NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Last June, Janet Crystal was a prime example of what we called a Duppie: Depressed Urban Professionals who had lost their job in the recession.
Crystal, 51, had been laid off in March 2002 and her search for another position as a new-products manager had lasted more than a year. So last summer, with no other job prospects in sight, Crystal went to work at Trader Joe's near her Boston-area home.
The $10 she got paid per hour was far less than the six-figure salary she once commanded at companies like Lucent, but the work enabled Crystal to live simply without raiding her savings account or 401(k). Plus, it provided health coverage.
Today, there are 8.3 million unemployed Americans. That's 400,000 fewer than in June. And January's 5.6 percent national unemployment rate was down from the 6.3 percent from the year before, according to the Labor Department.
Meanwhile, some 4.7 million wage-earners are still underemployed -- working in part-time positions because they're unable to find more lucrative full-time labor. That's up from the 4.5 million who were underemployed back in June.
With those mixed signals in mind, we decided to check in with Crystal to see how she was faring.
Mixed signals for Duppies
Her first piece of news: "I got a real job at the end of August!"
The position, managing production operations for a small software company, builds on her years of experience overseeing product manufacturing.
To end her 17-month run with un- and under-employment, Crystal learned to change her ways.
When she lost her job in 2002, Crystal was like many other people who find themselves suddenly out of a job: stunned, scared -- and reluctant to ask for help. But she eventually learned to speak up.
She joined a professional networking group that met once a week and provided her with emotional encouragement and practical job-hunting tips. And she enlisted friends and family to keep an eye on jobs for her.
It was her brother who tracked down the lead that landed her new gig.
"He knew what I was looking for. I had given him a few key phrases," said Crystal. "One day he was talking with a woman from work, he said the key phrases and she said, 'My husband does that.'"
Learning to network
Seizing opportunity, a lunch with the colleague's husband was quickly arranged. It was just sandwiches at a local mall, but it enabled Crystal to learn more about the company and tell about her own work experience.
At the end of the lunch, Crystal found herself making an unusual proposition: "I asked him to go back to his boss and see if I could work for their company for four months for free to see if they liked me."
He passed along the offer, but it was turned down. That was in August 2002. Crystal gave herself kudos for trying, but figured that was the end of it.
A year later, the phone rang. It was the man's boss. She remembered Crystal's offer, had a few positions open and wanted to chat about possible opportunities.
"Why she kept my resume is a mystery to me because usually people throw them right out," said Crystal who jumped at the chance to talk. Days later, she got a job offer.
Employed but still recovering
Although she's traded in her Trader Joe's Hawaiian shirt uniform for more formal professional attire, Crystal says she hasn't changed the way she feels on the inside.
Seventeen months of looking for a job is bound to take its toll, and she admits she still worries about pink slips. She's even dreamed of getting laid off, only to feel immense relief to wake up and realize it was all a nightmare.
Meanwhile, she goes back to Trader Joe's -- as a customer now -- and chats with former colleagues. She has also returned to her professional networking group to share her story and give words of encouragement to pals who are still looking for work.
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Recently, she talked to a laid off friend who had a Ph.D. Though desperate for income, the woman told Crystal she never could not bring herself to get part-time work at a grocery to tide herself over. After earning an advanced degree it was too much of a let-down.
Crystal understands the woman's position, but thinks it's mistaken. "You have to maintain a very positive attitude or you will not survive," she says.
"I did what I had to get through. I couldn't put money in a 401k or buy a new car. But I got to know a lot of nice people," Crystal notes. "I don't think you should stay home and bury your head."
As for the man who met her for lunch and passed along her resume?
"He got a nice bonus when I was hired."