Profiles in hope: What happened to the local jobless?
In the murky world of the unemployed, what is hidden is often more important than what is revealed.
Hidden, often, are lives full of accomplishment. Three decades of experience, expanding responsibilities, and increased pay may be liabilities, not assets, to getting a job when employers would rather pay less.
Hidden are decades of workplace performance, summarized or even omitted, on a resumé.
For 60 days, The Inquirer and Philly.com visited this shadowy world in the "Looking for Work" series, profiling the jobless themselves.
The people we met included:
Laid-off electrician Bob Cosey, 53, who counts himself lucky to have sold his dream house before it went into foreclosure. He, his wife, and their son live with a sister-in-law. Son Todd, 21, is also jobless.
Vincent Tricome, 48, an unemployed civil engineer who once earned $83,000 a year and now finds himself running a register at Wawa for $9 an hour.
Sheryl Pincus, who has degrees in nursing and law, and experience in insurance and nonprofit management, but can't find work in any of those fields. "I'm in crisis mode now," she said.
In the world of unemployment, anything having to do with age, especially graduation dates that reveal what good hair dye and artful makeup might conceal, is best hidden.
Ability and expertise are often not perceived, because when computers read resumés, credentials expressed as searchable keywords matter more than actual skills or positive traits that an interviewer might detect.
Most deeply hidden within the unemployed is the profound grief over the downward turn their lives have taken, masked in public by networking coffees and bravely brandished business cards.
Each day, many said, they awaken to a battle to preserve their own souls, against an onslaught of rejection, apathy, and worry that they'll never again use their talents in a productive way.
Through volunteering and support groups, they arm themselves against the harsh realities of unpaid bills, narrowed dreams, and isolation.
Since the "Looking for Work" series began Jan. 9 with the story of laid-off administrator Donna Oxford, nine people among those profiled now work at full-time jobs, or have the promise of one.
Five of those jobs, including one for Oxford, came through contacts made through the series. Four other people have found part-time jobs.
All of those profiled received e-mails from strangers offering dubious opportunities. Offsetting those communications were e-mails of encouragement - and some good job leads - from strangers and friends.
An additional 19 or so have had job interviews, some after months of silence.
Legal secretary Jane Merrylees, 58, took the bus to her interview, her first in 18 months, even though the office was just blocks away from her Philadelphia home.
"I'm not used to wearing heels," Merrylees said with a laugh. She earns some cash walking dogs - an occupation that calls for sneakers.
Many of those profiled now expect to accommodate lives altered in unhappy ways - foreseeing diminished expectations, diminished wages, and diminished hopes for their own futures and for their children's.
Last week, Patricia Thieringer, 55, of Haddon Township, went to yet another seminar on finding a job. The advice? Settle, ruefully.
Out of work for six months, the recreation-therapy director, who had earned $75,000 a year, now regrets that she turned down a job that offered her $40,000.
"I just have to reevaluate," she said.
Out of work since August, Michael Wilkinson was very willing to settle - settle for less money, settle for work he didn't like, settle for anything that would support his wife and twin sons, 10, one of whom is autistic.
"Things were looking bleak," said Wilkinson, 47, a laid-off truck-parts salesman and inventory manager from Levittown. "We had no money coming in."
The kids' birthdays were coming up, and there wasn't a dime for gifts, unless, humiliatingly, he turned again to his retired father for a few bucks to cover something from the dollar store.
Desperate is certainly how Wilkinson felt, but these days, everything is different for him. On Friday, he received his first paycheck - for exactly what he was making before and with the promise of a "conversation" about a raise in six months.
Best of all, Wilkinson loves his work - no settling necessary. "Everything is clicking," Wilkinson said.
As jubilant as Wilkinson is, his boss is even happier. "He understands my business completely," said David Newman, owner of Eastern Surplus & Equipment Co. in Northeast Philadelphia, who read about Wilkinson in the "Looking for Work" series.
Newman's company sells surplus military equipment, especially trucks and parts.
"He's a supernice guy," Newman said, "very good attitude. He has been a turnkey employee."
Lionel Lauer, who runs the Travel Leaders travel agency in Northeast Philadelphia, snatched up corporate travel agent Angela Terry, 40, who had been out of work since April 2009. Terry likes the job, even though she took a 10 percent pay cut.
"She's a wonderful person," said Lauer, who wants a diverse staff to cater to his diverse clientele.
Within days of his story's running, James McAllister, 28, a Navy veteran and logistics expert, had enough offers that he was able to negotiate a better salary. His first day was Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. Now, if only his fiancee, an unemployed pharmaceutical-sales representative, could also find work.
"My life has completely flipped upside down," McAllister said. He had enrolled in an executive M.B.A. program, but he could not start classes because having a job was a requirement. Soon, he will be juggling school and work.
With a $20,000 pay cut, Oxford, 53, is earning just over a third less than she was making in December 2007, when she was laid off. Complicating her job search was the necessity of taking custody of her infant grandson.
Moved by a poem Oxford wrote about a missing tooth as a symbol for her expanding losses and narrowing options, Bernd "Bernie" Heinze and his wife, Martha, wished they could hire her for their companies, the Heinze Group and Accolade Management Inc. in King of Prussia.
That was on a Sunday. The next day, unexpectedly, a staff member quit, and there was an opening. They interviewed Oxford and hired her.
"It's like she's been a member of our family. She hit the ground running," Bernie Heinze said. "I don't know where we'd be without Donna today."
Readers were also moved. Three dentists offered to provide free dental care. Some readers sent cash; one purchased a space heater for her home outside Coatesville.
Out of work for more than three years, Oxford was scared. "I worried that I'd rush in late, wearing my slip," she said. As it turns out, she is first in, gets the coffee going, and has some time to herself before everyone else arrives. And her employers are flexible with the inevitable child-care issues.
Last week, they told her that if she did not like her office chair, she should go buy a new one and expense it. "I can't believe it," Oxford said.
Best? "It's a Monday," she said, "and I have somewhere to go."
Contact staff writer Jane M.
Von Bergen at 215-854-2769