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NPR is following six people in the St. Louis area who started 2011 unemployed and searching for work. They are keeping audio diaries to document their experience.

Finding The Path Toward Employment In St. Louis

Casaundra Bronner, 39, has been jobless for nine months. She tries to shelter her two young daughters from her struggles.
Casaundra Bronner, 39, has been jobless for nine months. She tries to shelter her two young daughters from her struggles.

First of an ongoing series

Until March, Casaundra Bronner, 39, worked for one of the largest and certainly the most famous employers in St. Louis — Anheuser-Busch.

Bronner had been there for 11 years, working her way up to a marketing manager job.

"My last position, I really enjoyed it," says Bronner. "[The layoff was] like a rug taken from under me."

She was among hundreds the company laid off.

Nationwide, there are more than 14 million people out of work, and most economists say it will be years before the country returns to full employment. In terms of the labor market and the unemployment rate, St. Louis, Mo., is very similar to rest of the nation.

Over the next year, NPR will follow Bronner and five others who live in the greater St. Louis area who are currently unemployed as they search for work.

Bronner never thought it would take so long to find a new job. Her search has already spanned nine months and it's taking a financial and emotional toll for Bronner — a single mother with two daughters in elementary school.

"It's difficult because I'm what they have," she says. Her daughters ask why she can't buy them the things she used to be able to.

There is one central goal for each of the St. Louis area residents NPR is following — to work.

Out Of Unemployment Comes A Marriage Proposal

"It's hard to not be depressed," says Jennifer Barfield, 47. She's an IT professional and was laid off from her long-time job at a law firm in March 2009. "I don't know who couldn't be depressed if they were going through this."

Barfield is a newlywed. Her husband is Brian Barfield, 53, is also unemployed.

"I've had my share of down, down, down bad times," says Brian Barfield. "But having met Jen, it's starting to come around and look up and it'll be fine."

The couple met at the Go! Network, a group for unemployed people in St. Louis. Then, last January, Brian proposed spontaneously.

"We were having dinner downtown and the lights were low and she looked beautiful sitting there, and I just knew I was ready," he says. "And so I said, 'Will you marry me?'"

Now, they're in this together.

A Honeymoon At Home

Brian Barfield spent his career in manufacturing. He worked for Chrysler and one of its suppliers until the carmaker shut down its operations in the St. Louis area.

For most of last year, he had another job managing a warehouse. Then in October, right after a honeymoon spent at home to save money he lost that job too.

"Really, if just one of us could get a job, we could live a decent life until the other did," says Jennifer Barfield. "It's really frustrating to me that both of us don't have it."

At this point they're getting by on unemployment benefits and money pulled from Jennifer's 401(k). But her benefits will run out soon.

The clock is ticking on Randy Howland's benefits too.

"Yes, I'm one of those people that's been on unemployment for a long, long time," says Howland, 50, who has been out of work for more than a year.

600 Job Applications And Counting

In that time, he's applied for more than 600 jobs. He's quite tech savvy and programmed his computer to fill in most of the blanks in the applications for him. The jobs are mostly in customer service and sales, offering low wages.

Howland has a master's degree in telecommunications management and peaked at a six-figure salary back in 2002. The problem is the telecom industry, as he knew it, doesn't exist anymore.

"I've had people look at my resume that said, 'Hey, no, no, no you've got to remove that — that's technology from the, you know, '20s or something,'" Howland says. "It makes me look out of touch."

A Job Loss After Giving Birth

Annica Trotter, 25, lost her job in October, shortly after her son, Gregory, was born.

She had been working for a social services agency, helping people with disabilities find jobs. Now she's applying those networking skills to her own job search by staying in close touch with friends and family about opportunities.

"But right now, it just doesn't seem like there's anything available," Trotter says.

She has two children and the kind of drive you wouldn't want to bet against. In addition to her job search, she's starting a baking business.

She makes cakes, cupcakes, pies and other treats. She's calling her business The Bright Oven.

Ray Meyer, 54, had a 30-year career in banking before losing his job more than two years ago. He says he feels like he's "on the top of the world" when he goes to job interviews wearing his banker's clothes and shiny shoes.
Tamara Keith / NPR
Ray Meyer, 54, had a 30-year career in banking before losing his job more than two years ago. He says he feels like he's "on the top of the world" when he goes to job interviews wearing his banker's clothes and shiny shoes.

"Instead of just waiting for someone to decide that they wanted to be my boss, I could kind of start to be my own boss," Trotter says. "I think that once I get a job — I know — that I'll be able to do both."

The Long Search

She's sure she'll land a new job in three months or less. That's what Ray Meyer, 54, thought too. But he's been searching for work for more than two years — so long that he's run out of unemployment benefits.

"I've done some small jobs for neighbors and some friends as far as landscaping and painting and some physical labor kind of things, you know, to make ends meet," he says.

Meyer had a 30-year career in banking before losing his job. In his last job, he was a regional manager. But like so many small banks, the one he was working for ran into financial trouble. Since then, he's been on 25 job interviews, but none of them panned out.

Still, he says, every time he went on an interview, it felt so good to put on his banker's clothes again.

"When I have my shiny little shoes on, and I'm ready to go to an interview, I feel like I'm on the top of the world," Meyer says. "Isn't it sad?"

His wife still has her job. She's a teacher. Meyer gets up early every morning to pack her lunch. He does most of the housework now, just to keep himself busy between submitting resumes and following up on leads.

"It wears on you, it really does," he says.

Sources for this project were identified through the Public Insight Network of American Public Media, The Nine Network of Public Media, the St. Louis Beacon, and St. Louis Public Radio. If you want to be a news source for journalists, go to http://www.publicinsightnetwork.org to sign up. Just share who you are, how to reach you, and some information about your expertise and experience.

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