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The new jobless

Could this be you? The recession is throwing millions out of work. What the new jobless class can tell you about what it's like out there.

Last Updated: February 4, 2009: 12:10 PM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- The numbers are staggering, especially because the tallies are being measured in human beings: Caterpillar (20,000 layoffs), Alcoa (15,000), Boeing (10,000), Pfizer (8,300), and tens of thousands more. The toll of jobs lost in the U.S. since the recession began is heading toward three million.

Unlike previous downturns, this one is not confined to the tech or manufacturing sectors. It is the Equal Opportunity Recession, winding its way into every corner of the economy. To put faces on the numbers, Fortune interviewed dozens of jobless people across the U.S. They are old and young, rich and poor, from rural Maine and urban California. They are your neighbor or your nephew. Or they are you.

They may be from radically different backgrounds, but these job seekers have a few things in common: frustration, fear - and resilience. They want to work. They have treated unemployment as a full-time job in itself because they have learned that in the end, they have only themselves to rely on. Here are their stories.

Where the people feel like spare parts

Annette Ison, 48, Barbara Philpot, 50, and Michele Scales, 52, of Dayton

In her final weeks as an assembly-line worker, Barbara Philpot spent an entire summer just sitting and waiting for her time to run out. "My last day was Aug. 31, 2007," recalls Philpot, a 22-year factory veteran, "but they had already closed down the facility. All we did was sit in an auditorium and sleep or play cards. It was depressing. They gave us a lunch our last day for everybody who was still there, a fried-chicken lunch. Who wants a piece of chicken when you know your demise is coming? I'd rather have had the $5 it cost."

Philpot and her former co-workers Michele Scales and Annette Ison had collectively spent almost six grimy but gratifying decades in the factories of Dayton, where they worked for auto-parts maker Delphi (spun off from GM in 1999). Philpot ran a giant welding machine, Ison worked on the line, and Scales had just finished training to be a factory plumber. They never thought they'd be the last of their families to work at the plants, but GM's decline accelerated more quickly than anyone imagined. In 2005, Delphi filed for bankruptcy protection. By the fall of 2007 the three women were spare parts.

"Dayton has always been an automotive city," says Ison, "but it's becoming a dried-up town." In Moraine, the suburb where the three women worked, the community is ebbing as well. Thirty-year-old family restaurants are closing. Foreclosure signs are spreading like cracks in a sidewalk. The women still feel resentment from others who remember when Delphi was part of the GM (GM, Fortune 500) gravy train. "I get so tired of people thinking that because you worked at GM, life is so great," says Philpot. "Life is a day-to-day struggle now. I used to love my job. I wish every day I wake up that I could punch my clock and do my eight hours. I never, ever dreamed it would end up like this."

Former Delphi union employees do have some benefits. With unemployment and supplemental pay, they'll receive health care and about 70% of their hourly wages until 2010. They also get money to go to school. But there have been misunderstandings, particularly about the terms of the severance. All three women mistakenly thought they were entitled to more money. They didn't understand that they had to go to school to keep collecting unemployment, and didn't know there would be restrictions on what they could study. Bad enough they'd been laid off. Now they had to take midterms?

"The last time I was in school I had ovaries," says Scales, who has undergone 21 surgeries in the past five years due to complications from a mastectomy and hysterectomy. Scales had just finished her training in May 2007 when she was told she'd have to help pack up the company's equipment. "I shipped my job to Mexico," she says. Scales' experience is in industrial, not residential, plumbing, and she says there are no industrial jobs out there. Now she's hoping to land a management position in plumbing by completing an associate's degree. Unable to get funding for that, Scales took out a student loan. "I'm in foreclosure. I don't know how long I can stay in my house. That's another thing that makes it hard to study. I feel like my life is depending on this."

A career counselor takes his own advice

Greg Dillon, 49, Marietta, Ga.

