"I never thought ..."
Life after unemployment
A lot more people are working in Washtenaw County today than there were two years ago. But many others are still feeling the recession's pinch.
After cresting at a painful 10.1 percent in October 2009, the nation's unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent this past December. The state hit an agonizing 14.1 percent in August 2009 before improving to 9.3 percent. And in Washtenaw County unemployment peaked at 9.4 percent in July 2010--then dropped to just 5.5 percent at the end of last year.
"Things are looking up," says Patricia Denig, the county's director of employment training. "Local businesses are hiring." But the jobs out there aren't what they used to be. "In big economic downturns, it's not enough to have a degree," Denig says. "Lots of people have degrees, and they're taking entry-level jobs because those are the only jobs they can get--which means a huge loss in income."
John Heuser didn't end up taking an entry-level job, but he did have to change careers and take a 20 percent pay cut. With a BA in math and political science, and a master's in journalism, he covered sports for the Ann Arbor News--until the daily newspaper hit the skids.
"I never thought it would happen," says Heuser. "I loved journalism and the Ann Arbor News, and I anticipated staying there for a long time. But the changes in the industry in the last three years were bigger than the changes in the last century, and the writing had been on the wall since the fall of 2008, when the buyout was offered."
With a financial incentive to leave the paper, Heuser decided to try something different. "I started thinking seriously about teaching. My mom and my sister were teachers. I was fortunate. I'd been here long enough for a buyout, and when they offered it I took it."
So a week after he left the News, Heuser started graduate school at the U-M. "I was in the master of arts with
certification program, a one-calendar-year program where you get a master's degree and do your student teaching at the same time. It was extremely intense, and I went full bore working seven days a week until June 2010."
Heuser could go full bore because, in addition to the buyout, he got unemployment compensation, and his wife had a steady job as a state social worker. Plus he got $5,000 to help pay his tuition through the state's No Worker Left Behind program.
"When I finished, I started looking for a teaching job," says Heuser. "There weren't a whole lot of jobs, but my certification in math really helped me. With English or history certification, I wouldn't have had as good a chance." Thanks to his degree in math, he got a couple of job offers. But with his sports connections, he landed a great job.
"I was all set to work at Plymouth-Canton, when at the end of summer a job opened at Dexter High School," Heuser continues. "A lot of the people I'd known through the paper were still active at the schools, and I knew Kit Moran, the principal there, from covering cross-country. A week before school started, I got a job offer and accepted it." He's now teaching math at Dexter High. "I've been there for two years now, and I anticipate staying for a long time."
Heuser knows it took more than a degree and connections. It took luck. "A lot of the people I went to school with are still not working full time as teachers, or they're working overseas. Michigan is extremely tight, and I'm not sure it's going to get any easier. I feel really, really fortunate to have a good teaching job in a good school district."
Things were tougher for the hundreds of Ann Arbor News employees who either didn't qualify for buyouts or turned them down, hoping for better days: the paper's out-of-state owners shut it down in 2009. In its place they opened AnnArbor.com, a website and biweekly paper with a much smaller, less-well-paid staff.
And that wasn't even one of the bigger layoffs--the cutbacks in the auto industry and Pfizer's pullout from Ann Arbor in 2008 eliminated many thousands of jobs. By July 2009, more than 17,000 people in the county were out of work.
Unlike the state as a whole, Washtenaw County gained residents between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. But while the number of people living here grew, the number working here fell: the county's labor force shrank by 2.1 percent from an annual average of 185,239 in 2002 to 181,325 in 2011.
Life for the unemployed got tougher last fall, when governor Rick Snyder signed legislation cutting the length of time they can collect unemployment benefits from twenty-six to twenty weeks. Between shorter eligibility and longer job searches, "every month about 800 people will lose their benefits because they're exhausting the time limit," says Mary Jo Callan, the community services director for Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
At a maximum of $362 a week, it's not like unemployment pays well. "It's meant to supplement no wages or very low wages with cash assistance until they find a new job," says Callan. That's harder than it used to be. "More than 50 percent of Michigan's unemployed have been unemployed for more than six months. This is the longest [job hunt] on record."
Denig puts that in perspective: "What used to be a six-week norm for someone to find new employment four or five years ago has stretched out from three months to six months, then from six to twelve months, and now it often takes longer than a year."
The lucky ones, like Heuser, are now back at work. But the ragged recovery still hasn't reached many others: even a 5.5 percent unemployment rate leaves 9,900 folks still looking for work in the county. And every month, 800 of them lose their benefits.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]