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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.

Hope: A Precious Commodity In This Job Market

Randy Howland, 51, of St. Louis, was unemployed for more than a year before landing a $10 an hour customer service job in February. Howland is now searching for a new job with better pay and hours.
Whitney Curtis for NPR
Randy Howland, 51, of St. Louis, was unemployed for more than a year before landing a $10 an hour customer service job in February. Howland is now searching for a new job with better pay and hours.

Part of an ongoing series

In the months since Randy Howland, 51, was first hired as a customer service representative, his excitement having a job — any job — has turned to defeat.

"This is an anniversary day," says Randy into a recorder he is using to keep audio diaries for NPR's Road Back to Workseries. "I've had my $10 an hour job now for four months."

His voice conveys disappointment. Getting a job didn't solve all of Howland's problems, and the job itself is trying. As you might expect, even with his new job, money is still a problem. Howland and his wife, Lisa, have let the registration lapse on one of their cars because they can't afford it.

"We still have to borrow a lot of money from my mother-in-law at least every other month," says Howland. "I'm about to go to the bank now to dispute an $8.95 charge."

Back when Howland was bringing in a six-figure salary, there's no way he would have gone to the trouble of driving to the bank to deal with such a small charge. Today, several job losses later, he says every little thing counts.

When NPR started its Road Back to Work series in January, the six people we were profiling were unemployed and searching for work. Today they are all working. Four of them are in temporary or contract jobs. And one, Howland, is in a permanent position that leaves him yearning for more.

His job for a major telecom company is basically call center work — except from home. And because he's working from home he's let his hair grow out and added a goatee. And why not? He's working from a cramped home office, never sees his boss and never sees the people he's talking to.

The hours are irregular, often working a 3 p.m.-to-midnight shift. And it's customer service with customers who aren't always friendly.

"I had an interesting one yesterday," Howland says, recounting a recent call. "I had someone just yelling and yelling and yelling at me. But I calmed them down."

Finally, A Reason For A Haircut

Howland had been out of work for more than a year when he finally found this job. But he hasn't stopped searching for something else, something with better pay and better hours. Then on June 14 he got a call from a company looking to interview him for a position.

Before and after shots of Randy Howland. Howland grew out his hair and beard while working from home but decided to cut it off before a job interview.
/ Lisa Howland
Lisa Howland
Before and after shots of Randy Howland. Howland grew out his hair and beard while working from home but decided to cut it off before a job interview.

"Looks like the beard comes off," says Howland. "Just got a phone call for an interview, tomorrow morning. Haven't had an interview since January."

He isn't sure how the company found him or exactly why they're interested in him, but he's excited.

Conveniently, Howland's wife is a hairdresser, so he only has to go to her home salon in the basement for a trim. The next morning he's all dressed up in a suit ready to go. Lisa removes stray cat hairs with a pet roller.

"I'm really glad he's got an interview," says Lisa Howland. "He seems pretty relaxed about it, which is a wonderful thing because before he was always so nervous and worried about going on an interview."

But "I hated cutting his long hair and shaving his beard off," she says. "But, you know, it just had to be done."

Knowing What He Wants

For Howland and so many people struggling through this rocky job market, hope is a precious commodity. Just getting dressed up for this interview gives him hope that he might be on his way to more financial stability.

He gets to the company's offices early and sits in the car waiting.

"This is probably the least prepared I've been for an interview in a long, long, long time," Howland says. "There was no information given really on the phone or in the e-mail about it. And the company website doesn't really say a lot."

Howland has applied for hundreds of jobs. He knows what he wants and what he doesn't want. And what he wants is a regular job, with regular hours and a regular salary. He doesn't want an all-commission position doing sales. And so, when this company called to invite him to an interview, he specifically asked about that.

The interview doesn't last long. He's upset when he gets back to his car.

"It was to be a door-to-door salesperson," Howland says. "Exactly what I didn't want it to be."

He lets out a sigh, then calls his wife as he drives home.

"Yeah and I wasn't a jerk about it, but I let them know it was misleading," he tells her. " Yes, you cut my hair for nothing, honey. It'll grow back."

Howland's search continues.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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