For three decades, George Batten's career provided a textbook study in upward mobility, a deliberate rise culminating in supervision of 50 workers and a salary topping $200,000 annually, plus bonuses and benefits.
His ascent crested with an executive vice presidency, overseeing sales and marketing at a St. Louis-area electronics firm producing components for appliances. He began each day fielding client calls from Europe and ended with calls from China.
Batten grew increasingly uneasy as the 2008 presidential election progressed and the economy tanked. The ax fell shortly before Christmas, as much of his firm's business went over the cliff with the housing market. He hasn't worked full-time since.
Nearly four years after the start of the Great Recession, about 61,000 displaced St. Louis workers wait along with Batten for a bolt from the blue that will get them back on the job.
Technically, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent. The figure rises above 16 percent when including the underemployed, those forced into part-time positions, and the disgusted, who have abandoned the job search.
Though nearly everyone has felt the Great Recession in some way, the unemployment crisis has fallen much harder on some demographics and industry sectors than others. Nationally, data show the jobless are disproportionately black and young. Many college students fled to graduate school as a safe haven, only to find equally bad job prospects when they emerged, deeper in debt.
Those with lower levels of education, the data show, have fared much worse. The unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor's degree remains at just 4 percent but rises dramatically for those with less education, hitting 15 percent for people lacking a high school diploma. Anecdotal evidence suggests that experienced workers and men have also been hit particularly hard.
In St. Louis, manufacturing and construction have taken the heaviest blows, losing more than 20,000 jobs in each sector.
What seems universal across sectors and social classes - and unprecedented in past downturns - is the harsh new reality of long-term unemployment. The average length of unemployment nationally has soared to 10 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than double that of any period since 1990.
Those numbers can't fully capture the impact on individuals, many idled through no fault of their own, struggling to shake the stigma and the emotional toll of joblessness now measured in years rather than weeks. They have learned, in countless ways, to lower their expectations.
Batten long ago abandoned hope of clawing his way back to the elite executive ranks. At this point, dignity and productivity far outweigh salary in Batten's hierarchy of concerns.
He needs a job. And when he gets one, likely at that lower rank, he will occupy the slot that might have been taken by, for instance, one of his former employees, who might in turn take the lower-paid slot of someone another step down the economic ladder. And so on, in a chain reaction of downward mobility.
"What I had and what I need are two different things," Batten said.
The Post-Dispatch sought out Batten and four others representing a diverse cross-section of the region's jobless, who offer a more intimate portrait of the job crisis facing our community than statistics can reveal. These are their stories.
George Batten, 50
Laid off: Christmas 2008
George Batten sends an update to the contacts with whom he has maintained an almost exclusively one-sided correspondence for three years running.
His temporary consulting position in Chicago, he writes, has drawn to an end as his youngest son departs for his freshman year at the University of Missouri-Columbia. So he and his wife, JoAnn, Batten announces, are now empty-nesters. Lest anyone miss the point, Batten notes his openness to "opportunities involving relocation." For the recipient's "convenience," he includes a link to his résumé.
"This version," he notes, "supersedes the résumé you may have on file."
The letter neither grovels nor begs. It politely seeks the tip or introduction that can return him to gainful labor.
"You have to keep getting in people's gray matter," explains Batten, one of several unemployed St. Louisans who played a cameo role in "Up In the Air," the 2009 George Clooney movie about the jobs crisis. "And you have to believe it's going to happen, because you just don't know when lightning is going to strike."
Before his layoff, Batten last sought employment in 1996. He now finds himself in a job market digitized by unfamiliar technology and overflowing with similarly displaced executives.
Batten once navigated the economy with ease. A salesman by nature and trade, networking represented more than a concept. It was the capital he used to work his way to the top.
One of his first tasks after his layoff was to create an Excel spreadsheet of every contact he had made in the business world.
The correspondence began.
Three years later, it continues.
Financially, Batten has managed to stay on solid footing. He long ago resisted the temptation "to buy the house in Ladue," and he owns outright the home in Manchester where he and JoAnn have resided for 20 years. Relying on savings and JoAnn's job as a metal coating specialist to put two sons through Mizzou, the couple can no longer indulge in the perks of a six-figure salary.
Batten refuses to let go of the notion that lightning will strike with the next email or cold call. He knows people in his situation who have given up.
Still, the context of three years can't help but fray the edge of confidence.
"This," Batten says quietly, "is the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
He shares a litany of negative experiences with others in the ranks of the unemployed. Batten terms those experiences "head winds." And he has run into just nearly every one: Spooked companies pulling promising jobs off the table in the middle of the interviewing process. Hiring managers who turn Batten aside when he applies for jobs beneath his previous station, suspecting he will quit as soon as something better comes along. Firms that won't hire a candidate who is not currently employed.
Anti-discrimination laws almost guarantee that Batten will never hear another reason he hasn't been hired. But he has gotten plenty of practice reading the subtext.
"They won't come out and say it, but age is a factor," he said. "That's just a reality."
Mostly, Batten feels the stigma of the long-term unemployed.
"The longer you're out, the less desirable you are," he said.
Alfreda Lewis, 55
medical records clerk/nursing assistant
Two years after layoffs, praying for work
Every morning for going on two years now, Alfreda Lewis, in addition to prayers for others, has asked a higher authority to intervene on behalf of her search for a new job.
The prayer, so far, has gone unanswered.
Since two layoffs in a 2009 layoff from the part-time positions that helped her support her high school senior son and pay the rent on a St. Louis duplex, Lewis has submitted an application for every opportunity she can find.
"It's just numbers now," she says. "There's such a huge number of people out of work that even when you say ‘I'll just go to Hardees or Jack in the Box,' you find out you're taking jobs from young people."
For the record, a handful of Hardees and Jack in the Box franchises in greater St. Louis have Lewis' application on file. Like the hundreds of other opportunities she's pursued, those applications amount to unanswered prayers.
Now it's crunch time.
The supplementary federal unemployment benefits that helped sustain Lewis and her son, Caleb Lewis-Harris, have already lapsed. In four weeks, the state jobless insurance will follow suit.
Comforted by her faith and the solace she draws from gardening, Lewis, with Zen-like calm, is facing the immediate future with admirable calm.
She resolves to "panhandle if I have to."
Lewis traces the journey that brought her to this point to Nov. 15, 2009 - the day she received word that her year-long position as medical records clerk had been terminated. The downsizing followed the end of Lewis' other part-time position as a certified nursing assistant.
In addition to checking listings at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, Lewis started hitting the career fair circuit.
She is far from the only job-seeker who now concludes the staged events are a "waste of time."
"They are just running (the job fairs) so they can say they are an equal opportunity employer," she says.
In the ultra-competitive competition for jobs, Lewis faces another obstacle: She is among the 25 percent of the residents living in the St. Louis area who does not own a car.
That puts some jobs in west St. Louis County, for example, out of the reach of public transportation.
Should Lewis again decide to apply the certificate she earned in 2006 as a certified nursing assistant, it will most likely have to be at a facility willing to place her on a shift that ends before the buses stop making their nightly runs.
Lewis, who has been "picking away" at earning an associate degree from St. Louis Community College since returning to her hometown from Dallas 19 years ago, refuses to wallow in the circumstances that have placed her on the brink of financial disaster.
Lewis has been accepted into a green technology training program she hopes will position her for a job in the disposal of hazardous materials. Classes begin next month.
"You just have to have tenacity and believe that there is a job out there for me," Lewis said. "I hope there is. But it can't be ‘poor me, poor me.' This isn't a pity party. Not when there are 100,000 times as many people out there who are just like me."
J.L. Hickman, 62
Information technology specialist
552 applications and counting
Name a St. Louis area company of some repute, and chances are J.L. "Jack" Hickman has worked there at some point.
Scott Air Force Base, Ralston Purina, AT&T, BJC Health Systems. The list, methodically detailed by the information technology specialist in a desktop database, goes on and on and on.
Obsessively so. The spreadsheet also chronicles every position for which Hickman, an U.S. Air Force veteran, has applied since losing his last job 15 months ago. The list stands at 552 applications and counting.
The tally leads Hickman to believe he may have made his last spreadsheet entry on the employment side of the ledger.
"I don't ever expect to ever hold a full-time, paying job again," Hickman says. "I've spent 40 years building up my skills, and it's all useless."
Peripatetic and a free spirit, Hickman has never stayed in one job very long. His longest stretch of employment, at a telecommunications company, ended partly in a dispute with a supervisor over policy. Beyond that, "I don't think she liked tie-dyed shirts," he said, referring to his preferred apparel.
Hickman doesn't need to be told about the advantages of networking. Having made contacts at the 601 consulting and more permanent jobs he has held over the past 40 years, he's been there, done that.
"A know a lot of people in the game," he said. "But their companies don't exist anymore."
Hickman says he and his wife of 40 years, Darlene, would have lost their home were it not for his military pension. As it is, the couple were forced to declare bankruptcy to shed their debts.
The couple now devote the $320 he collects from unemployment each week, and the salary she earns for working as a school crossing guard three hours a day, to covering the costs of food, health benefits and fuel.
"Right now, the truck has an eighth of a tank in it," he said. "I just hope it has an eighth of a tank in it next week at this time as well."
