Recession delivers big bust for baby boomers

LISA BERNARD-KUHN The Cincinnati Enquirer Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- In Cincinnati, 55-year-old David McCarty feels fortunate to be hauling hazardous chemicals cross-country in a big 18-wheeler. But the work and pay are far removed from the life he used to have as a well-paid telecom exec.

In Cleveland, 56-year-old Warren James lost his manufacturing job after three decades of hard work. Now, the father of two is retooling - learning advanced manufacturing from instructors half his age.

And outside Toledo, 52-year-old Eric Russell has spent four years trying to land a new job. Despite construction experience, an engineering degree, his own website and a 15-minute video he created for prospective employers, he still gets turned down.

For tens of thousands of Ohio baby boomers, the recession has delivered the big bust. Once unemployed, the state's oldest workers take longest to be rehired. In early February, half of everyone claiming unemployment benefits for 74 weeks or longer were age 45 to 64.

Now, instead of easing into retirement, boomers are drawing down savings and starting all over. Instead of paying for their kids' college, they're competing with kids for jobs. Instead of being valued for their experience, they're having to learn new skills in hopes of simply keeping up.

If they're lucky, the jobless weeks won't last too long. But for many, the relief is new work at half the pay and few of the old benefits. Others succumb to the stress and simply give up the fight.

Almost two years after the recession's end in June 2009, boomers are still feeling the squeeze. It's evident at the Hyde Park Community Methodist Church in Cincinnati where hundreds of boomers meet weekly to tap into resources of the Job Search Focus Group, a professional networking organization.

One by one, newcomers introduce themselves: Laid-off lawyers, plant managers, marketing executives, nonprofit directors, professionals from every field. They share their resumes and decades of work experience with the crowd. The lineup is proof that the recession left no job sector unscathed.

"Every week I see people come in here and come to the realization that they are not a loser," says Bob Pautke, president of the group. "There are very qualified and very talented candidates. And the fact is there are a lot of other people out there who are in their position."

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Reinventing a career

For the long-term unemployed, there are levels of low, David McCarty says.

There's self-pity that leaves you asking: Why is this happening to me? There's self-doubt that creeps in after being rejected by yet another employer. And then there's that place, somewhere near the bottom, when you need a job so badly that you end up taking one that leaves you deeper in the hole than when you started.

"It's a vicious cycle," says McCarty, 55, a West Chester Township resident who spent nearly 20 lucrative years in the telecom industry before finding himself out of work in 2004. During his career, McCarty had risen through the ranks, working in executive positions with major long-distance providers. He even helped launch one of the first pre-paid phone-card companies.

But with a resume that touted vice president positions and hefty salaries, McCarty found his job search to be tougher than expected.

"It was almost comical the jobs I got turned away from. I couldn't even get a job as a telecommunications service rep with Cincinnati Bell," he says. "People just said you're over-qualified."

A string of commission-only positions, ranging from consulting work to selling office equipment, turned out to be worse. McCarty found himself digging into his own wallet to foot the bill for work and travel expenses.

"I went from making a six-figure salary at one time to nothing in two years," he says.

Then McCarty's wife Mary was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2009. The family had no health insurance and little left in savings. They lost their home 10 days before Christmas in 2010.

The family packed up and moved into a condominium that they continue to rent today. McCarty went into survivor mode.

"You do what you have to to get by each day, then you can begin recovering," he said.

Rather than continue to hunt for a job that leveraged his experience as an executive, McCarty decided to refocus his search altogether. He had seen the signs numerous times, posted on the sides of semi-trucks: Drivers needed.

After a few months training, McCarty had his commercial driver's license and a completely new career in front of him.

Now, McCarty spends up to six days a week in a big rig hauling 50,000 pounds of hazardous materials, mostly animal fats, across the country. Every penny that comes in is accounted for.

"I don't love driving a truck, but there are trucking jobs available," McCarty says.

Through all the strife, he hasn't lost his optimism. In his limited free time, he works on a handful of retail-based web sites he created that he hopes takes off. Among them is www.collegefootballfanstore.com where visitors can buy an assortment of NCAA school gear.

