TOPICS > Economy

For Ex-Cons and Laid-off Execs Alike, Dim Job Hopes

July 8, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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In the next in his series on making sense of the financial news, economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on those in society -- such as executives or ex-convicts -- who are struggling to find employment.
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JIM LEHRER: And next tonight, some perspective on finding work in a bad job market. It comes from some people that our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, first introduced us to in a story earlier this month. His latest report is another in his ongoing series of making sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unemployed engineer Peter Sturdivant, convening an executive networking group meeting in suburban Chicago. It starts with a report on how much time was spent job-hunting the prior week.

JOHN FRECH: I had a pretty good week last week. I had 37 hours invested in job search.

PAUL SOLMAN: John Frech lost his auditing job in January, Barbara Tomczak, her human resources job in February 2008.

BARBARA TOMCZAK: For the 20 hours I spent on LinkedIn, I was able to garner a phone interview out of that, and now I actually have a face-to-face interview scheduled this week.

JOB-SEEKER: I had my usual good numbers, as far as hours were concerned. I had 65.

PAUL SOLMAN: Laid-off executives all, mainly in manufacturing and banking, they’ve been out of work on average almost a year, networking like mad. We taped them for a story on the undercounting of unemployment and were impressed by how candidly they spoke about just how tough it is out there these days.

JOHN FRECH: The agenda item I have is how to secure a conversation with a contact that we’ve been given. It’s just I just can’t break through.

JOHN LEONE: Well, what you need to do is catch them in the parking lot as he’s going home in the evening.

BARBARA TOMCZAK: Yes, stalk him. That’s the idea. Yes, that’ll work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former I.T. executive Bharath Tolappa said he’d honed this particular craft.

Exactly what is your stalking technique?

BHARATH TOLAPPA: I could’ve tried to reach a person through as many as, you know, a dozen people.

PAUL SOLMAN: A dozen people, and then how many e-mails might you have sent?

BHARATH TOLAPPA: Probably four dozen e-mails.

PAUL SOLMAN: Four dozen e-mails, and then how many phone messages would you have left?

BHARATH TOLAPPA: Probably, you know, about 24 messages. In many of those cases, I’m still waiting.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much more demoralizing can you get? Or as ex-financial executive Chris Demaio put it…

CHRIS DEMAIO: No one’s really interested in talking with us.

'Another group of unemployed'

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, in downtown Chicago, another group of unemployed who arealso undercounted. These job-seekers are at a more rudimentary stage of theprocess.

YVETTE BELL: I'll have my secretary contact you in a day orso.

TRAINEE: Thank you, Mrs. Bell. Have a good day.

YVETTE BELL: All right.

What did you think?

TRAINEE: His gum chewing.

YVETTE BELL: Gum chewing, sticking his tongue out. MichaelJordan is not in here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yvette Bell of the Safer Foundation introducesex- convicts like Dimitrious Johnson to the etiquette of job search, but theodds are a lot longer here than even in the suburbs.

DIMITRIOUS JOHNSON: Because it's kind of complicated for usout here, you know, with the people that's getting laid off, it's very, veryhard for us to get jobs with backgrounds, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: Background meaning?

DIMITRIOUS JOHNSON: Meaning a record, you know, convicted ofa crime.

LARRY WOHLGEMUTH: That's the reason why a lot of peoplereturn to the penitentiary.

PAUL SOLMAN: Larry Wohlgemuth did time for robbery.

LARRY WOHLGEMUTH: Me, I've been back and forth. I can't finda job, so I go back to my old ways, because nobody will hire me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Our audience is going to hear that, and I canguarantee you they'll say, "What, is he threatening us, that he's going togo back on to the streets if we don't give him a job?"

LARRY WOHLGEMUTH: I've tried several times. I mean, I'vegone, I've filled out applications thinking that I'm going to get the job, butthey won't hire me. As soon as they do the background check, they know that --just their opinion of me is just totally changed.

And sometimes you have to lie to get in the door. And onceyou get in the door, you wait 90 days, and then they put you through thisprocess. Then they find out that you are this bad villain, and the employersays, "You know, you're a great guy, but our insurance company, we justcan't have you here because of your background," and they have to let mego.

PAUL SOLMAN: How many people here feel the same way Larrydoes?

Cephas Wright did not.

CEPHAS WRIGHT: I think it's all about being motivated andpositive within yourself to know that you want to -- you're going to be thatbetter person, you're going to be successful.

LARRY WOHLGEMUTH: I believe he's romanticizing thesituation. I mean, how long is it going to take you until where your state ofmind is going back, "Well, I might as well just go stick somebodyup"?

MICHAEL DAVIS: I understand Larry's point of view, becauseI've seen people who have a dejected mind frame, but we have to pull ourselvesout of that by being optimistic. We have to have some type of faith which drawson a higher power, whether it be above or within.

PAUL SOLMAN: Listening to Michael Davis, who did time forsexual assault, I had a final question for Larry Wohlgemuth.

You could say that this is an argument for cultivating acertain degree of self-delusion. Are you simply unable to do that?

LARRY WOHLGEMUTH: You probably hit the nail right on thehead when you said that. Probably that's basically where it's at right now.

YVETTE BELL: The purpose for us having job-readiness here isso that you guys can find gainful employment. You might get turned down 100times. It's the 101st time you might get your big break.

So it's not about, you know, being discouraged orromanticizing the situation, because it is what it is right now. The past isexactly what it is: It is your past. We can't change it.

But what you can change and what you want somebody to see isthe new you. You want that employer to see the person that you are today andnot define you by who you were.

Battling discouragement

PAUL SOLMAN: What was so striking, to us at least, was howsimilar the psychological struggle was at the executive networking group.

PETER STURDIVANT: It's discouraging when you keep hearing"no" and all your efforts don't bring back anything of value.

BHARATH TOLAPPA: If you get 1 yes out of 50 no's, you know,that's a good odd. And that's what people have got to internalize in goingthrough the search.

PAUL SOLMAN: Manufacturing engineer John Leone.

JOHN LEONE: It's sort of like brothers in arms. You know,we're going through a very difficult time in our lives. And just to see thatwe're all helping each other out, it's encouraging.

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet, as at the ex-convict group, theconstant battle is with discouragement in an economy like this one.

CHRIS DEMAIO: We were all senior executives in our previouspositions. And we had authority. We had people who listened to us. And, youknow, we had a say in how things were done. And now, all of a sudden, you know,you're not getting that connection, and now it's all -- you know, you feel likeyou're adding no value to anything that you're doing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even though you know in this, the GreatRecession, worst since the Great Depression, that it can't possibly be yourfault, right?

CHRIS DEMAIO: That's a good excuse for me to make me feelbetter about myself, but, you know, it helps me get through the day, but Istill -- I get down, because I just don't feel like I'm being productive.

PAUL SOLMAN: That may be how most of America's many millions ofunemployed feel at the moment.