Even before times turned bad, Greg Dillon volunteered at career centers and his church to help people write resumes and strategize about jobs. It was a satisfying way to share his skills as a training and development specialist. So today he doesn't need to read the papers to see the impact of the recession on his Cobb County neighbors. "It's the worst I've ever seen," he says, noting that the last Cobb Job Seekers meeting he attended had 40 people instead of the usual 15 to 20; a local career group sponsored by the Society of Human Resources Management has also doubled in size.

Dillon is now in the odd position of having to take his own advice. Last Nov. 10, the day before his 49th birthday, he was laid off from Forum Co., the second time he'd lost a position in the previous 18 months. "Unfortunately for me, I know what to do in terms of being unemployed," he says. "It's kind of like the Hair Club for Men. Now I'm a user too."

For a long time Dillon's career had been all about stability. After working at the Randstad staffing agency as a national learning manager for seven years, he had decided to try something different, so he took a position in August 2006 at an Atlanta-based diversity-training company. In retrospect, it wasn't the best time to make a move. Eleven months later, in July 2007, he was let go because of slowing business. "I had wanted to broaden myself a little more," he says. "But it wasn't anything like it is now." He soon found the job at Forum, where he worked for just over a year.

Dillon is anxious, but hopeful he will find something soon, ideally in academia. There is a promising job at a local university, but he can't be hired until the job has been posted - and it took several frustrating weeks for the listing to appear. He has had other good interviews, but everything seems to be on the slow track. "I'm in a strange kind of limbo state," he says. "I feel like I have stuff out there, but I'm not yet solidified enough to feel at peace."

The worst thing for Dillon is the sense of powerlessness, even as he knows that others are in the same situation. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "You don't take it as personal because it's affecting everyone, but at the same time those other people are also competing against you for jobs." Ultimately he relies on his family and his church, the North River Church of Christ, for support. "I'm supposed to be learning something here about perseverance," he says.

Forum gave Dillon four weeks of severance. But it doesn't go very far with three daughters, one of whom just started college and would have had to move out of the dorms if it weren't for the generosity of relatives. His wife, Kathryn, has a drapery business, but customers are being more cautious about spending. And the transmission on the family's '93 Nissan Maxima just died. "I donated it to charity," he says. At least someone will benefit.

Looking for life after Lehman Brothers

Anthony Singh, 51, New York City

It's not easy going to a job interview when the first item people see listed in your "experience" column is a name synonymous with financial disaster. "One of the things I've discovered is that having Lehman on your resume is not a good thing," says Anthony Singh with a slight smile. Singh, who worked as a Lehman vice president in capital markets, was laid off in January 2008, eight months before the company's collapse. But that doesn't matter much to people who see the resume and ask, only partly joking, whether he caused the downfall of the free world.

When he arrived at Lehman in early 2007, Singh was excited to be landing at a blue-chip firm that was practically printing money, and remembers being pressured to decide whether to take the job. "They said, 'We need an answer right away. Are you with us? Are you onboard?'" Once on the job, however, he became frustrated with the lack of communication between units. When he was laid off after just nine months, he attributed it to a mismatch of personalities rather than a portent of doom. "There was no writing on the wall," he says.

Singh loves his work. He has an MBA from New York University as well as more than two decades of expertise in revenue and cost management for banks - figuring out which parts of a business are the most profitable when all costs are included. But embattled banks are consolidating and laying off tens of thousands of workers. They aren't spending a lot on the types of long-term analytics at which Singh excels, no matter how much they may need to. "There's not much hiring," he says. "But I think companies are being penny-wise and pound-foolish."

So for the past 12 months, Singh, who is single, has spent a lot of time in his Manhattan apartment, working out with weights and watching old movies like Casablanca. He has also finally had the time for hobbies like researching his family tree. A native of Guyana who arrived in the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings when he was 13 to escape political turmoil, he has discovered that he's part Indian, part Chinese, part Scottish, and part Irish. He had hoped to travel the globe doing research, but those kinds of expenditures will have to wait for now. While he's confident in his abilities, he freezes - just for a second - when asked whether banking may be changing so drastically that the opportunities for him are diminishing. "I hope not," he says, before wondering aloud whether, say, agricultural businesses might be able to use his skills. "I like Florida ..."

