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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.

The Relief Of Finding A Less-Than-Perfect Job

Roni Chambers, executive director of Go! Network (right), checks in Jennifer Barfield, 47, and her husband, Brian Barfield, 53, at a job networking meeting in downtown St. Louis.
Roni Chambers, executive director of Go! Network (right), checks in Jennifer Barfield, 47, and her husband, Brian Barfield, 53, at a job networking meeting in downtown St. Louis.

Part of an ongoing series

Earlier this month, in the dead of winter, Randy Howland finally got a job offer.

It's similar to a call-center position, except the St. Louis resident would take customer service calls from home. It's not perfect: The pay is low and with taxes taken out, it would be less than he was getting on unemployment.

But Howland has applied for more than 600 jobs in the past year. So he decided to take it.

"My salary will be an exciting $10 an hour," the 50-year-old says with a tinge of sarcasm. "That's one-fifth of where I was at my peak."

In 2002, Howland was making more than $100,000 a year working for the telecom giant WorldCom. Then the company went bust.

He's held a series of lower-wage jobs since then but has been out of work for more than a year. And even though Howland has a master's degree, the jobs he's been applying for most recently have been entry-level positions in sales and customer service.

In his new job, he's back in the industry where he once thrived. That makes him happy, even if the pay hurts his pride. "It's time," he says. "I've been sucking government money for quite a bit. So, I'm sucking it up and with my wife's income as a hairdresser, we can barely, barely wing it. But I think we can do it."

Howland is settling for less. And he's not alone.

When people return to work after an extended period of unemployment, their new job very likely won't be as good as the one they lost. That's just one of the difficult realities faced by the people NPR is following in The Road Back To Work.

The Prospect Of A Part-Time Job

In late January, a job Brian Barfield applied for went from being a long shot to a real prospect. He was called in to the company to take a pre-employment test.

"I took my time with the answers and got them correct. And I end up passing the test with flying colors," Barfield, 53, says. "I go back next week for an interview with the plant manager and the department managers to see if or where they will put me in the plant."

It's a warehouse position at a major St. Louis company. It's a weekend job, just part time, and he wouldn't be a manager. So it's a step down from his last job.

The night before the interview he and his wife, Jennifer, stay up late getting ready. She irons his shirt while he talks about what he expects.

The Barfields are newlyweds. They met at a networking group for unemployed people. Brian spent his career in manufacturing and Jennifer, 47, is an IT professional.

"I assume if everything goes well tomorrow, they will have assigned me a department," Brian Barfield says. "If everything doesn't go well, I guess I come home without that job."

This may not be his dream job, but the Barfields need the income.

Waiting For The Call

He gets a call from the company a day after the interview.

"I have been accepted," Brian Barfield says. "It's two days a week, but it's way more than unemployment is and it's a chance to get on permanent."

He'll continue applying for full-time positions at other companies too, hoping someday to work two jobs.

According to government data, more than 8 million Americans are working part time now, but want full-time jobs.

But at least they have jobs.

Adjusting To A New Normal

Jennifer Barfield is nearing two years of being unemployed. She just heard back from an employer she had interviewed with the week before.

"The company just passed on me and didn't give any feedback as to why," she says.

It was her third rejection in two days. She still has a few irons in the fire, as she calls them, but they seem to be going cold. Even with her husband's new job, money is tight.

"I am so down," she says. "I am just questioning everything from spiritual issues to what's the point of living life if this is all it is. And, no, I am not suicidal or anything like that, but I'm just really frustrated."

For the Barfields, Howland and so many others, life after a job loss isn't what it was before. There's a new normal and the adjustment hurts.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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