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The jobless stigma

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations offers reemployment classes to people collecting unemployment insurance; this early-morning session was held last week at the Waipahu Civic Center.
  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Paul Chang, service representative for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 745, showed the job site of the new Cancer Center in Kakaako, one of the few bright spots in the construction industry.
  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Leighton Tanno led reemployment classes last week at the Waipahu Civic Center, offered by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to people collecting unemployment insurance.
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INTRODUCTION

This is not the life circumstance pilot John Riddel thought he’d be facing at age 55.

"It’s very humbling," said the former senior captain whose flying career was grounded with the closure of Aloha Airlines more than 2 1/2 years ago. "I never imagined that I’d be unemployed and unable to find a job."

Many factors combined to produce the financial collapse and the ensuing economic recession over the past few years, but for many in Hawaii the failure of Aloha serves as a sad marker near the beginning of the downward slide. Ridell was one of 312 Aloha pilots, one of 1,900 former airline employees whose lives were thrown into chaos after the 61-year-old carrier made its final landing in April 2008.

Other company shutdowns were to follow. Financial turmoil dealt a fatal blow to many projects, which sent the construction industry into a tailspin.

Joblessness quickly spread through the local workforce, but in Hawaii airline and construction industry employees are among the ones who’ve endured the most prolonged unemployment. And while all job applicants confront uncommonly stiff competition, the ones at the upper age range may be worst off.

John Cortez, a 58-year-old construction worker out of work for two years, said his wife found a job in retail, but the couple is on the verge of foreclosure on their home.

Keep positive slogging through job search

Searching for a job in this economy has been an especially long and difficult process for many people. The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has posted a primer, "Handbook for Hawaii’s Workers," that’s available online (www.hawaii.gov/labor/rapidresponse). It covers unemployment insurance claims, where to look for openings, financial assistance, health-care options and other issues.

But here are examples of some of the handbook’s bullet points:

» The right path: Changing career tracks may be the right move. Career Kokua (careerkokua.org) provides some tools. The state’s unemployment website hirenethawaii.com includes a "job seeker services" section.

» Selling yourself: Get help with your resume, which is meant to be more about marketing than biography. Achievement and newly acquired skills or training should be front and center. The object is getting through the door for a personal interview, where applicants can make a real impression.

» The cover story: Attach a cover letter to the resume, and tailor it to each employer. Contact potential references; upon request, provide reference information on a separate sheet.

» The personal touch: Good interviews take preparation. Bringing work samples might be appropriate. Make a list of your particular skills; be ready to explain how you can be a problem-solver and take initiative. Participate in the interview with enthusiasm, but let the interviewer stay in control. Follow up with a polite letter, in which you can add points you may have forgotten.

» Improving yourself: Consider ways to expand your skills or keep them fresh. Classes—whether at community colleges or online—can make you more marketable. Volunteer work can expand your network of contacts, too.

» Stay on track: Avoid taking long breaks during your search, frustrating as it can be. Find ways to vent off the job trail so you can keep a positive demeanor while actively on it. It’s healthier for you, and leaves a better impression on the person you hope will hire you.

Vicki Viotti

"There’s a lot of people being laid off—nobody’s building or extending their house," he said. "I’ve been working since 1972. People tell me I’m overqualified: ‘I no need one older guy; I need a younger guy’."

Paul Chang, a service representative with the Hawaii Carpenters Union, sees a glimmer of hope amid the gloom: Construction seems on the brink of a recovery, he said. But that brings cold comfort to the ones with bills to pay now.

"This is the worst I’ve ever seen," he said, "and I’ve been in the union since 1973."

Nationally as well as locally, anecdotal reports about the joblessness crisis abound. One dispiriting conclusion that’s easy to draw: The longer a person is unemployed, the tougher it becomes to climb out of the hole.

Elaine Young, who heads the state’s Workforce Development Division, has heard all the stories.

"Nationally, that’s what they’re saying," Young said. "Employers would rather hire the warm body who just got unemployed, or the one who can get picked up before they get laid off. There’s a stigma for those who continue to collect unemployment."

Others in the field of employment training believe that stigma exists. James Hardway heads the Hawaii Workforce Development Council, a public-private advisory board.

