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Job-seekers seeing glimmers of hope

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Dogwood's not the only thing in bloom these days.

Just last week, some Help Wanted signs were spotted from the highway, harbingers of life in the long-dormant jobs market. So far, the evidence is mostly anecdotal, but unmistakable nonetheless.

"I think it's fair to say things are improving based on some of the indicators and combining that with what we see and feel in our everyday lives," John Beauregard, executive director of the nonprofit Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, wrote in an e-mail last week. "… We're not yet seeing big changes in terms of hiring volume or activity. What we are seeing and hearing is a step in the right direction (previously cut hours returned to full time, some callbacks, significant temp usage, etc.) but I think employers are still being very cautious regarding new hires due to the conditions."

Christine Paquette, director of the state Department of Labor's CTWorks employment center in New London, has noticed a stirring, too, and so have the center's clients, some of whom have been looking for work for two years or more.

"Our clients are more optimistic," Paquette said. "They're getting more interviews, more feedback from employers, and more jobs are being posted. … Sometimes it doesn't show up in the numbers."

In fact, Connecticut's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has ticked upward each month since December. At the same time, state statistics show employers have added new jobs each of those months, including 3,000 in March.

Salvatore DiPillo, the department's labor statistics supervisor, said the seeming contradiction stems from the way employment data is developed. The jobs number is based on a survey of state employers while the unemployment rate uses information gathered in a survey of households. Every month, household members are asked about their employment status. Those who are not working and who indicate they are not looking for work are not considered part of the work force. When the economy shows signs of improvement, some of those people typically start looking for work. Until they find it, they're counted as unemployed.

Unemployment stints lengthen

Gail Sheedy of Mystic and Ralph Hightower of Ledyard, both of whom lost jobs at Pfizer when the pharmaceutical giant shut down its manufacturing operation in Groton in 2008, have yet to find permanent, full-time employment. They're among an unprecedented number of state residents who have been unemployed for an extended period.

According to the state Labor Department, those receiving unemployment benefits between April 2009 and March 2010 were out of work, on average, for 20.3 weeks. That's up significantly over the previous year, April 2008 to March 2009, when the average unemployment duration was 15.9 weeks.

During the week of April 4-9, 2010, the department sent out some 168,000 unemployment checks totaling nearly $58 million. The sum includes state unemployment benefits, federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation payments and extended benefits paid with a combination of state and federal funds. All told, the three programs can provide eligible workers with up to 99 weeks of unemployment compensation.

Sheedy was 53 when she left Pfizer in March 2008. She had worked for the company for 26 years in such jobs as chemical operator and stock woman and in purchasing and, finally, logistics. She received a lump-sum payment and continuing health benefits as part of what amounted to an early-retirement package.

"I'm not bitter or anything," Sheedy said. "It was a great company to work for when I was there."

For the past two years, she's been hoping to find something comparable to the work she did at Pfizer, though she realizes she's not likely to approximate the salary she earned there.

"I get up in the morning, look at the (online) job-search engines, locally first, then go out from there," she said. "I'm looking for something like logistics, purchasing, shipping, but haven't got any calls. I don't want to think it's my age, but it's hard not to think so. You try to tell them you bring life experience, that you're going to be more responsible than a young person, that you'll show up on time."

Sheedy, who owned her own condominium when she was laid off, now lives with her boyfriend at his unit in the Haley Brook condominiums on Gold Star Highway. She has no children.

"I'm lucky, I've got a roof over my head," she said. "Things are starting to pick up. The number of jobs online has been increasing. Instead of seeing one or two, I'm seeing five or six."

As for the adjustments she's made, Sheedy said being unemployed has enabled her to relax and get eight hours of sleep a night.

"We go to matinees, not the night movies," she said. "You go walk in the park instead of shopping. You eat out less often and more cheaply when you do. It's not Bravo, Bravo every night, that's for sure."

Part-time consulting

The 57-year-old Hightower, a human resources generalist, was among the last to go when Pfizer closed its manufacturing site. His last day of work was Dec. 9, 2008.

Like Sheedy, his age and length of service (28 years) qualified him for a "separation package" that included a lump-sum payment and health benefits. He recalled that Pfizer's phase-out of the operation was conducted in an orderly, employee-friendly fashion. People knew as early as 2006 that the plant would eventually be closed.

"I saw it as an opportunity to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up," Hightower said.

In March 2009, his participation in an outplacement program led to some part-time work as a career management consultant with Right Management, a subsidiary of Manpower, Inc. He provided career counseling by phone for no more than 15 hours a week, and also took on unpaid assignments for the Ledyard Board of Education, which his wife, Sharon, chairs, and as business manager for the condominium association where they live.

He was happy to have the volunteer work, he said, since staying busy was his goal.

"After 28 years, that's what you do," he said. "The strange thing was the commute," essentially from his bedroom to the den where he fired up his computer.

In the fourth quarter of 2009, Hightower began a concerted effort to find a permanent job, either in human resources or perhaps as a business manager of a small public school system. Opportunities were sparse, he said, but in the first quarter of 2010 "things have opened up."

Hightower said he and his wife, who works part time, have been able to weather his extended unemployment without too much difficulty. They have a grown son and one in college.

"We were fortunate we had pretty much taken care of our major debts," he said. "The house was paid for. What you end up doing is juggling (expenses). I'm acutely aware of what my outstanding bills are now. You cut back, but your quality of life is still good. … I'm not complaining."

The additional free time at his disposal has enabled Hightower to do more reading, which has led him to "rediscover what a great resource the public library is," he said. "When I was working, and I wanted a book, I'd buy it on Amazon, right away without waiting for the paperback. But now that's a luxury. … You don't need it."


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