The good news is that more people are finding jobs lately. That’s true in the nation, in Michigan, and especially in Washtenaw County.

After cresting at a painful 10.1 percent in October 2009, the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent in December. The state hit an agonizing 14.1 percent in August 2009 before improving to 9.3 percent. Even in sheltered Washtenaw County, unemployment peaked at 9.4 percent in July 2010–then dropped to just 5.5 percent in December.

Welcome as the recovery is, unemployment is still more than twice the record low back in 1999. That 5.5 percent is made up of 9,900 local folks who are still out of work, many of them for a year or more.

“I believe the jobs are there,” says Priscilla Gillespie, who lost hers as a medical associate in 2008. “It’s a matter of them actually hiring. Every now and then I get a call for an interview, and I go, and my references are good and my attitude is good, but I don’t get the job. And then I see the same job being advertised again.”

Life got tougher for the jobless 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. “More than 50 percent of Michigan’s unemployed have been unemployed for more than six months. This is the longest on record.”

Patricia Denig, the county’s director of employment training, 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.” Or, for Gillespie, longer than three years.

That’s the bad news: though many unemployed people are coming back into the working world, others are left outside looking in. What follows is a look at how three locals who lost jobs in the recession are faring.

“Things are looking up,” Denig says. “Local businesses are hiring. IT, like Barracuda [Networks], is hiring programmers. Walgreens is hiring specialty call technicians. ProQuest on Eisenhower is hiring. A123 Systems, the green technology battery company headquartered in Ann Arbor, is hiring. And the auto industry is hiring again like ACH, Automotive Components Holdings, in the old Ford plant off 94. Automobile manufacturers’ inventories are depleted, and it’s the same in other industries.”

This doesn’t mean people can expect to find a new job in the same field as their old job. Changing careers is almost mandatory.

That’s what Michelle Washburn did, switching from veterinary technician to dental hygienist. “I never thought this would happen to me,” says the thirty-eight-year old. “I’d worked in [the field] for fourteen years,” first at hospitals in the Detroit area, then for Esperion, and finally “for Pfizer when they bought out Esperion in December 2003.”

Her career in pharmaceutical research looked secure–but life had other plans: “I [was] laid off when [Pfizer] downsized, and my job ended in April of ’07.” Though the layoff was unexpected, it was not entirely unwelcome. “I had two children at home, and I was pregnant with number three, and I was ready to do something else. I had a friend who was a dentist, and I thought I might be a good hygienist.”

So Washburn applied to the U-M School of Dentistry and started there that fall. She couldn’t have done it alone. In addition to a husband working for the U-M and a tuition assist from Pfizer, she had help from the government. “I collected unemployment until I started school, and it helped very much. But I also found out about the No Worker Left Behind program when we went for unemployment.

“I was a good candidate [for the state retraining program], but I had to deal with the University of Michigan,” Washburn continues. She was the first student to apply for tuition assistance through NWLB, “and it took almost a year to get everything done, though the administration did a lot for me. I received about $10,000 altogether for two years of a three-year program, and it helped a ton. I graduated in June of 2010, and I’ve been working part time since July of 2010 for a local dentist office, Ann Arbor Smiles on South Huron Parkway.”

If this sounds easy, it wasn’t. “Getting laid off was very traumatic, but I had three years to come to grips with it,” Washburn says. “Now I feel it was a great decision, and I’m glad I was forced into it. I’m raising my family now, so I appreciate having a steady job, and having a part-time job means I can be home for my kids when they get home from school.”

Washburn especially appreciates the job because, even after retraining, they’re not easy to come by. “It’s not great for dental hygienists. A lot of dental hygienists have to get multiple part-time jobs because there’re not many full-time jobs out there. And some dental offices are cutting back because [patients] are cutting back.

“People say ‘it’ll never happen to me,’ but you never know,” Washburn concludes. “Nothing is predictable, especially in the job market.”

With hundreds of thousands of people out of work in Michigan, it’s not surprising that ours was the only state to lose population in the 2010 census. What’s surprising is that the loss was no worse than it was–just 0.6 percent, or about 55,000 people.