Sleepless nights after the mill winds down

Cory Clapsaddle, 37, Jay, Maine

While so many Americans were overreaching during the boom years, Cory Clapsaddle appreciated what was right in front of him. He wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps, working at the local paper mill and raising a family in the home he grew up in. "If it was good for my father, it was good for me," he says. Clapsaddle was patient, working construction and odd jobs for seven years. Finally, in 1998, he took his place among the 235 workers at the century-old mill owned by Wisconsin-based Wausau Paper. He had faith in its durability. "It seemed like a mill that could never die," he says. For ten years he thrived there, turning paper pulp into everything from masking tape to writing tablets.

Then the real world intervened. A few days before Labor Day last year, Wausau Paper announced it was shutting down one of the two giant papermaking machines in Jay and laying off about 150 people, citing "difficult market conditions." "It's going to devastate a lot of personal lives," town manager Ruth Marden told the local Sun Journal. Clapsaddle's was one of them. Since finishing that last 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift, Clapsaddle hasn't slept well at night. "It's always on my mind," he says, "the whole big picture. Looking for a new job, losing a job, bills. The whole picture."

Clapsaddle doesn't have a cushion beyond his severance package of $10,000. Two years ago he and his wife, Amanda, bought his childhood home in nearby Livermore Falls to make room for their two boys, ages 4 and 7 - and their mortgage quadrupled to almost $1,000 a month. He gets $344 a week in unemployment benefits. They've cut costs by reducing cellphone minutes and using their wood-burning stove instead of heating oil.

Clapsaddle is only gradually adjusting to the idea that the mill is no longer part of the family's future. He still has the wooden basket his dad used to carry his meal to work every day. "It hurts," he says, staring out the window at his sons playing in the snow. "You drive by and know you'll probably never drive in again, and that someday it won't be there at all." But leaving central Maine will be the family's last resort. Jay (pop. 5,000) is the kind of place where an out-of-state license plate turns heads. It's far enough north that locals consider a few inches of snow a dusting. The Clapsaddles don't yearn for the Sunbelt.

What now? Clapsaddle has thought about going back into construction. He'd like to be a full-time firefighter, but he doesn't think he can compete with the younger folks coming out of school. He didn't make the cut on the law-enforcement test, but he might retake it. In the meantime he has enrolled in a heating and air-conditioning course in Scarborough, an hour and a half away. A federal program will pay for his tuition, books, and travel. At this point he just knows he has to make a move. "It's coming down to the wire," he says. "I need to do something."

An odyssey of downward mobility

Diana Mackey, 62, Sparks, Nev.

If you'd told Diana Mackey a few years back that she'd be working the night shift as a temporary sorter in an Amazon.com (AMZN, Fortune 500) warehouse, she probably would have laughed out loud. With a long career in human resources for the likes of Ernst & Young and Cambridge Technology Partners, Mackey, 62, had been able to raise two children on her own, buy herself a few homes, travel, and save for retirement. But she lost even the Amazon job after just four days, let go for not being fast enough on her feet. A stream of corporate rationalizations, mergers, and plain old bad luck has left her jobless, frustrated, and open to anything that will help her and her boyfriend pay the mortgage on his condo in suburban Reno. "It's hard to believe that no one wants you now," she says. "It's hard to deal with that. But we're survivors."

