Cassandra Bridgeforth has seen more job-related activity in the last three weeks than she has since she was laid off from her $45,000-a-year computer job at Lucent Technologies Inc. last May.
"I've had three interviews and a callback," said Bridgeforth, 50, of Mount Washington, who had worked for Lucent in Hunt Valley for three years. This job is in collections, making about $13 an hour. "It's not exactly what I'm interested in, but it's better than a promise and a cutoff notice."
Bridgeforth has been in the telecommunications industry for 15 years, first working at US West Inc., MCI Communications Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. before moving over to Lucent. She is completing a computer certification program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County to become a Web designer.
"I'm more encouraged now than discouraged," she said. "If you had talked to me a month ago, I really would have been discouraged."
While things may be brighter for Bridgeforth, that may not be the case by some estimates for as many as one million people nationwide who are considered "discouraged workers" by economists, business leaders and employment specialists. Few hard data exist, but experts believe that such people have dropped out of the labor force and no longer are looking for work because they believe no more jobs are available.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a discouraged worker in America is one who "thinks no work [is] available, could not find work, lacks schooling or training, or employer thinks [is] too young or old."
The category excludes workers who are retired, in school full time or are raising children.
"There are easily as many as a million people out there now," said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the Chicago-based outplacement firm. "They've just stopped looking. There's a lot of people falling through the cracks right now."
This phenomenon comes as the nation's official unemployment rate, which counts people without jobs who are looking for work, remained steady at 5.7 percent in December.
Maryland's jobless rate for the month was lower, at 3.8 percent, a reflection of how the state continues to fare relatively well during the current recession, which began in March 2001.
But despite this, and that the Baltimore region has seen some increase in low-wage job growth in the past month, local officals readily admit that the region has a number of discouraged workers.
A January report by the Job Opportunities Task Force, an independent, nonprofit organization, estimated that at least 2,600 discouraged workers were living in the Baltimore region. The area includes Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties.
"The discouraged worker is one who has given up hope," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore, who worked on JOTF's report. "Even if they could get a job, it's not going to pay them a decent wage."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tabulates the number of discouraged workers nationally from its monthly survey of American households.
"To be unemployed, you have to be actively looking for work within the past four weeks," said Sheila Watkins, the agency's regional commissoner in Philadelphia. To receive unemployment compensation, applicants must actively seek work and indicate as such when applying for aid.
But if you're looking for a job, how can you be discouraged?
According to the BLS December survey, 398,000 people responded that they were discouraged, up nearly 16 percent from 344,000 in December 2001.
Watkins called the increase "statistically insignificant."
"Because we are dealing with a large national population, a 54,000-person shift in the discouraged labor force is not statistically significant," she said. "That number would have to start hitting 500,000 for us to start worrying about something."
But experts, acknowledging the limitations of the government's survey, disagreed -- suggesting that the statistics do not begin to tell the complete story.
"It is probably much higher than 16 percent," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Optimal Solutions Group LLC, a Baltimore-based economic research firm. "From what I am seeing, there has been a steep increase in discouraged workers across the state.
"It certainly has been a painful time, and, unfortunately, the figures do not tell the full story of what's going on out there," he said.
But where would such workers go, if they're not in the labor force?
"They have figured out a way to get by, and in many cases, that income is not reported," Basu said. "If you can't find a job in the permanent economy, you will participate in the underground economy -- and society doesn't benefit from that."
The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulationkeeps no statistics on discouraged workers, said Mary Jo Yeisley, the department's administrator of the Labor Market Information Program, and neither does city officials. Both the state and the city rely on the BLS figures.
"There are pockets of discouraged workers out there," said Karen L. Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "People may have been looking for so long that they may be discouraged this month and then they may get back into the work force next month.
"Sometimes, they need to back off from their job search, redirect their efforts, get some assistance and get back into search mode," Sitnick said.
Since the recent recession began in March 2001, the national economy has had a net loss of more than two million jobs, according to the Labor Department. And layoffs have continued since economic growth resumed more than a year ago, economists say.
The situation is no different in Maryland or Baltimore, despite the impact of the federal goverrnment, which has helped stem any widespread effects of the national recession. Companies that recently have announced layoffs in the Baltimore area include US Airways Group Inc., Black & Decker Corp. and Allfirst Financial Inc.
The region also continues to be affected by the post-Sept. 11 travel slump.
"There's been an incredible loss of low-skilled, low-wage jobs -- and a very slow growth in new jobs," said Philip Holmes, vice president of career services for Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake Inc. "There's a special problem in Baltimore, because there's a dependence on tourism."
But the city is facing other employment challenges, including stemming the loss of high-paying jobs and growing its overall base, local experts said.
Downtown Baltimore, for instance, lost about 1,300 jobs -- about 1.4 percent of its labor base -- in the 12 months that ended last June, the Downtown Partnership said in a January report. Most of the loss came in white-collar jobs, while some growth was registered in the hospitality and retailing sectors. About 93,000 people work downtown, the organization's report said.
"The increased focus of the city must be on retaining and growing the traditional industries," said Lisa Raimundo, the partnership's vice president of economic development. She cited the areas -- finance, insurance, real estate, for instance -- where white-collar jobs were lost. "In the city's strategy, there has not been a focus on these areas."
Sitnick, of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, said city officials are doing just that -- especially as more construction projects take hold downtown and throughout the city.
"There's so much going on in our revitalization efforts downtown that we can only see more jobs coming our way," Sitnick said. "And we have to do as much to prepare our work force for the jobs that are coming as we have to do in attracting businesses to the city."
The region's slow job growth has created more competition for the few jobs that are available -- regardless of skill level.
The JOTF report said that in 2000, Baltimore had two workers seeking every low-skilled job available that was paying $5.75 a hour. For work paying $11.25 an hour, four people were pursuing every available opportunity, the report said.
"If only one person is going to get the one job that's out there, then the other two or three, over time, will become discouraged," said Deborah Povich, the organization's executive director.
That many highly skilled workers are competing for jobs places an additional burden on those job candidates in need of greater skills, she added.
"The problem of placing lower-skilled workers in jobs is chronic," Povich said. "But when the highly skilled workers lose jobs, the sympathy goes to them."
The issue of discouraged workers will improve with the rest of the national and local economy, both Basu and Clinch said.
"If the economy grows, and allows a greater share of people to participate in it, then you will see a reduction in discouraged workers," Basu said. "Over time, I always bet on the U.S. economy. We are still on the cutting edge of capitalism in this world."
Added Clinch: "There's a portion of discouraged workers that will be dealt with the rising tide. But you will always have a large percentage of discouraged workers because they're not getting the skills that are in demand in the job market."
In the meantime, however, it's important to maintain a positive disposition, said Bridgeforth, the Mount Washington job seeker.
"Once the attitude defeats you, you will be out of work for a long time," she said. "You are cooked meat. Desperation at 50 is unattractive."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun