From High-Flyer To Hole Digger: One Man's Struggle To Survive The Recession

I can only talk to Steve Ray after 9 p.m. That's when he has unlimited minutes, and since his parents pay his phone bill, he tries to keep it to a minimum. Ray turned 44 the day we spoke. He's been unemployed for 2½ years.

In 2009, Ray and his wife sold their home in Georgia, declared bankruptcy, and moved to Sterling Heights, just east of Detroit, to live with his wife's parents. The money from selling their house ran out last November, and now all that's in his bank account is the "$5 to keep the account open."

%VIRTUAL-hiringNow-topInds%"I should be the provider," he says. "You can just imagine how the in-laws feel. They've lost faith in me totally is what I've been told."

The August jobs numbers are coming out on Friday, and forecasts aren't rosy. Economists surveyed by both CNNMoney and Reutersexpect little budge in the unemployment rate. In July, Ray was one of the 5,185,000 Americans that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics were out of work for 27 weeks or longer. The average unemployed American is out of work for nine months.

Rarely do we hear, though, how these people survive as their unemployment benefits expire and they exhaust their savings. People like Ray don't usually shout their misfortune from mountaintops.

High-Flier To Hole Digger

The economy is now more productive than it was before the downturn, just with 5 million fewer jobs, reported The New York Times. And after years of job-hunting and sending out countless resumes, it seems that the jobs for Ray may be among the ones that vanished. He was first laid-off in 2003, and started his own company. But the enterprise floundered, and he was laid-off from three other jobs after that. Since the recession, Ray's luck seems to have dried up altogether. He hasn't had a full-time job in his technology field for nine years.

For the unemployed, bad luck multiples the longer they're out of work. Employers discriminate against jobless job-seekers, and after being out of work for a year, a person has just a 1 in 10 chance of finding a job.

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Ray was laid off from his $50,000-a-year job at tech firm Arris in Norcross, Ga., and then Suwanee, a Georgia-basedcompany that supplies equipment to cable providers, back in 2003. He says that he did well there, and moved up the ranks quickly from PC technician to applications operations manager, flying to New York, Holland and Japan to put his projects into action. But the higher-ups decided to shift resources, he says, and cut back his department's budget from around $8 million to $2 million.

"The writing was on the wall for me," Ray says.

But with $2,000 in severance for each of the five years he worked, Ray was optimistic. He started his own computer repair company, and for extra cash, he and his wife took jobs at a warehouse. But less than a year later, when the warehouse lost its biggest customer, the Rays lost their jobs. And Steve Ray's new business wasn't pulling in the profits that he'd hoped.

"I'm a wagon wheel repairman at this point," he says. "A color television repair guy in the age when you can buy a new one for less than it costs to fix it."

Ray remembers a teacher warning him in high school that if he didn't improve his grades he'd end up "digging holes." And that's what happened. Ray took a job as a "soil technician," digging around 60 holes a day, and taking soil samples for developers and private customers interested in building on the land. But even digging holes wasn't a safe career when the construction industry took a nosedive at the end of 2007.

'The Degree Came Too Late'

In the last nine years of un- and under-employment, Ray managed to earn two undergraduate certificates and complete his degree, a bachelor's of science in IT project management. But "the degree came too late," he says, and the numbers confirm it. A person with a bachelor's degree is less likely to become unemployed than someone without one, according to a 2012 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. But once you become unemployed, the report states, you're just as likely to be unemployed for over a year as someone who didn't finish high school.

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Ray's wife had a job at Target, but it just wasn't enough. They declared bankruptcy, sold their home, and moved to Michigan.

Thinking that his repair skills were no longer marketable enough, Ray decided not to restart his business. "I have younger cousins who know enough about computers now to help out," he says. "In the old days, you were Marvin the magician -- the only guy who could fix the computer."

But he feels that it's too late to reinvent himself. "I'm not a kid leaving high school for college, wondering what I want to be," he says. "I am what I am now."

His old colleague at Arris and good friend David Weiss doesn't understand why Ray hasn't landed a job at his skill level for almost a decade. "I've worked with I-don't-know-how-many project managers in 21-plus years in the business, and I measure other people against him," he says, extolling Ray's technical expertise and upbeat attitude.

Weiss says he'd hire his buddy in a minute if he was in a position to hire. Referring to his 500-person department at Emdeon, a company that processes revenue in the healthcare industry, he remarks: "If I had 500 Steves, I could own the world."

Walking And Religion

These days, Ray follows the same routine: his cat Casper wakes him up every morning at 6 a.m. "like clockwork," and then he'll check all the regular job sites, as well as an interface that he designed himself, which aggregates new job postings from all the companies that he likes. "I have a background in Web development," he points out.

Ray has no idea how many jobs he's applied to. "That's counterproductive, to start counting cover letters," he says. "At Ford Motor Company alone I've applied at least 15 times."

By 2 p.m., Ray is usually too frustrated to keep going. "And then if I can't find anything, by god I better leave," he says. "I take a walk."

He says that his in-laws have become less patient with him, making the house too toxic to hang around. They "just want their space and home back," he says. Their nerves might be less frayed, he suspects, if his father-in-law hadn't been laid off a week after they moved in.

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There aren't many places to go in Sterling Heights when you can't afford to put gas in the car. "It's tantamount to being in a kind of prison camp," he says. "That's what it feels like. It's cement for 10 miles in every direction."

All that walking has done wonders for Ray's waistline though. He's lost almost 60 pounds in the past two years, dropping from 246 to 188. The one downside is that he doesn't have the money to buy better-fitting clothes for job interviews.

It's also done wonders for his relationship with his wife. "We've spent much more time together," he says. "We're much closer."

And he's rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith and even spoke at a recent church retreat about how the pitfalls in his life connect to the Bible. Afterward, a few people suggested that he become a deacon.

Ability Without Opportunity

Ray has tried to be all kinds of things. He once applied to work the night shift at Walmart, but the interviewers told him that he was too qualified to work the floor, and they only promote from within.

Even postings for janitorial positions ask for three to five years experience, he says. "I'm trying to explain this to my mother-in-law. I can't reinvent myself as a teacher or a janitor, when there's this requirement."

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Ultimately, Ray's confident that he'll find another job in his field, and go "0 to 50," referring to the $50,000-plus jobs he's held, and tends to get interviews for.

"Napoleon Bonaparte says, 'Ability without opportunity means nothing.' And that's the honest-to-god truth," Ray says. "You can be just as capable as you like, but if someone doesn't have a position for you as an IT project manager, I'm just fishing like everybody else."

Ray has stayed remarkably upbeat, given his situation. "I'm getting help. I have parents who care," he explains. "I feel so deeply indebted to them, it's painful to watch."

For his birthday, Ray's parents sent him $50 worth of gift cards for pizza, a nice break from his usual diet, which consists primarily of oatmeal, toast and rice.

"This has been a catastrophe," says Ray. "But in this storm, the captain's still at the helm. You've got to be positive. No one's going to sit down in an interview and hire someone who's looking at the floor, and is down on themselves."

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