Mackey, a native of Columbus, spent many years shuttling between New York and Ohio, recruiting new hires for Ernst & Young and rising to the position of senior manager. She moved to Claremont Technology Group, which went public and netted her enough cash to finance a move to San Francisco and a job with Cambridge in 1997. From that point she suffered a long decline in earning power. She joined two dot-com startups, both of which went under. Looking for a fresh start, she moved to Sparks with her boyfriend, John Corbin, in 2002 and landed a job in HR for a telecom company, working her way up to $90,000. But the company was bought by Sprint (S, Fortune 500), her job functions were relocated to Sacramento, and she was laid off. She landed a $70,000 job recruiting for Round Table Pizza that lasted 16 months, until management merged two regions. She knew what would come next. "The assistant manager wanted to meet me for breakfast on the last day of the month," Mackey says. "I said, 'You're going to let me go.'"

Since then Mackey has been caught up in a job search that she says is even more difficult in a place like Reno, with a lot of transplants and few large companies. Career-counseling sessions, she says, are "like 100 unemployed 60-year-old people in a room looking at each other." She recently endured a series of nine interviews with a medical company, only to be told that it had decided not to fill the position. Mackey volunteered for the Obama campaign; then, out of money, she and Corbin decided to take temp jobs at Amazon. They lasted only four grueling nights.

Today Mackey is getting $362 a week in unemployment and has reluctantly decided to start collecting Social Security (for less than she would have had she waited until 65). The couple feels trapped, unable to sell the condo because of the glut of foreclosures in their neighborhood. So Mackey has started selling off possessions on eBay and living an unfamiliar lifestyle. "I used to go to Costco and load up on steaks and chops," she says with a hint of self-deprecation. "Now we go to Wal-Mart. I got 75 boxes of Hamburger Helper on sale." She keeps a careful spreadsheet of every grocery item she buys and which store has it at the best price. It saves money - and, she says with a weary wink, keeps those technical skills fresh.

Back from war but fighting for a job

Adam Schulz, 28, Chicago

Adam Schulz's online-networking profile says it all: "Combat veteran searching for job in Chicago. Strong background in leadership under pressure in hostile environments." It's a good thing Schulz has this kind of experience, because the streets of the Windy City are feeling almost as mean as those of Baghdad - at least when it comes to finding a project management job in technology or defense.

A 2002 West Point graduate with a 3.47 GPA in information-systems engineering, Schulz, 28, stood out at school and on the battlefield. He did two Iraq tours, one in 2003 and one in 2007, as a platoon leader and an executive officer, respectively. In between he was selected for specialized leadership training and was an aide-de-camp for a one-star general in Germany. In Iraq he helped reduce attacks in his area by some 90% on his first tour and trained a local police battalion in his second.

It was during that tour that one of his best friends from West Point was killed by a sniper. Schulz took a one-month leave and eventually decided to exit the Army in March 2008. Since then his civilian job search has been a nonstop losing battle. "I've gone to multiple interviews where I felt like the next step was going to be an offer; they call and say they love you. And in about a month or two they come back and say they really wanted you, 'but because of current economic situations ...' It's happened about six times now," Schulz says.

A Louisville native who likes snowboarding and watching ultimate fighting, Schulz has connected with search firms that specialize in placing military veterans, like the Lucas Group, and says he has applied for more than 200 jobs on CareerBuilder and Monster in the past year - with, he says, "absolutely no response." Believing that he'd land something quickly with so much real-world experience, he bought an apartment last May. Now struggling to pay the mortgage, he's doing some bartending and temp work and has joined the National Guard. He's also considering going back to school for a joint MBA and master's in engineering management.

Schulz is confused and frustrated by the fact that his accomplishments in Iraq haven't found him a home in the business world. Some companies, like APP Pharmaceuticals, have focused on his lack of industry experience, but he thinks leading a platoon in war gives him a kind of outlook on life that most employees will never know.

"The greatest aspect that leaders bring to the table is the ability to be adaptable," he argues. "You're just given a bunch of people to be in charge of and told to figure it out. That's what I try to express to companies." Most perplexing of all is that Schulz thought he'd done all the right things. "When you're at West Point, everybody tells you that if you do decide to leave, you'll have so many possibilities you won't know what to do with them," he says. They didn't count on an economy like this one.