"I'm not giving up," he says. "I still plan on winning this fight. If I can drive a truck and survive what we've been through, I can do darn near anything."

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Retooling for the future

The instructor in the shop looks younger than Warren James' daughter.

James spent more than half his life working with specialty metals, running multimillion-dollar equipment. Now at 56, the Cleveland man is without a job and back in school, learning advanced manufacturing alongside teenagers.

"I would have topped out at about $27 (an hour) and change. I had 30 days of vacation. They had a good 401(k) program," says James, who worked at CSM Industries from 1977 to 2009. "It was a good job. I was making decent money."

After losing his job, James invested his severance pay in a new carpentry business that he eventually took a loss on. Despite his 30-plus years in manufacturing, all he could find was temporary work - a few months at one job, a few days at another. On top of that, his wife, Annette, had to take a pay cut.

He began to lose his footing.

Bills piled up, and the family lost their home to foreclosure. Retirement savings and money James had hoped to put toward his son and daughter's college vanished as well.

James knew that the skills he used in his old job weren't going to help him find his next job. So now he's taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College's Unified Technology Center, learning how to run CNC machines. The computer-programmed tools are used in almost every manufacturing plant in the country.

By April, he hopes to earn certifications for operating and programming the tools.

Already, James has landed a few interviews and assurances from companies that they need skilled CNC people. He says he's confident that he won't be unemployed much longer.

"I don't really view losing the job as such a bad thing. Now, I feel like I have another career, and I have an opportunity to do something I really wanted to do," he says.

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Commitment, optimism required

Eric Russell, 52, has built a command center at home dedicated to one purpose: getting himself back to work.

It all revolves around a white board with commands, messages and reminders for himself.

"I worked in the construction industry, and I bought into a business, and that didn't work out," says Russell, a resident of Sylvania, a Toledo suburb. "I thought in 2006 I could go back to the construction industry."

But that's when construction took a turn for the worst, and Russell went back to school.

He already had an engineering degree from the University of Toledo. So he followed the experts' advice and determined to get trained in something new. He recently completed a master's degree in organizational development from Bowling Green State University.

So far, it hasn't helped, and Russell knows why.

"I just recently had a great phone call with a recruiter that put everything in perspective for me," he says. "What I learned is that people can ask for exactly what they want in a candidate ... right down to left-handed or right-handed."

Russell has his own website, complete with an impressive resume and a 15-minute video to replace the initial telephone interview for employers. He's well aware that he's competing with younger applicants who don't have gray hair and won't ask as much in salary or health care.

A widower with no children, Russell has minimized his own expenses and stretches out every dollar. But he is anything but downtrodden or frustrated.

In 2011, he sent out 34 applications.

"I relaunched my job search last September, and what I am finding now is all kinds of reasons that I need to start my own consulting work," he says.

Networking, interviewing,

volunteering, surviving

Each Monday, job hunters at Cincinnati's Job Search Focus are armed with a long list of tips for networking, interviewing and coping.

"Volunteer work is the best form of networking," Pautke tells a recent crowd. "It shows people your character and work ethic."

He says too often the unemployed let embarrassment, pride and grief get in the way of an honest job hunt.

"People do have to go through a grieving period, it's natural," he says. "But really, it's best to get through it, and get on with it."

It's not entirely surprising that the 45-and-up crowd are having a tough time landing jobs, Pautke says.

"For decades, U.S. workers operated on unwritten rules that as long as they remained loyal to a company they were guaranteed a job," he says. "That was really never an honest deal. "

Some experts say the problem is rooted in age discrimination by employers looking for cheaper, often younger workers. Others cite older workers who didn't stay on top of their skills, Pautke says.

"There is truth on both parts," he says. "At the end of the day, the real question comes down to, 'What do you have to offer?' I tell everyone who comes through here, no matter your age - you have to find the value that you offer an employer and go with it."

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Robert Schoenberger of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and Ignazio Messina of The (Toledo) Blade contributed to this report.

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com