That has stretched job searches. About a quarter of those searching for work — 2 million people — have been out of a job longer than six months. The recovery isn't jobless anymore. The economy has regained 328,000 positions in the past four months after shedding 2.7 million during the downturn.
Slowly, more people are getting interviews and offers. Some of the first to benefit are people willing to take temporary jobs, added by companies still unwilling to commit to long-term staffing.
"This upswing in the last couple of months has been steady and strong and across the board," says John Boone, chief executive of Employment Trends, a small temp agency in Beaverton, Ore., that supplies companies including a number of semiconductor plants.
The hours worked by Boone's temps increased by about 40 percent — equal to 134 more full-time positions — from October to November, usually a peak month.
But economists say many of the jobs lost during the downturn won't come back. That reflects what some analysts say was over-hiring by U.S. businesses when times were good, as well permanent changes including the relocation of jobs overseas.
The new reality has begun to sink in this year, spurring many jobless workers to go back to school or shift their focus in a bid to find something new. It hasn't been an easy transition. "I see a lot of older students on campus. I see people in their 50s that are dragging their book bags behind them on wheels. It's really very humbling," says Vicki Wilson, an administrator at Alamance Community College in the textile hub of Burlington, N.C.
Other workers have had to lower their sights, settling for survival jobs at much lower pay. They, too, remain doubtful that a rising economy will lift them off the rocks.
Terry Gaines, for one. Gaines lives in Portland, Ore., which has led all other large cities in unemployment. He became part of the statistics in July 2001 when he lost his job as a software support manager. In theory, Gaines became part of the rebound when he finally found a job this past August as a sales associate at a Saks Fifth Avenue store. But he's making just a third of his previous pay and sees a limited upside, even looking to next year.
"I am very fortunate that I do have a job," he says. But the economy "is not turning around as much for individuals like myself. We are still fighting to make ends meet."
Others have charted a strategy assuming that conditions won't soon improve.
Bob Blair lost his quality control job at an auto parts plant in July. The 53-year-old Blair, who's from Mebane, N.C., between Raleigh and Greensboro, joined the job hunt along with thousands of workers from textile and other plants that have shut across the state.
Blair first looked for a similar job, but got no offers. So he retooled, enrolling in a truck driving course. The idea, he says, was that a company who hired him to drive would realize his other talents and move him to a better job helping run its safety department.
The course finished in October. But Blair, who hasn't yet found a position, is reluctant to look too far ahead. Of the 86 former co-workers who lost their jobs when he did, just two have found comparable work.
"I don't expect anything to hop out and bite me and I don't think the economy is that strong," he says. "No matter what the indicators say, I think the indicators are false."