Like many unemployed San Luis Obispo County residents, Mark Maez works hard to find a job.
Each day, the Arroyo Grande man rises early to make it to his information technology internship at Business Computer Solutions, a computer service company in Grover Beach. Then, he goes to the nearby One-Stop Career Center to check for new job listings.
It has been nearly two years since Maez, 46, was laid off from a management position at Hayward Lumber, where he had worked for about eight years. After applying for about 40 jobs — ranging from banks to retail stores — he’s starting to wonder if any work is in sight.
“It seems like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Maez said. “After I was laid off, I thought I would get another job with no problem. But there have been no callbacks, no interviews.”
For Maez, and other long-term unemployed people like him, some of the encouraging signs of economic recovery remain elusive.
The U.S. economy has been slowly improving since the third quarter of 2009, according to those who keep tabs on the labor market, and yet hiring has been sluggish.
The number of long-term unemployed nationwide, defined as those jobless for 27 weeks or more, has been unprecedented in this recession, economists say. In February, 6 million unemployed workers were in this category, accounting for nearly 44 percent of the unemployed. That figure remains near the high of 45.6 percent last May. That share of the long-term unemployed is one of the highest on record, the bureau reported.
In California, a record 1.03 million were counted as long-term unemployed in January, according to the most recent figures available from the state’s Employment Development Department. That was 46.5 percent of all unemployed Californians that month. A year earlier, 768,000 were counted as long-term unemployed, 36.3 percent of the total unemployed.
By comparison, the share of long-term unemployed during the recessions of the early 1990s and in 2001 peaked at around one-quarter of unemployed workers, the EDD reported.
The department does not keep such data on a countywide basis.
Anecdotally, those who work closely with the jobless locally say they are seeing the effects of more people out of work for longer periods of time.
“It is a vicious cycle,” said Beverly Cook, employment service specialist at the Five Cities One-Stop Career Center in Grover Beach. “For one thing, employers say they want somebody that’s working. People looking to hire will most likely hire someone who already has a job.”
There’s a perception, Cook said, that people who have been laid off lost their jobs because of something they did wrong. Or, employers believe that workers who have been unemployed for an extended period may have lost their skills.
“Employers don’t have time to train,” Cook said. “They want someone coming in who is up on the latest.”
Moreover, the long-term jobless run the risk of becoming discouraged and dropping out of the work force altogether. They also experience a decline in wages and had fewer benefits than with their previous employer, according to a Pew Research Center poll last year on the impact of the long-term unemployed.
“Some were making $22 or $23 an hour, and they say that ‘I’ll be happy if I get something making $12 an hour,’ ” Cook said.
New skills not rewarded
Recognizing the possibility of being shut out by potential employers, Maez enrolled in Laurus College to be certified as an information technology technician. The One-Stop Center helped him get the funding for the training, he said.
So far, his newfound skills have not yielded results.
“From what I’ve seen, employers are receiving so many applications that you really need to know someone or do something that catches their eye,” he said.
Cambria resident Julia Haas, who has been unemployed for more than a year, said she, too, has had difficulty finding work despite having more than a decade of experience as a cook.
Haas, 55, lost her job at The Carlton hotel in Atascadero after The Carlton Restaurant and Grill closed in 2010. She has exhausted her unemployment benefits and makes ends meet by doing temporary work when she can get it.
“It gets discouraging every time you go out and look for work,” she said. “But at least I am getting out of the house and doing something positive.”
At the One-Stop Career Center, employment specialists work with clients in hopes of finding jobs before they reach the point of being unattractive to potential employers.
Cook’s advice for job seekers is to treat every day like a workday.
“Get up and get dressed just like you’re going to work,” Cook said. “Get out of the house and network and volunteer to get you back in that work mode.”
Little job growth seen
For job seekers in California, it could be several years before finding work gets easier.
The unemployment rate for the nation last month dropped to 8.9 percent, with the economy creating 192,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, California’s January jobs report showed just 12,500 jobs created, reducing the state’s unemployment rate to 12.4 percent from 12.5 percent.
Lauren Appelbaum, research director for the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said that the recently released employment figures are just the beginning.
California’s working-age population continues to grow more quickly than the nation’s, and yet there are not enough jobs being created in the state to support that growth, she said.
The lackluster employment growth picture is likely to persist for the foreseeable future unless some important steps are taken to rapidly create jobs, she said.
“It’s not a big recovery yet,” Appelbaum said. “There are different estimates for how long it’s going to take to get to where we were before. The estimates I see are 2015 and 2016, and that’s conservative.”
Appelbaum noted that more employers in California could be taking advantage of workshare or short-time work programs, which allow employers who need to trim expenses to keep people on the payroll.
Instead of laying off a few employees to save money, companies reduce the hours of many workers.
Employers pay employees for the hours they do work and then apply for partial unemployment benefits to pay employees for the hours they are not working.
“Even a modest use of worksharing nationwide has the potential to reduce layoffs by about 2 million workers per year. This would significantly increase the ranks of the employed,” Appelbaum said.
Although the state has a long way to go before it returns to higher levels of employment, Juan Millan, labor market specialist for the state’s EDD, said there are glimmers of hope.
San Luis Obispo County saw an increase of 2,400 people entering the labor force from December to January of this year, he said.
Work-force centers throughout the state are reporting more people searching for jobs, he said.
As well, the state projects 2,000 jobs will be generated in the county between now and 2018 in education services, health care and social assistance, and leisure and hospitality, he said.
“I think people are beginning to understand that we’re coming out of the recession,” Millan said. “They have more confidence.”One day, Maez believes that he will find a job. Until then, being without one makes him nervous.
Maez owns his home, but he’s slowly depleting his savings, and he’s had to cut back on extras such as dining out and going to the movies. His unemployment benefits — $350 a week — will run out in the fall.
Maez would like a $50,000 annual salary, but he’s willing to accept much less right now.
“It gets depressing,” said Maez, who has the support of his girlfriend and 74-year-old mother, both of whom have jobs. “But what I would say to people in this situation is don’t give up. Keep on trying and pushing. Something will open up.”
How local businesses are feeling
The UCSB Economic Forecast Project conducts quarterly business sentiment surveys. Here’s a look at last year’s fourth-quarter results from 127 businesses in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. All but one of the responses reflect an improving outlook.
Is your firm better off than a year ago? 86% of respondents said same, better or much better.
Will you be expanding your work force in the next 12 months? 85% of respondents said same or expanding.
In six months, will your firm be better off? 65% of respondents said better or much better.
Are present business conditions better than a year ago? 54% of respondents said better or much better.
Will present business conditions improve in the next five years? 77% of respondents said some improvement or much improvement.
Will present business conditions improve in the short term? 90% of respondents said same, some improvement or much improvement.
Do you expect there will be more or less unemployment in the next 12 months? 88% of respondents said same, less or much less.
What do you think will happen to interest rates in the next 12 months? 98% of respondents said unchanged, rise or rise sharply.
Do you think it is a good time or a bad time to purchase major house-hold items or cars? 62% of respondents said good or very good.
Do you think it is a good time or a bad time to buy a home? 88% of respondents said good or very good.
Do you think buying a home will be more or less affordable six months from now? 54% of respondents said same.
Jobless rate shows little improvement
The unemployment rate in San Luis Obispo County in January was 10.3 percent, up from 10 per-cent the month before but down from 10.6 percent in the same month a year ago, according to the latest data available from the state’s Employment Development Department.
The county ranked seventh, along with San Diego County, for the lowest unemployment rate among the 58 California counties.The peak unemployment rate for the county was 10.7 percent last July.