A pig farmer's last truckload

Norlin Gutz, 56, Storm Lake, Iowa

Out in Storm Lake, Iowa (pop. 10,076), pigs outnumber humans by about 18 to one. For 36 years Norlin Gutz raised 50,000 piglets annually on a farm first settled in the 19th century by his great-grandfather. Gutz was one of the few remaining independent pig farmers in an increasingly corporate industry. But on Jan. 11, Gutz loaded his last 1,500 pigs onto a truck. Norlin Gutz is bankrupt.

"What caused it is the feed costs," he explains, "and what started that was the unleashing of the ethanol industry. If there had been some type of a gradual phasing in, maybe we could have adjusted. But it was bam! It's just been devastating for the industries that use the corn." While the price of corn has dropped over the past few months, in 2007-2008 the cost per bushel rose from $2 to $7. At the same time, a glut of pigs led to lower prices per head. Gutz says that at the bottom of the market, he got $10 for a ten-pound baby pig that cost him $30 to raise.

In March 2008 the bank Gutz had done business with for almost seven years asked him and his wife, Becky, to come in for a conversation. "We were nervous," Gutz recalls. "We knew we had trouble paying bills. We just prayed that we would accept whatever happened." The loan officer confirmed their worst fears - that there would be no more financing - and Gutz began the process of liquidation. He slowly let go his dozen employees, sold his farm equipment, and fattened his baby pigs to a 260-pound marketable weight, selling them for whatever he could get. He became a statistic, one of the 900 pork farms that the USDA estimates have disappeared since 2006.

He also started suffering from severe headaches. "The doctor asked me if I was angry. I was surprised. I said, 'I may be disappointed in myself, but I'm not angry.'" Eventually the headaches stopped. But the second-guessing has not. "I was trying to find a niche by using an older facility at low cost," Gutz says. "But it wasn't a very efficient facility. The bank doesn't even want it."

On Dec. 2, Gutz declared bankruptcy; 18 months ago he had a net worth of $1.3 million. To make ends meet, the farmer has been taking care of pigs for other people. In November, Becky hit the books so that she could renew the nurse's license she hasn't used in 30 years while raising five children and helping out on the farm. Successfully recertified, she accepted a job in a nursing home in January. "Once you've had your heart tore out," says Gutz of his wife, "it's hard to get enthused and go back into it. She's looking forward to something new."

Whether he will also try something new remains to be seen. "I grew up in this business," says Gutz, who was once recognized by the state as a Master Pork Producer. "I don't have anything else I can do. You feel like you've let your wife down, your family, your parents, you know? And you feel like other people are talking about you. It's embarrassing. This was my whole world."

From Yahoo to layoff in Internet time

Melissa Daniels, 24, San Jose

At her age, Melissa Daniels can't conceive of life without the Internet. One of her most vivid childhood memories is of agonizing about choosing her AOL screen name, at the age of 8 (she settled on mndkid, using her initials). So when a manager at Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) offered her a position as a community manager in May 2008, Daniels leaped at the chance. Little matter that the company was already in turmoil, having just rejected a takeover bid from Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500). It was the kind of job you don't turn down, the modern-day equivalent of one at 1960s General Electric. "It's always an honor to be asked to work for a company like that," she says. "It definitely sweetened the deal."

Thrilled with her team and her role as a liaison between Yahoo users and its product teams, Daniels didn't focus much on the day-to-day struggles at the company. But when the layoffs came in December only seven months in, she was less shocked than disappointed. "It wasn't something new, like a black cloud of smoke descended," she says. "I was never angry. But I was more sad than I thought I would be, because I loved my job and everyone I worked with. You cry about puppies and family members, not over jobs."