"People who are employed get hired faster than the longer unemployed," Hardway said. "It’s based on the notion, which holds in good times as well as bad, that it doesn’t look good if you have a long space of being unemployed. You’re going to have a lot of resumes, you’re not going through them in depth, you are going to scan through resumes to weed. It does become an unfair measuring stick for some workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own."

That’s a hard rap for Hawaii’s jobless to take, given that the recession has pushed many people into unemployment lasting months or even a year or more. Locally the unemployment rate stands at 6.4 percent—well below the national average of 9.8 percent but still a painful change from the historical low of 2.3 in January 2007.

A lot of people are still left feeling the pain, and the pain is persisting much longer than it has in Linda Uyesato’s memory. Uyesato is the state unemployment insurance administrator, and although she acknowledges that some unfairly characterize those out of work as lacking in drive or resourcefulness, many recognize what distinguishes the current downturn. This time the recession has ended, but many of the jobs aren’t coming back.

So when the openings do come up, employers are flooded with applications, she said: Whether the applicant has been out of work for six weeks or six months, it’s hard for any of them to stand out in that kind of crowd.

Whether or not to call it quits on a particular career track is a wrenching decision, she said, but if the particular occupation is unlikely to expand with the economic recovery, taking a job that seems unfulfilling may be wise in the long run.

"A lot of people find that by just trying out something new, at least it will keep you around other people who can provide contacts for something better," Uyesato said. "Sometimes you just need a reason to get dressed and get out of the house.

"But there are a lot of people who would never go that route."

Some may feel that other doors aren’t open to them. Former Aloha Airlines pilot John Riddel is one.

"People who are 55 are between a rock and a hard place," said Riddel; he found one job after the air carrier folded in April 2008 but the position was cut when the recession deepened. "Some employers look at us as too old, and those who don’t think we’re too old think we’re overqualified. They might think, ‘Why should I invest the time in you when you’re just going to leave to go to something better?’"

Riddel, like many of the mid- to long-term unemployed, is nearing the end of his financial rope but is holding on in the hope that a stronger economy will lead to more hiring in the coming year.

Paul Chang believes there is reason to hope. Chang is a service representative at the Hawaii Carpenters Union, whose job is to help the union’s many sidelined members back into the workforce. He ticks off some of the current construction sites—the Cancer Research Center in Kakaako, various improvements at Kamehameha Schools and the prospect of jobs from the city rail project—and he can manage a smile.

"I’m optimistically hopeful that next year will be better than this one," Chang said.

George Ehara is division manager at Swinerton Builders Hawaii, which won the contract for the $65 million renovation of the federal building and courthouse, a clear vantage point for gauging the labor market. Swinerton has hired 25 people this year and for each spot Ehara had to sort through 100 applications. It’s a challenging process, he said, but he tries to comb through the pile carefully.

"A good percentage of people are not working," he said. "This recession is so different because there are good people out of work for months.

"And over half of the applications are from out of state," Ehara added. "As bad as it is in Hawaii, it’s worse in other places."

Ehara said that there aren’t resources for relocating workers so the tendency is to hire locally. But John Cortez, an unemployed construction worker, is convinced that many employers take another approach—and Hawaii workers can lose opportunities.

"The mainland companies are coming here and bringing their own men," he said.

It’s easy to become discouraged when seemingly every chance that comes up is batted away by someone else. The chief executives of two Honolulu "headhunting" agencies are in a position to see this. Signe Godfrey, president of Olsten Staffing Services, said many clients never expected to be in this spot.

"I see people … mentally, they’re sort of floundering," she said.

Olsten works with employers offering temporary jobs; temping may be a viable option for clerical workers, she said, because almost three-fourths of them lead to permanent placement.

Godfrey said the employers with whom she deals are open to hiring off the unemployment rolls; she can’t confirm those anecdotes about any overwhelming stigma. Kathryn Inkinen is Godfrey’s counterpart as president of Inkinen & Associates, and she has a similar perspective.

"Since everyone understands again our serious economic slump, and that it is happening to so many, it is more a sense of empathy rather than a negative stigma," Inkinen said in an e-mailed response to the Star-Advertiser. Prospective employees, she added, "should network and keep positive."

Riddel is trying very hard to do that.

"I’m hoping that with improved financial conditions, that I will have the tremendous opportunity to be employed," he said. "So far someone that’s 55 years old hasn’t had that opportunity."

 

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