A skilled chef, a small business owner and a law school graduate.
While they may not share similar life experiences, each one shares the bonds not of unemployment, but underemployment. They also share anger, frustration and an opinion that things are getting worse, not better, despite the optimism they say President Barack Obama presents on the nightly news.
Currently, Marion County has a 10.6 percent unemployment rate. However, the underemployment rate, known as the U6 rate, sits at 18.9 percent for Oregon, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Cook, an economist with WorkSource Oregon, said the Marion County underemployment figures typically mirror those of the state.
However, numbers don’t put food on the table. While news of drops or rises in unemployment dominate news headlines, far more people are feeling the pinch of underemployment, having occasional or part-time work that is either too little to pay the bills or working below their skill set.
Tina Mays Schey, Jonathan Boys and Rebecca Jones are in a predicament that gives them few options. Water, electricity and rent need to be paid, and collections agencies are calling regularly enough that each is afraid to answer the phone.
Each has different perspectives on the reasons why they are underemployed, ranging from illegal immigration, to workplace saturation, to over qualification. Hope is slowly eroding after spending more than a year looking for the right work.
When Jones graduated from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 24, she had high aspirations. She moved to Salem to be closer to her mother and sister and intended to take the Oregon Bar Exam and work as an attorney in a small practice.
That was in June 2009. One year later, Rebecca still hasn’t taken the exam citing a lack of time to study because of the job search and few job prospects. She works part time as a secretary in a busy Salem medical clinic and said she has hit a wall.
“People look at my resume and throw it away,” she said. “All they see is a law degree and I’m automatically disqualified. It sucks because I can’t even get my foot in the door.”
Few who know Mays Schey can leave her home without a full belly. Ten years ago, she graduated from Western Culinary Institute’s Le Cordon Bleu program with a 4.0 and a drive to create culinary delights for eager customers. For a time, she lived her dream, serving as executive chef at Grand Vines in Salem and sous chef at the former Fratello’s in Silverton.
“I’ve been basically unemployed for five years,” she said, a hint of frustration showing in a quivering lip. “When I do get an interview, I get this crap about how my resume is intimidating. They say they are afraid I’ll take their jobs.”
The economy has forced Mays Schey into the underemployment statistics.
“The number is quite high,” Cook said about the underemployment rate in Oregon. “There are likely several reasons. A study was recently done that showed one key reason is because we don’t have a major metropolitan city. States with larger cities tend to see lower rates of underemployment.”
Cook pointed to the study to note the second major factor: Oregon’s climate.
“Areas with mild temperatures tend to have higher underemployment rates.” Many business owners blame the state itself for making it too difficult for small business owners to operate in Oregon.
Boys owns a small art gallery, which is about to close, in large part because of Measure 67, he said. He would like to keep it open; however, he has been unable to find a second job in part because most potential employers declare him overqualified.
“I can’t get a job in Salem,” Boys said. “I’ve tried for two years. I can’t begin to tell you how many rejection letters I have gotten. I’ve been in management and owned my own business. Nobody wants to hire me for a peon position.”
Because his wife works for Salem Hospital, Boys said she must drive their only car. He said Salem’s public transportation system is inadequate for job seekers and there are no reasonable commuting solutions for finding work in Portland.
He also accuses state and local agencies and area chambers of commerce of deliberately trying to present a low underemployment rate.
“I don’t care what the numbers say, underemployment is far higher,” said Boys, with frustration. The numbers at the [Salem Area] Chamber of Commerce and the city are way off. In Salem, there is not enough work to be had.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics admits on its Web site that getting exact numbers for underemployment are difficult, leaving states and local municipalities to take a best guess.
“Because of the difficulty of developing an objective set of criteria which could be readily used in a monthly household survey, no official government statistics are available on the total number of persons who might be viewed as underemployed,” the BLS posted on its Web site.
“Even if many or most could be identified, it would still be difficult to quantify the loss to the economy of such underemployment.”
Although things are bad now, Jones said she is preparing for the worst.
“I don’t care what the president may say tonight or tomorrow night, things aren’t getting better,” she vented. “Do I blame [the president]? No. Do I blame Bush? No. People in Congress are getting fat off lobbyist dollars and it led to this. I blame all of them.”
Mays Schey wasn’t so forgiving of the current administration.
“The president has just dug a deeper pit with stimulus money,” she said. “We don’t need to be bailing out people who get multimillion dollar bonuses. We need to help small businesses so they can hire people.” Additionally, she said she is tired of seeing potential jobs filled by illegal immigrants.
“There are so many frickin’ [illegal] Mexicans and [other] Hispanics out there,” she fumed. “It may sound racist, but there aren’t enough jobs for the people who are here legally.”
Boys believes the Cities of Salem and Keizer have their priorities wrong and believes that each has spent too much time and money promoting tourism.
“There has been a total lack of focus on jobs for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said. “They need to focus on job growth, not tourism. They haven’t even done a good job at that. There is no nightlife in Salem. Salem [focuses more time] on music being a little too loud than encouraging people to come and open businesses that attract people.”
Neither Jones, Boys nor Mays Schey have completely given up hope although the frustration of the job hunt is wearing them down. Jones said she has applied for hundreds of jobs.
“I’ve gotten three calls back for an interview,” she said. “It’s hardly worth the effort.”
Mays Schey was recently called back for a second interview. Too woo her prospective employer, she made a $62 meal based on ingredients the employer would sell.
“I called them back and they said I came in second for the job,” she said, fighting back tears. “I sat in my driveway and cried for 20 minutes. I was seriously heartbroken.”
Although the job outlook looks grim to many, Cook said for those willing to retrain, there are career fields that are continuing to grow and thrive. Among them is the medical field, particularly nursing. The Oregon University system has recognized this and has started a new nursing school through Western Oregon University, and Chemeketa Community College is expanding its program to include more students.
Additionally, for-profit schools such as Apollo College and the University of Phoenix have expanded offerings at all levels including medical assistants, dental techs and more. However, the amount of federal dollars for school are limited and private schools often cost double or triple the cost per term of public universities and colleges.
Despite the frustration each one faces, Boys, Mays Schey and Jones are not ready to quit. Each spends time volunteering their time and talents to various organizations hoping that the right connection may be made and to get some fulfillment regardless of their frustration.
“I can’t mentally get my head around giving up,” Boys said. “This is why I volunteer. It’s my drug. It numbs me from the pain of what is going on here.”