For Daniels, this is an unwanted pause in a life that has been on fast-forward. At 22, she earned a master's degree in communications management from the University of Southern California, writing her thesis on user-generated content and viral media. At 23, when she took the Yahoo job, she bought a condo in San Jose with some help from her mom. By 24, she had already been downsized. "I didn't really know what you do in a layoff," she says. "Logistically I didn't even know how it worked."

Now the self-proclaimed "digital native" is using the tools of her generation to find her next job. She networks through LinkedIn, posts on Twitter, and keeps a blog (new2oldmedia.wordpress.com) where she comments on happenings in her industry. And now she looks at every company with a more skeptical eye. "The big thing for me is stability," she says. "I just don't want to be laid off again." Daniels has had almost a dozen in-person interviews, several with the same potential employer. Nothing has panned out yet. "It's kind of like dating. Do they like me? Do they not?"

Perhaps because of her youth, Daniels remains highly confident. She says she won't take a pay cut unless it's for the perfect job. Daniels also knows instinctively what so many older people have experienced: that being young - and relatively inexpensive - gives her an edge. In the meantime, she lives cheaply. Besides her mortgage, her only bills are her utilities and a manageable student loan. And while she once loved to buy clothes, she's learned to window-shop. "It's okay to hang out at someone's house and watch Lost," she says. The hardest thing, given what she calls her go-go-go personality, is the downtime. "I hate sitting idly by," she says. "I can't stand it. Sometimes weekends were too long for me. So a month and a half with no work is, like, are you kidding?"

It helps, too, that she still feels passionate about her field. "I wanted to do something that really interested me," she says, "because I thought it's always better to do something that you love as opposed to just doing something that pays the bills." It would be nice, though, to have both.

An Ivy League mom with a dream on hold

Anne Naggayi, 44, Burke, Va.

Anne Naggayi's middle son is always trying to help her come up with new job-search strategies. Recently he watched the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith as a homeless man who talks his way into financial success, and told his mother that she should follow his lead. "Mom, you should be like this man," he said. "Tell them your story."

Having her struggles compared to those of a homeless person would have seemed absurd when Naggayi arrived in the U.S. from Uganda in 2001, the recipient of a partial scholarship from Cornell to complete a master's in community development. But three years after receiving two degrees (the other is in adult education), Naggayi, 44, who holds a work permit while she waits for her green card, is without a job in her chosen field, despite having moved to the D.C. area specifically to take advantage of its many NGOs and nonprofits.

With three sons (ages 18, 16, and 11) to raise alone - her husband, a public administrator, died of a heart attack in 2000 - Naggayi believed the opportunities for her family would be better in the U.S. than in Uganda, where she'd worked for the government. "Life changes all of a sudden when you lose a spouse," she says. "Your life collapses in front of you. But this [degree program] made me feel like I could change myself again."

Unfortunately for Naggayi, the change has been tougher than she expected. Despite sending out countless résumés and searching nonprofit job sites like idealist.org, she hasn't been able to find anything linked to her degree or her experience working with women in agriculture back in Uganda. Naggayi, a shy woman, blames her lack of networking skills - or perhaps her accent - for her inability to land something. She is lonely in the place she came to with such hope. "I need a mentor," she says, "someone to talk with. I'm a Cornellian, but I'm lost in the cracks." Naggayi has even tried several times to make an appointment with her priest, but hasn't heard back.

Now Naggayi is one of the estimated eight million Americans who are underemployed, or working far below their skills. To pay the bills, she took a job as a provider of in-home care for elderly people, which pays $13 an hour. She works brutally long hours and often drives an hour or more each way to the jobs. Her oldest son, a good student, is applying to college, but she has no idea how she'll afford it when even daily expenses are a struggle. "We used to go bowling and go out to eat every Friday," she says. "We used to go to the movies. Now we go walking. It's the only family activity."

