Economic Lookout: Sacrifices in a ‘jobless recovery’

MinnEcon note: Jessica Sundheim gave us a view recently on the health of the economy in and around Fergus Falls. Today, she gives us a personal look at the jobless recovery and what it means for Ottertail County.

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Jessica Sundheim | Fergus Falls

A great deal of attention is paid to the want ads in our household. My husband has never really quit looking for a job since we moved here five years ago.

His current employment is not related to his educational background. With a bachelor’s degree in biology and a teaching certificate, he is suited to be a naturalist in the field. For a few years he managed an environmental learning center, but the private funding was cut and we were back at square one.

Right now, my husband works for a company selling food door-to-door. He leaves around 8:30 a.m. and comes home at around 10:00 p.m.

When he started the position he made straight commission, which made for some interesting months. Over the years the company set up a more consistent pay structure in exchange for mandated quotas.

The hours are difficult for our family of six, but the job pays better than retail and includes benefits.

Yes, I single-mom it during the week. But harder than that is watching the dreams, hopes and aspirations of a person I dearly love slowly dwindle. Nearing forty, I feel that my husband is resigning himself to whatever the market will offer.

In rural communities teaching jobs are somewhat precarious because of declining enrollment and tight budgets.

Teachers who have the least amount of seniority are the first ones cut. The insecurity coupled with a very low starting salary has left my husband completely disillusioned with the idea of being a science teacher.

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It’s not just our family. Many of our friends have similar stories, although some offer hope. One friend stuck it out with a pop delivery job for years in order to keep their health insurance.

Others work alongside my husband and share job leads as they all compete for something with better hours and lower pay.

Another friend drove 45 miles back-and-forth for work until just recently when, after three years, he was able to find a job in his field, here in town.

There are often of jobs available in retail, service, and factories, but they all offer low wages and a high rate of turn over. Many do not include benefits. As a result, when my husband recently applied for a factory job with Cargill, there were quite a few applicants.

They first had to complete a series of personality type tests, and interviews followed for those who passed. Fifteen people, including my husband, were interviewed for two positions. The job entailed working a swing shift, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. or 7 p.m.- 7 a.m., with a few days off in between. It also required working all major holidays, but we were thrilled with the idea of my husband either finishing work at 7 p.m. or going into work at 7 p.m.

Twelve years ago, I could not have imagined him applying for this type of position, so far outside of his skill set.

However, today that position would translate into at least three hours of family time per day, plus having him home during the supper hour! The salary was similar to his current salary, except it offered annual increases in pay (not hours worked). The position also included benefits.

Unfortunately, my husband did not get the job, but he responded as he always does, by immediately getting back out there and combing the want ads.

I often hear speculation about whether this will be a “jobless” recovery. Lately, national numbers show businesses are hiring again, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that reflected in our local want ads.

There was a period of about a month this spring when there was nothing of note in the paper, and prior to that the ads were sparse. Though there is a seasonal fluctuation in employment in our area, the new job listings contain some real winners. Because health care is one of the area’s biggest employers, most of the “good” jobs (living wages + benefits) require medical training.

Others also involve technical expertise — computing, electrical engineering, agricultural background, or at least one year of experience in the field. The rest of the job openings are in retail / service industries (Pizza Hut needs servers) or in factories or processing plants (i.e. turkey production).

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As a full-time student at our local community college, many of my colleagues are younger than 20 working toward nursing degrees, getting generals out of the way, or earning college credits while still in high school.

In one class, our instructor asked more than twenty-five students how many planned to stay in the area or return after completing their education.

I was stunned when I looked around the room and I was the only one with her hand raised.

This is a fabulous town with excellent schools and beautiful surroundings. Yet, how can I blame them? How many in my generation would have ever volunteered to work twelve to fifteen hour shifts and Saturdays, in careers far outside of our interests, for wages that offer lifestyles that pale in comparison to what our parents had at our ages?

I came out of the 1990’s when a student went to college to earn her bachelor of arts degree with the encouragement of a bright future in whatever field she so desired.

My colleagues are far more savvy.

Many are highly specializing in technical fields that result in careers that cannot be exported, and hold no illusions of finding employment close to home.

Jessica Sundheim is a full-time student and mom

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