found myself having was, it's what everyone complains about -- there's jobs that want experience, but nobody wants to give you experience."

A demand for experience is not a new problem for young people, of course. But Jessie Way thinks the situation today is more difficult than it was for graduates ten years ago.

JESSIE WAY: "Back then you could say, oh well, I’m just out of college, so I’m a lot cheaper than these people with experience. So companies could say, OK, we'll hire some college graduates and we'll have to train them a little but the price cut is worth it to them.

"Nowadays so many people are out of work and have been let go and all that stuff that they can offer that same salary to somebody who does have five years experience that they used to offer to somebody like me. And it's gotten to the point now where college kids either can't get a job or can't get a job that's actually going to pay the bills."

DOUG JOHNSON: Author Don Peck says one way for young job seekers to improve their chances is by moving.

DON PECK: “I would really encourage people, particularly if they’re living in highly depressed places, to consider taking a leap and moving to a more dynamic region. I think that will help them in the long run.”

A willingness to move helped Jessie Way find a job. Her new job is more than an hour from where she was living. But she did not have time to find an apartment, so she is sleeping on a friend’s couch until she can find a place of her own.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Thirty-nine-year-old Norm Elrod of Queens, New York, has been laid off from jobs four times in the past ten years. The last job he lost was with an online marketing agency. He left in two thousand eight. After that, he says, he set out to find a way to make himself a better job candidate. He used online resources to create a website and teach himself new skills in the process.

NORM ELROD: “That’s how my website came about. I built that and ran it and essentially trained myself, or re-trained myself, taught myself new skills that allowed me to get the job I have now.”

DOUG JOHNSON: Norm Elrod created a blog called Jobless and Less: The Blog for the Employmentally Challenged.

NORM ELROD: “I wrote about the one thing I seemed to know, which was at that point being unemployed. [Laughs]"

FAITH LAPIDUS: Jessie found her job by answering an online job posting. But Norm says he had no success applying for jobs on the Internet.

NORM ELROD: “You send your resume out and it goes into a void and one person will get in touch with you for every one hundred to two hundred resumes you send out. And it's not because you're not qualified. It's because they get so many, and oftentimes they're looking for just a certain thing and there's no way to know what that is.”

His advice to people looking for a job is to learn new skills and meet new people.

NORM ELROD: “It's very easy to sit at home and send out your resume by clicking buttons on your computer at your dining room table and feel like maybe you're being productive. But it's much harder to actually get out there and meet the people who may know things or can point you towards things or make that face to face contact. I feel like that is where any job seeker is going to get more traction.”

His wife’s full-time job helped the couple pay their bills. They also used savings, payments from state unemployment insurance and money from projects he worked on while job hunting.

It was nearly three years until a contact he met through one of those projects led him to his current job. Norm Elrod works full time creating content for the website of a major media company.


DOUG JOHNSON: The Great Recession was the worst downturn since the Great Depression in the nineteen thirties. Don Peck says the long-term unemployment that many workers have experienced can have lasting effects, and not just on them.

DON PECK: "When you have these long periods of unemployment, they can really leave pretty big scars on people, families and communities that are not lost even once the recession is over. When men, in particular, struggle economically, or when they don’t have jobs, women simply don’t marry them, but they do have children with them. And that creates often the sort of unstable family environment in which children really struggle.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: What would he do about the employment problems in the United States?

DON PECK: “One of the main messages of my book 'Pinched' is we can recover from this period faster with concerted public action.”

In the short term, he thinks the government should invest more in public works to create jobs in manufacturing and construction.

DON PECK: “But I think in the longer term we also need to really work to build new skills and create more pathways into the middle class for high school students who might not be going to college.

“That sense of possibility and that concrete sense of how one can move forward in life if one isn’t going to a four year college to some extent has been lost in the U.S. over the past twenty or thirty years. One of the things we need to do is rebuild that and give young people an understanding of the ways in which they can build skills and build real careers.”


DOUG JOHNSON: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake. I’m Doug Johnson.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can read and listen to our programs and comment on them at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.