For many Omaha workers, getting hired again tougher than expected

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Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2013 12:00 am

Nebraska's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation, and there are more job openings across the Midwest than before the recession.

So it ought to be easy to get a job, right?

That hasn't been the experience of some Omaha workers who were recently hired after being unemployed for from three months to two years. They said they were shocked at how difficult it was to get back to work, and labor data indicate it's not just them.

The Midwestern unemployment rate remains high relative to the job vacancy rate, compared with before the recession.

The shift, Concordia College economist Hanna Hartman said, indicates, “There is something that has changed in the ease with which workers and firms are able to find one another and create a match. Even though we have more jobs open, we have a higher unemployment rate than we would have otherwise expected.”

At around the same job vacancy rate before the recession, the Midwestern unemployment rate was about two full percentage points lower. In October, unemployment was 7.1 percent across the Midwest, and Nebraska's 3.9 percent unemployment rate was a full point higher than before the recession.

Unemployment fell nationally in November to 7.0 percent from 7.3 percent on a decrease in the number of the short-term unemployed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday; the number of long-term unemployed was essentially unchanged. The national job openings rate also has been higher this fall than it was at this level of unemployment before the recession.

It could be that employers are more cautious to hire, University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist Eric Thompson said. It also could be that they aren't finding workers with the skills they seek.

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Either way, employers nationwide are taking longer to hire, according to data compiled by job search site Glassdoor.com from interviewees' reports. The average interview duration has increased each year from 2010 to 2013, nearly doubling over that time from 12 days to 23 days.

Glassdoor data also indicate four major Omaha employers all took longer to hire in 2013 than in 2012, the site said. People hired by Union Pacific, PayPal, TD Ameritrade and ConAgra Foods reported interview times increasing across the four companies by between five and 11 days in the past year.

Employers are also increasingly leaning on temporary, or contingent, workers, said Scot Thompson, CEO of C&A Industries, a national staffing firm based in Omaha. The number of contingent workers as a percentage of the total workforce in November matched its all-time high of 2.03 percent.

This could be because employers are now ready to tackle short-term projects they put off during the recession, but also could be because employers are hesitant or conservative about adding to their full-time workforce, he said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide state-level figures on job vacancies. Thompson said it's a good sign that the Midwestern job vacancy rate now exceeds its pre-recession level, indicating hiring demand. Thompson expects the friction in the job market to resolve itself as job seekers adapt to employers' demands — through retraining, for example.

Several Omahans who have recently been hired after a period of unemployment said that to connect with a job, they relied on career services provided by agencies like Goodwill and the Urban League, or leaned on friends and neighbors to make connections. Some faced specific challenges such a disability or lack of experience, but others struggled despite a solid work history on their resumes.

“After sending a resume and an application to literally hundreds of people and not getting anything, you start to doubt yourself: 'Maybe I don't have anything to offer,' ” said Robert Brunkalla, a 46-year-old retired Marine who was looking for work after a government contract ended.

When he finally was hired this fall, he realized, “Maybe it's as tough out there as people say it is.”

If you heard a woman shouting for joy two weeks ago, Marcia Dean-Walker says, it was the sound of her checking her bank account on her first payday in three years.

“I stepped out of the workforce to take care of my parents, and when I came back, it was like, you need your bachelor's,” she said.

That wasn't the case when she graduated from Marian High School in 1971. But Dean-Walker, now 61, didn't let her lack of higher education stop her — she enrolled in the College of St. Mary and graduated in December at age 60 with a business degree.

It was what came after that really frustrated her. With decades of experience in customer service, including at airlines, and now a degree on her resume, she struggled for 10 months to find work. She couldn't afford the Internet at home, and had to use the library to apply for jobs. She couldn't afford to drive and took the bus to school and the library.

Applying at Union Pacific, she was told she was competing with 3,000 applicants for 10 positions. She made it into the final 60 to be interviewed but was not offered a job. She believes age was a barrier.

“I was the oldest person in the room, including the furniture,” she said.

Dean-Walker attended multiple job fairs over the summer and sought professional help to improve her resume after a hiring official told her resumes now must have specific keywords and be completely free of errors. The counselor saw her resume and asked, “What are you trying to hide?” She responded, “My age,” and he promised, “We're going to make your age work for you.”

Finally this fall, a neighbor who works for the American Red Cross told her the agency was hiring.

She had an interview Oct. 3 and was told the same day she would be hired. “I did a happy dance.”

Dean-Walker hasn't completed her education. She is back at the College of St. Mary, in an accelerated MBA program. She attends class all day Saturdays and hopes to advance within the Red Cross.

