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Job Seekers Navigate Uncertain US Economy

  • Aru Pande

Looking for a job is hard enough, but imagine doing so at mid-career in the age of technology. Should you contact someone on social media? How do you navigate an online employment site?

Suja Joseph tries to answer these questions during a re-employment workshop at the Columbia Workforce Center, outside Washington.

"The goal here is to have them informed about what it is like now to look for a job," Joseph said. "What are applicant tracker systems? How is it like when you apply for jobs online versus when you go and meet an employer?"

Joseph, a workforce trainer at the center since 2010, said she has seen a difference in prospects for the unemployed in just the last few years. People are not taking as long to find work, and when they do, they are staying employed.

"Some of our job seekers come in and say, ‘Hey, when I came in, I wasn’t hearing back, but right now employers are coming to me,’ and they find that to be empowering," Joseph said.

Seven years ago, President Barack Obama took office in the midst of a recession. The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October 2009 as the U.S. housing market toppled and the banking industry followed suit.

Back to work

Since then, the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen by half, to 5 percent in December 2015, with more than 13 million private sector jobs created since February 2010 — economic data the president has not hesitated to cite as he closes out his time in office.

"The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re doing so much better than other folks are doing. The American economy right now is 10 percent bigger than it was at its peak, before the financial crisis. In Europe, it hasn’t gotten back to where it was back in 2007-2008," Obama told a cheering crowd in Detroit, Michigan, as he marked the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry during a January 20 speech.

Baltimore-based economist Anirban Basu does not disagree with the numbers.

"Yes, the economy is growing; yes, we are adding jobs. The labor market data have been good. There is some indication that wages are going to grow this year, not just because of increases in the minimum wages, but because of normal economic forces," Basu said.

But the CEO of economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group said that beneath those numbers lies a mixed picture, one that could mean an uncertain 2017 for the American economy.

"We just have too much productive capacity and not enough demand, and one of the reasons for that is the global economy remains so weak," Basu said. "Coming into the new year, we have received a lot of bad news about the Chinese economy. There are geopolitical events that have made the markets jittery."

Seeking stability

The uncertainty is shared by college students Heza Mulinzi, Frederick Torrence and Denell Hammond, who are working together in Rockville, Maryland, to launch a clothing line.

"We have always been creative. That was something that was always in the back of my mind: What am I going to find that I am good at that I can find a way to make it lucrative?" Hammond said.

Despite an improving job market, the longtime friends are turning to entrepreneurship to ensure financial stability after they receive their undergraduate degrees.

"We started this to have a company where, when we graduate, that not only do we have a piece of paper but we have an established company, and we don’t have to worry about student loans," Torrence said.

And for Mulinzi, seeing his mom struggle after being laid off because of an injury was enough to drive him toward starting his own business and gaining financial independence after graduation.

"Seeing my mom go from job to job, working so hard, but not getting the proper rights that she deserves" gave him the motivation to seek self-employment, he said: "I believe you should be able to work by yourself and be independently stable and be able to support yourself and your family."

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