Washtenaw County actually gained 6.8 percent, or 22,000 residents, in the census. 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.

That’s a net loss of 3,914 folks. Kris Kovacs was one of them.

Kovacs was an assistant district sales manager for the Ann Arbor News when the Newhouse family announced it was shutting down the paper. “I was working twenty-five hours a week and going to school part time when I got a text message from my brother, who also worked at the News, that the gravy train was over,” Kovacs recalls. The twenty-eight-year-old never saw it coming. “Everybody knew advertising revenue wasn’t what it used to be, but we never thought they’d close up.” They did, and Kovacs and his brother were out of work by the end of July 2009. With local unemployment at its peak, they were competing with more than 17,000 other people for the few jobs available.

“It was devastating,” says Kovacs. “They tried to offer me my old job back [at], same pay, same hours, but I said ‘Forget it!’ I didn’t want to take a job just to be laid off again. I’d been going part time to Washtenaw Community College, and my last semester was that same summer. I wanted to go on to EMU, but I didn’t go that fall. I started winter semester.”

At first Kovacs lived off unemployment benefits and student loans. “When I filed for unemployment, they told me about No Worker Left Behind and how they could give you money for school. Me and my brother filled out the paperwork and passed the tests and went to workshops every Wednesday for three or four hours for six weeks. But at the end, [the program] didn’t have any money left, so we didn’t get any.”

But he stayed in school with more student loans, tried again, and was successful. Altogether Kovacs received $6,600 from NWLB during three semesters at EMU. “I was in the accounting program and taking all these business classes at once, and to keep on the program you’re supposed to pass with As and Bs. I was a straight A student, never got below an A minus.”

There’s a happy ending to this story–though not in Ann Arbor. “I finished school in August [2011] and started work the following Monday in Chicago,” Kovacs says. He’s not working as an accountant. “I’m a freight broker, or I will be. I’m through the training phase now and have moved on to customer operations.”

And there’s more good news: Kovacs recently married a woman from Michigan who moved with him to Chicago to work for Art Van Furniture, and his brother got a job selling computers for Dell in Austin. These aren’t the jobs they thought they’d have, and they’re not where they thought they’d be, but at least they’re working again.

Valuable as it is, even education can’t guarantee prosperity. “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. And then there’s the effect on the youth coming up who are not getting those jobs when they enter the job market. It’s horrible. Can you imagine the emotional trauma of not getting even an entry-level job?”

Priscilla Gillespie doesn’t have to imagine: she’s fifty-four and heading into her fourth year without work. “They said at my job that they didn’t have enough hours for me so they really cut my hours, and I was already only working part time. I’d started the job in 2003, and I lost it in 2008. I applied for other jobs, lots of other jobs, but I had the wrong timing. The economy changed, and it was hard to get a job.”

So Gillespie did what Kovacs and many others did: she went back to school. “I got an associate’s degree in occupational studies from Washtenaw Community College in August 2011, and now I’m going for a BA from the University of Phoenix in human services management.” And, like Washburn and Kovacs, she got help from the state’s No Worker Left Behind program. “They paid for my tuition and books, and that allowed me to get my degree. I am very grateful.”

Unemployment benefits helped, too, but only for awhile. “They ran out,” says Gillespie. “Now I’m relying on my student loans and that isn’t good ’cause I’ve got to pay them back.”

Though the numbers say things are looking up locally, Gillespie hassn’t seen it. In February, she was taking her mother to cancer treatments by day, then spending the night on the computer in her apartment across from WCC, looking for work. “My faith in God is the only thing keeping my morals intact and my sanity. I know I have a purpose for being here, and as long as I have a purpose I can make it. I can’t allow myself to be depressed or stressed, or I won’t be able to continue.

“I know I’m not the only one,” concludes Gillespie. “There’s a lot of people who had jobs and lost ’em and can’t find new ones. And they need to know that there is support out there and that they’re not the only one.”

Far from it. Though the economic outlook has improved enormously since the layoffs at Pfizer and the Ann Arbor News, there are nearly 10,000 other local folks out there still looking for work.