Unemployed Nation: America's Shrinking Payroll

Carol Steinbrecher is a 55-year-old mother of three who, like many Americans, has spent most of her life working hard to provide the best for her family.

But today she is part of another group of Americans, one that is growing larger every day: the unemployed.

In the first ten months of this year, the nation's employers have cut nearly 1.2 million jobs and the unemployment rate is now at 6.5 percent, the highest it has been since March 1994. The Department of Labor released new data this morning showing that October was the tenth straight month of job losses, with another 240,000 lost just last month.

Fidelity and Mattel were some of the latest to announce layoffs, coming out yesterday with 1,300 and 1,000 job cuts, respectively. And this morning Ford said it would cut its North American salaried workforce by an additional 10 percent.

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Steinbrecher spent 17 years working for Xerox, most recently as a customer service manager. Then, one day in June, she was part of an 800-person layoff.

Immediately she thought: "How was I going to keep my kid in college? How could I make tuition payments?"

Now, five months later, the Pennsylvania mother is still looking for a job. Job postings seem to disappear just as quickly as they go up. Steinbrecher has managed to get just two interviews, neither of which led to an offer. One would have involved a three-hour roundtrip commute.

"I just can't believe it. I feel like a prisoner in my house," Steinbrecher said. "Why aren't I employed? I've been working since I was 16 years old. This is crazy."

Steinbrecher's old job had paid her $50,000 to $70,000 a year. Now she gets about a third that through unemployment, and the family relies on her husband's lower salary as a supervisor in a welfare office.

"I was the major breadwinner," she said, before joking that at least the bad economy is giving her husband job security. Then she noted that states are cutting back because of lower tax collections and that even he might not be safe from recessionary cuts.

"It's not very encouraging. There are not too many companies hiring right now," Steinbrecher said. "I'm trying to go for more recession-proof industries, like colleges, universities, health care." But she is finding that her experience doesn't fit with what they are looking for.

Where the Jobs Are

Health care, mining and some parts of education are the few bright spots -- and not even that bright -- in this job market. While everybody else has been laying off workers, these industries -- for the time being -- continue to increase payrolls.

As for the bad places … well just about every other sector has been firing workers. Construction, housing and the financial sectors were first to cut. Manufacturing has been declining for years but now is seeing even bigger job losses thanks to companies struggling to get loans and consumers buying less goods. Retailers are also scaling back, even as we approach the Christmas shopping season, because most Americans are buying less.

If people aren't spending, there's less need for trucks and trains to move products. Truck and air transport firms are cutting workers to match the lowered demand for their services.

If you are looking for a job, it's pretty grim.

Cutting Expenses

Steinbrecher remains optimistic.

"Maybe I'll find something. I'm hopeful," she said. "I think it's going to be a pretty slim Christmas. We're not planning any vacations or anything. We don't go out to eat anymore."

The family had to also cut out guitar lessons for the two youngest boys, ages 14 and 16.

The biggest hit though has come to her 18-year-old son Jake, a freshman at the University of Delaware.

"He called me about three weeks ago. It was one of the nicest phone calls I ever got, but one of the saddest," Steinbrecher explained. "He said: `Hey I know you have three kids mom. I want there to be enough money for all of us.'"

He then asked for copies of his high school transcript.

"I said: Jake, why do want me to send them? Don't you like it there?" Steinbrecher recalls.

His reply: "I love it mom, but I know we can't afford it now."

He is now looking at a state college closer to home or maybe a community college -- a school where he could live at home instead of paying for a dorm.

Compounding the situation, Steinbrecher kept all of her sons' college savings in stocks. Those have dropped 30 percent in value.

"It's sad because you want the best education for your kids and everybody. But everybody keeps announcing layoffs," she said. "Where are we all going to get jobs at?"

Steinbrecher wishes there was more job training available for people like her.

She has a bachelor's degree in business administration and was halfway to a graduate degree in instructional technology. Xerox was reimbursing her for the tuition and now she is responsible for the cost.

One of the hardest parts of being unemployed for Steinbrecher is forcing herself to go to networking meetings, trying to find new contacts and set herself apart from younger workers who are often cheaper.

"I hate doing networking, because I feel like I am selling Avon," she said.

But ultimately, it is the bills causing the most problems.

"I bought an American car [before being laid off] because I didn't want to see another American go to the unemployment line," she said. "Now I don't know how I am going to pay for my new Ford."