Her pay, $11.25 an hour, is not as high as she was hoping for, but the job, calling blood donors to remind them to donate again, is worth it for the overtime and benefits, not to mention the satisfaction it brings her to no longer have to rely on her husband, a truck driver, for money.

“It was getting to the point, like, what is wrong with me? I was beginning to wonder.”

The last time Robert Brunkalla was out of work, it was on purpose. Brunkalla, 46, had retired in 2011 as a communications information systems officer after a 25-year career in the Marines and decided to take a few months of R&R.

He then found work with a government contractor and thought he was set — until the contract ended and the firm, based in Colorado Springs, had no more work for him. The three months he was unemployed this summer felt much longer.

“You're living off your savings, and you're seeing it getting smaller instead of growing,” he said.

Married with a teenage son at home, he felt the responsibility to provide, and didn't like wasting his leadership and problem-solving skills.

“Bronk,” as he's called, hit the job fair circuit, had experts review his resume and created a new business card advertising that he was “available immediately.” Doubt set in when hundreds of resumes went unanswered and job fair promises fizzled.

“I didn't get any callbacks from that, even a couple of people who said they were going to call the next day,” he said. “I didn't hear from anybody.”

In early August, Brunkalla's resume got to a recruiter from “a friend of a friend” and he got a call. He started Sept. 2 in communications engineering for Booz Allen Hamilton, a provider of management and technology consulting services to the U.S. government. Brunkalla is designing communications systems for the new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base.

The new job is challenging and rewarding, he said. When you're working, “You feel better about yourself.”

Tanyel Johnson loves her job helping women access federal Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, benefits so much, even the clients who complain don't get her down. She said everybody can see the change in her outlook compared with when she was unemployed.

Johnson, 38, a graduate of North High School who goes by “Tee,” had worked for 13 years as a certified nursing assistant and medication aide in nursing homes. She gave that up two years ago when her teenage son faced health issues and she decided to stay home with him, even though it meant the family would be down to one income from her husband's job as a laborer at a South Omaha manufacturing plant.

Her son needed her, but she felt unfulfilled without a paycheck. Her two grown daughters were living on their own and working, one at a bank and one as a Walmart supervisor, leaving Johnson as the only adult in the family without a job.

When her son's health improved and he entered high school, she started looking for work after 18 months out of the labor force. This time, she wanted to try something in a new field within health care, saying that after her father's death, she couldn't go back to working at a nursing home. But she had no offers after six months of job hunting. “People were looking at my background and not giving me a chance.”

Johnson fell into depression, crying and feeling hopeless. The longer she was out of work, the harder it was to get noticed. She nearly went back to her old nursing home job. But then she heard a news report about Goodwill's Customer Connect program and applied. The training gave her the chance to put fresh skills on her resume, and a counselor referred her for an interview at the Charles Drew Health Center, where Johnson now is a WIC clerk.

“It was a prayer answered,” she said. Her current job carries more responsibility and makes her feel like a professional, she said. “I feel myself here.”

Now Johnson plans to take health care management classes to advance her career. “I want to be in my very own office with my children's pictures on my desk.”

Kermit Doolan figures employers overlooked him because of gaps in his resume. He has no other explanation for why he wasn't hired, time and time again in the past few years, for work he was perfectly qualified for, such as warehouse inventory and auto parts retailing.

On-the-job injuries have sidelined the 51-year-old Doolan twice in his career, and twice he has reinvented himself so he could get back to work.

“I hate not working,” he said.

He grew up in Council Bluffs and worked as an auto mechanic until a 1989 accident with a pair of pliers left him blind in his right eye. Without higher education to fall back on, he went to work as a warehouse clerk, but heavy lifting caused bulging and torn discs in his back and ended his work there in 2005.

A less strenuous job at First Data paid the bills but the pain was too much to manage. He had surgery in 2009. By June 2010, he was feeling great and was cleared by his doctor to go back to work.

But two years of searching turned up few prospects.

“I had quite a few interviews, and they just went nowhere,” he said. “It's like, come on, give me a job, give me a chance, I'll show you what I can do.”

He grew depressed and tried to pull his weight at home by taking on more household chores.

Frustration brought Doolan into a Goodwill office for tips on how to improve his resume. He signed up for the Customer Connect job skills training program and was offered an internship, then a full-time job, in Goodwill's Bellevue retail store.

Doolan would now like to go back to school to take business management classes.

“Nowadays, you can get more money if you have that piece of paper that says you went to college,” he said. Even though he jokes that he was the “old man” in his classes, he feels like a new man now that he's working again, and he looks forward to getting up in the morning.

“I didn't realize how much I missed it until I was back to work.”

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