LIMA — There's a question that arises at some point in almost every conversation Judy Bennett has. Somewhere, after the niceties about children and the weather, she is inevitably asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”After nearly a year and a half among the unemployed, Bennett had an answer at the ready.“I'd say, ‘Nothing. What do you have for me?'” Bennett said. “I've said the same thing a hundred times. I still never got a job out of it.”Bennett had plenty of time to work on her routine. Before landing a job with a Cleveland office management firm last month, she went almost 19 months without work. During that time, she became fairly shameless in her willingness to let people know she was looking.“Month one, month two, it was embarrassing. Month five, 12, 18, you don't care anymore. And the more people you tell, the more you find out there are a lot more with the same issue going on,” Bennett said.That issue is not just unemployment but long-term unemployment. Depending on what study or federal agency you look to, the definition can be anything from six months to a year of searching for full-time work. Bennett and the estimated 6.5 million Americans who fall into the category have their own definition.“It stinks. It's living more than a year without an income and with half the people you meet telling you you're no good for anything. I've got stronger words for it, but stinks is what I'll say out loud,” Bennett said.The big pictureLong-term unemployment isn't new, but the growth in the number of people identified in that group has made it more visible. Since the beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007, the number of people who are considered long-term unemployed — those unemployed 27 weeks or longer — has increased from 0.9 percent to 4.3 percent today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That comes to nearly 6.5 million people who have been actively looking for full-time work for more than six months. In 2011, the average length of being out of work was 39 weeks, and the Labor Department estimated that as many as 5 million have been looking for a year or more. Those numbers eclipse the previous postwar high of 2.6 percent in the early 1980s.The problem is just a severe locally. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services estimated 282,019 individuals will exhaust benefits between now and the end of the year. In Allen County alone, 2,111 people are expected to use up their unemployment benefits by year's end. Displaced workers in Ohio are eligible for anywhere between 26 and 73 weeks of unemployment pay, depending on their situations.In the nine-county region, 8,563 people will run out of benefits between now and December, the ODJFS estimated. “That scares me,” said Marilyn Horstman, deputy director of the Allen County Department of Job and Family Services. “A large percentage of these are either single folks or folks who do not have children. That means that, other than food assistance, there's not really any help for them.”One of the most comprehensive pictures of exactly who these job-seekers are came from a December survey by the Kaiser Foundation. What it found was a fairly predictable pattern of missing skills and education that result in some people remaining jobless longer than others. In a survey of those who had been out of work at least a year, they discovered:•A large percentage of them are older. More than 25 percent of the long-term unemployed were between the ages of 55 and 64. That is about double the percentage of current workers in that age group.•Half are women (compared to 41 percent in the current workforce) and 27 percent are black (compared to 10 percent of the employed). •Only 11 percent of the longâ€term unemployed hold a college degree, compared with 38 percent of fullâ€time workers. Roughly half (49 percent) have a high school education or less.•The great majority of long-term unemployed come from professions or jobs that pay badly in the first place. More than half made less than $30,000 a year in their job.The smaller pictureBennett fits at least half the elements of that picture. At 56, she is what many employers consider preretirement age, despite the fact she has no plans to retire or a savings or pension to survive on if she did. She finished high school and a year of community college, but she has no degree or special skills certification. And in nearly 30 years of working in small offices and businesses, she has never made more than $30,000 a year.“I worked in restaurants when I was younger. I guess if you count what I ate and gave away to my girlfriends, that might be $30,000,” she said with a laugh.There are plenty of unemployed who don't fit the statistical model, many more who probably are not even being counted. Some become discouraged and quit looking. Others return to school or take part-time work to pay the bills.The one thing that contributes most to long-term unemployment is a failure on the part of workers to upgrade their skills when the opportunity arose. “It's a combination of things that led to this, really. It's the economy, yes, but if there's a message from this, it's that people haven't always been working toward their next job. They are satisfied with their job and don't take the steps to prepare themselves for the next job. They have 20th century skills when employers are looking for a 21st century skill set,” Horstman said.What can be done?The good news is the economy is improving, and unemployment levels are declining. The bad news is it's all happening very slowly, and the people who follow hiring trends don't expect real change anytime soon.“If you go back to 2005, you see the known skill sets changing. As of 2009, those who did not have the skills needed began to suffer. Now, we're seeing some movement in the job market, but the jobs are going to those who have the skills employers need,” said Dr. Matt Kinkley, executive director of Workforce, Economic Development and Continuing Education at Rhodes State.There are a variety of other issues keeping people out of work. Many companies, forced to cut staff in the recession, have learned to survive in a bare-bones environment and are in no hurry to add payroll. The aging boomers we were all told would be retiring soon, they're hanging on to their jobs while they try to grow their retirement accounts to prerecession levels.Educators and economic development pros insist there are jobs out there, and the thing that is keeping some people unemployed is a combination of mind-set and skills.“We saw jobs go away, go overseas, and at the same time, manufacturing got an image as dirty, noisy work. Manufacturers weren't out there educating the potential workers down the road. They weren't making it glamorous. Then we had education dissuading our kids from pursuing the skilled trades,” said Rick Turner, director of Adult Programs and Adult Workforce Education at Apollo Career Center.The days when a person could graduate from high school and depend on getting a good-paying job at the local plant went away. The assumption followed that those jobs were gone forever. Students listened.“I knew when I graduated from school in 1989 that I wasn't going to be able to get in at the tank plant or Ford. Everyone said then we were a retail town, stop thinking about Ford and get a job in the service business. I ended up going to bartending school,” Jim Grass said.Grass wound up spending most of the next two decades in and out of restaurant and motel work. That meant long days, night shifts, holidays and, worst of all, low pay.“I would move up to management for the health insurance then figure out I made more tending bar. I just got to the point I didn't want to do it anymore,” Grass said.After nearly two years of searching, Grass found work at a local manufacturing plant. Less than nine months later, he was laid off. At that point he decided to make a change. He enrolled in the information technology program at the University of Northwestern Ohio. Almost three year later, he is preparing to start his own business.“I needed to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to do, then learn how to do it so people would pay me. It sounds sort of simple to say that now, but it took me some time to figure that out,” Grass said. Turning to educationKinkley, Turner and others in the field are convinced that as more people do figure that out, the employment picture and economy will improve. Apollo, Rhodes State and area manufacturers have teamed up to create the West Central Ohio Manufacturing Consortium and an innovative system for identifying, training and placing area workers. They say local manufacturers are begging for workers to fill high-paying jobs, and there is money to train them. They just need people willing to learn the skill set and get to work.“At Rhodes, we offer an Engineering Technology degree. These folks that go through this, they don't have trouble getting jobs. It's getting people to engage in the field that's the problem,” Kinkley said. The biggest obstacle for educators is the perceived obstacles of the students. Some have tried school before and failed. Others feel they don't have the time or money for school. More still lack the basic skills, particularly in math, to enter programs.For each of those obstacles, there is assistance, Horstman said. Grants and government aid can help pay for the training. Night and online classes help students manage school and work. Free remedial classes are available to help potential students get up to speed on the basic skills.“The frustrating thing is, they're not coming in,” Horstman said. “We have dislocated worker training available. We have grants for both employers and dislocated workers. We offer résumé assistance and a lot more. Because we are the government, they have to do a little work, but the reward makes it really worth it.”
Tara Cutlip, 21 and pregnant with her second child, was shot and killed Saturday in her Bahama Drive home. Loved ones gather in front of Tara's home to remember her and speak out against domestic violence.