On the rare occasions he does make personal contact with potential employers that have rejected him, Hickman is universally informed that the jobs have been filled by applicants who are - Hickman uses air quotes to make his point - a "better fit."
Hickman knows well what that means: "Younger than you."
Isabel Yerkes, 24
2009 college graduate
At this juncture, Isabel Yerkes figured she would at least have a foothold on a career.
Her major - information technology, specializing in new media - had aligned Yerkes with the cutting-edge tools today's employers demand. She went the extra mile by adding a marketing component to the bachelor's degree she received from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2009. She envisioned that those three pieces could net her an entry-level offer with a design company or marketing firm. But more than two years later, part-time retail jobs are all Yerkes has to show for her higher education.
Yerkes harbored no illusions that finding a job would be easy.
So she spent hours on job search sites and sent portfolios to every St. Louis area graphic design firm she could find in anticipation of a move to the Midwest with her fiancé, Rob Dominao, a doctoral candidate in criminal studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"Nothing" was the response to her due diligence before arriving in St. Louis in August 2009.
With only Dominao's salary as a part-time teaching assistant to support them, Yerkes swallowed her pride and went from store to store at the St. Louis Galleria, filling out an application at each location.
The exercise paid off with a part-time position at a clothing outlet. A few months later, she moved on to the hair salon where she remained as a part-time receptionist until late August. To supplement her income, Yerkes also landed a second part-time job at the Container Store in Brentwood.
"I am no stranger to the 16-hour day," says Yerkes, frustrated that she's nonetheless alienated from the full-time position she needs to launch her career.
"I want a big-girl job," said Yerkes. "I don't want any more crazy hours. I want to work 9ish to 5ish and be proud of what I do. Nothing against retail ... but a trained monkey could do what I do. It's zero brain power. You check in, check your mind out, do what you need to do for an eight-hour shift and leave."
The dearth of jobs has pushed Yerkes and Dominao into "extreme couponing." Upon learning that the price of gas was lower in Kirkwood than in University City, Yerkes drove to Kirkwood last week to fill up her Jeep.
Yerkes knows well that today's cash-strapped employers often expect young graduates to jump-start their careers in unpaid internships. She doesn't have that option.
"I need to earn money so we can do basic things," she says. "Like eat."
Scott Regna, 31
Scraping by in construction
Paying little mind to either the stock market or the economy, Scott Regna never saw it coming.
As 2006 turned the corner toward 2007, Regna had no reason to believe the housing market, and by extension the construction trade, was sprinting headlong toward a brick wall. He first earned a paycheck building things at 15. It had paid the bills ever since.
"I didn't think anything like this would ever affect me," said Regna. "I've always had work."
Regna knows better now.
His salary - $40,000 in 2005 and $50,000 in 2006 - began to slip in 2007. Last year, it plunged to $3,000.
Of the sectors decimated locally by the recession, only the manufacturing industry has bled more jobs than the construction trades - and only slightly. Construction job loss accounts for fully a third of the 61,000 jobs lost in the St. Louis area.
The official rate of unemployment among area construction trade workers has hovered at about 20 percent since the economy collapsed. Construction officials on both the union and management sides of the industry believe that figure is low.
Regna was first classified as an out-of-work member of the Teamsters union in 2007.
The lack of a steady paycheck has forced Regna to sell the pickup truck he used to ply his trade and compelled him to reluctantly put his 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound frame in harm's way as a nightclub bouncer.
His biggest struggle, by far, is keeping up with the state-mandated payments to support two young daughters - a child support schedule set up while he was still earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year. He would like to ask a family court judge to lower the payments. But can't afford the $2,500 for an attorney to represent him in the legal proceeding.
Regna's father has pushed him to take some college-level courses to learn another trade, perhaps heating and air conditioning. He doesn't have the money for that, either.
Were it not for his girlfriend's family owned home that he shares with her rent-free, Regna fears he may not have a steady roof over his head.
He recently landed a temporary gig helping an acquaintance rehab a small apartment building in St. Louis. Regna tries to help his fellow construction workers, also scraping by, when he can. He tossed a few hours' work to a friend, an out-of-work union painter. He doled out the task of installing the hardwood floor to another pal in the flooring trade.
"I try to throw them a little bit, but I can't throw them too much," he explained. "I need (the money) for myself."
Justifiably proud of his handiwork on the apartment rehab project, Regna wondered aloud if, or when, the opportunity to do what he loves will again come his way.
"Once I'm done with this unit, I have one downstairs," he said last Thursday morning.
"I'll be done next week. After that, I don't know what's going to happen. I have nothing else lined up."