Bernie Ockuly, of Cleveland, fairly well bristled last January when he read an MIT professor’s suggestion (by way of News Cut) that people who have been unemployed for 99 weeks probably aren’t trying hard enough to get a job. He knows better.
Workers ages 45 and over make up a disproportionate share of the long-term unemployed — those who have been out of work for six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ockuly, who is now driving as a long-haul trucker and stopped during a run through the Twin Cities on Thursday, is the “mancession” up close. He had a long career as a salesman and manager in the truck leasing business, survived 10 mergers, takeovers and countless management changes.
“Except for one,” he said. The one that left him unemployed at age 56.
He started with the giant Fruehauf Corporation and his career ended 33 years later — November 2006 — with XTRA Lease. “I got an award for $2.5 million in sales in March, the company changed hands in July, and they gave me a cardboard box to pack up and get out in November,” he said.
It was a devastating moment, but not as devastating as a year earlier, when a doctor told him he had prostate cancer. When the company’s “hatchet man,” told him he was being let go, he told him, “I’ve gotten worse news from smarter people than you.”
He beat cancer, then unemployment. A friend’s offer to help out as a salesman ended after six months in a collapsing economy. Then, though the managers of a distillation plant told him he was overqualified, he told them “I’ll do a good job for you and show up every day.” They hired him. But the plant, owned by Veolia, closed last May. Bernie Ockuly was unemployed again. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
He was willing to work for much less than what he was used to making, but found no offers. “I was turned down left and right for $10- to $12-an-hour gigs,” he said. With no jobs to be had, he helped a friend in Illinois bring in last fall’s harvest, blogged about the experience, and showed the side of him that apparently can turn any task into fun.
That’s when the idea of driving a truck for a living was born. The 65% subsidy for continuing his COBRA medical coverage (from the economic stimulus bill) was soon going to end, and he couldn’t afford a $1,500 a month payment for health care. So he found a work retraining grant and learned how to drive a truck commercially.
There was a job to be had, but it involved leaving home and hitting the road.
A few months ago, he was hired by an Oregon trucking company and has been seeing the United States since. Being away from home has its drawbacks, although his children are mostly grown now. He says of his wife in Cleveland, “we’ve never gotten along better.”
He went into the business eyes wide open, researching the lifestyle and business aspects of it on the Internet. “There’s about a 100-percent turnover in it,” he said, as he took his cheeseburger out of the bun and chewed on fresh vegetables at a cafe in White Bear Lake. Since starting his new career, he’s lost weight by not eating like his new career generally dictates.
He writes about his experiences on Facebook and still shows wide-eyed wonder at the road that lies, literally, ahead. “Crossing the Continental Divide has a whole new meaning when one is struggling to pull 80,000 pounds up a mountain pass, even with 450 horses under the hood,” he said. He rates the Columbia River Gorge and a lonely, two-lane highway in Nevada as favorites so far. His stop this week in Fargo gave him the opportunity learn some history.
This week he dropped off Coors Beer in Washington state and picked up french fries that will be delivered today in Plover, Wisconsin.
With time on his hands before his scheduled arrival in Wisconsin, he spent last evening with local friends boating at sunset on Bald Eagle Lake.
“Life is good,” he says. From high up on his perch in the cab of his truck, one almost can’t see the mancession.