Naggayi feels that she has not been the role model she hoped to be for her children. "I would like to be a good example and show what education can do for a human being." While the best outcome will be when she can put her real skills to work, she probably underestimates what she has already shown her sons.

The whole family joins the army

Lynette Mendez, 43, Holyoke, Mass.

Lynette Mendez wears pink sweaters and recently took in an unwanted cat. She is a mother hen who shuttles her daughter, Cheramie, to her after-school job and picks up her kids' friends from work. So it's hard to picture Mendez decked out in camouflage, scaling walls or firing M-16s. But that's what she'll be doing as soon as the paperwork goes through. Despite having a master's degree in accounting, she can't find a job - so she has joined the U.S. Army Reserve.

Mendez concedes that basic training may be a physical struggle, but the single mom will do it to gain the financial stability she longs for. "I know we're going to be in a better position," she said, sitting in the living room of her fourth-floor walkup apartment in Holyoke, Mass. While she has found odd jobs, she says, "It's never been anything steady. It's been here and there. And it's awful."

The military has become an employer of last resort for Mendez's family, reflecting a national trend toward higher enlistment rates in the midst of recession. Her older son, Samuel Morales, 23, joined the army and left on Dec. 31 for basic training in Kentucky. Ezxavier Morales, 20, decided to go the same route and will leave for South Carolina on Feb. 11. For all of them, it's a way out of Holyoke, which has an unemployment rate of 9.5%.

Mendez tries to stay upbeat, but she admits she never expected her life to turn out this way. At 21 she came to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico and earned a bachelor's degree part-time while raising her kids. After graduating, Mendez landed a job examining claims at a health insurance company, but her division closed down in 2000 after she'd worked there for five years. She fell into what she now identifies as depression. "It takes a toll on you, when you don't have a job," she says. "It's not easy to be nice to people."

Things deteriorated further in 2005 after Mendez's husband, who had been injured at his job as a mechanic, died of complications from the medication he was taking. Mendez went back to school, figuring that a master's degree in accounting and taxation from American International College, the same place she had earned her bachelor's, would give her the edge she needed to get a full-time job. She kept looking while studying, but since finishing up in December, nothing has come through; even applications to Wal-Mart and Burger King haven't worked out. Her final unemployment check arrived in mid-January. Soon she'll have to figure out how to start paying off her $36,000 student loan.

That unemployment check - and Cheramie's Social Security benefit from her father's death - have been Mendez's only steady source of income, apart from irregular part-time work. At one point she held three jobs a day, working two gigs as a bookkeeper while squeezing in a job as a school bus monitor. Everyone chips in, including her daughter, who works at least 20 hours a week at McDonald's while going to high school.

Mendez stays in touch with her sisters and mother in Puerto Rico but glosses over her struggles. "I'm ashamed of telling them my problems," she says. "You think you would have been in a better position by now." Mendez worries that her job woes have turned her kids off of higher education. "My oldest will say, 'You have so much schooling, and look at you,'" she says. "It's like they lost faith." Not completely, though, and not all of them. Cheramie, 17, plans to go to college and has dreams of law school. How does she expect to pay for it? She's signed up for the U.S. Army Reserve.

The reverse brain drain

Bonnie Loo 36, Daly City, CA

Silicon Valley may have a reputation as a place where people change jobs as easily as they change clothes. But that was never the case for Bonnie Loo, who started as a software tester for Macromedia in 1999 and survived the dot-com crash, a merger with Adobe Systems, and a move into project management.

So when Loo heard rumors of coming layoffs last December, she wasn't too concerned. She'd already survived so much. But even Loo couldn't make it through this recession. "When it did happen," she says, "it was something of a shock. I had been there so long I wasn't worried." Yet when she thought about it, Loo understood why it happened; though she'd had good performance reviews, there were two people working with the same engineering team, and it could be managed by one.

She also realized that this unexpected jolt may actually have been the kind of push she'd needed all along to rethink what she really wanted out of life. "One of my biggest fears was becoming too complacent," she says. "And this forces me to not be that way."

As a first-generation American (her parents are from Hong Kong and Southern China,) Loo and her family have always valued economic security. Her mother ran a dry cleaning store on the ground floor of the San Francisco house she grew up in and also taught Chinese school, and her father was a lithographer. So Loo worried about telling her family what had happened, deciding to wait until after the holidays to break the news. "I thought [my mother] would pressure me right away to find something," she says. As it turned out, her mom saw the news of the Adobe layoffs on television, and rather than getting upset, was "very supportive and encouraging. She said don't worry, you're a smart girl, and if at anytime you run into problems, just let us know. It was a huge relief."

Financially, Loo is in good shape; single, with a small mortgage and no credit card debt, she'll collect a few months' severance. She has decided to take a two-week trip to Asia with a friend to clear her head before starting her job search in earnest and getting a project manager certification, an optional credential that she thinks will help her chances.

Yet Loo is also realistic; at the one interview she's had, the recruiter said he'd received hundreds of resumes. She thinks that it will take at least four to six months to get a new job in her field. And if that doesn't work, Loo has a Plan B; get a job teaching English for a year, preferably in Japan, where she's studied the language. It's something she's always wanted to do-and now, she thinks it might be a great time to get out of town. "I've told myself that if by the end of the summer I don't find something here I might go ahead, and hopefully come back with a new perspective," she says. Getting laid off could lead to the best experience of her life.

After an eight-month search: You're hired!

Jessica Pfeiffer, 35, Detroit

This is a story with a happy ending, but the conclusion is not the most important point. It's how Jessica Pfeiffer, who job-hunted for eight months, decided to spend her time. There's not much that she didn't try. The attorney offered pro bono services, taught a law-school class, served as a board member for two nonprofits, was a guest blogger, a tutor, and a babysitter. In between she called employers, submitted résumés, and handed out business cards by the hundreds. "I viewed my search as a job," she says.

It wasn't an easy one. She heard every kind of rejection, including a novel variation on the "you're overqualified" rebuff: "Your experience is too sophisticated for this marketplace." It was demoralizing, but she plowed ahead. "You have to be willing to excuse rudeness," she says. "When you're calling someone and they're not responding, you are probably not in the top 100 most important things on their mind."

By night Pfeiffer made the rounds of professional gatherings. "Sometimes I had to gear myself up," she admits, "especially for the ones I had to pay for. I'd think, Do I really want to drive 45 minutes and pay $25 to drink with lawyers? It's not easy when everyone knows you're not working."

A Duke Law School grad, Pfeiffer worked for three companies in nine years with postings as diverse as London and Dallas. Then, in 2006, a recruiter called about a position at Comerica Bank in Detroit. Pfeiffer jumped at the offer to work in her hometown. But just nine months later Comerica announced it was relocating - to Dallas. She decided she couldn't go back. So she went in a new direction, running a Labor Department grant program to promote entrepreneurship. At the end of a year, she figured the program could survive without her. "They could get someone a lot less expensive than me," she says.

In her job search, Pfeiffer's most successful connection came through volunteer work. She had already interviewed at the Clark Hill law firm when, while working on the Obama campaign, she met an attorney who was training poll watchers. He turned out to be a senior member of the Clark Hill executive committee that would vote on her new position. The two worked together again answering phones on Election Day. "I don't think I was as nervous about the idea that every minute is a job interview as I was about winning the election," says Pfeiffer. "But clearly I wanted to make a good impression."

Evidently she did. On Jan. 7, she joined the Clark Hill law firm as manager of professional development, where she'll help young attorneys shape their careers. "I finally have business cards I didn't make myself. And I've already been on my first business trip," she says, as if her trek to Grand Rapids was the sweetest assignment of all. "It feels so good to be back in the working world."

JOAN CAPLIN and BETH KOWITT contributed to this article.  To top of page


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