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Inside her home on a tree-lined street in Lexington, Michelle Binzel talks proudly of the eight service dogs she and her family have raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that pairs people in need with dogs. Photos of the dogs are up on the wall by her kitchen, near flowers and a balloon given to her for Mother’s Day.
Binzel is also a singer, and when she details another nonprofit leadership role, with the 110-person Concord Chorus, she lists the sort of data points that would stand out in a resume:
“[I] was able to increase our donations by 35 percent in the first year.
“I didn’t increase the revenue from our fundraiser, but I did increase the net by about 30 percent. I did that by reducing the expenses.
“I instituted a planned giving program for the Concord Chorus so that people could leave things to us in their wills."
Binzel last held a paying full-time job in 2008, when she was an adjunct management professor at Bentley University, teaching at its business school at night. Now, she’s among the 3.5 million Americans the government counts as unemployed for six months or more.
Binzel admits her financial circumstances are different than most long-term unemployed job seekers. Her husband of more than 30 years, Richard, is a tenured professor at MIT and the family’s primary breadwinner, and Michelle is focusing her search on jobs that appeal to her. Though they might worry about the durability of their savings for themselves and their kids, they’re doing OK; when I visited in May, they were renovating two of the house’s bathrooms.
But the yearslong spell of joblessness has nonetheless taken its toll on the 55-year-old.
“You start to feel like something's wrong,” she says, her voice becoming shaky with emotion. “Just the psychic pain of it, it’s really hard. You look for things, and you know you’re competent. You know that you can get things done. As I said, I’ve done all this other stuff. It’s just like, why does no one want to hire me? It’s very hard.
“But … I exercise a lot to keep myself in, you know, in an upbeat frame of mind and then I do all these other things; the music keeps me… You know, I just refuse, honestly, I’m tearing up now, but I refuse to get depressed about it. Because I think about it, I’m so blessed. I have this great husband. I have these [two] great kids. I have all these people who love me. And, I'm not, like I said, I’m not going on food stamps. ... It’s mostly, like, my own struggle."
Combating 'Something Is Wrong With Me'
Binzel is among 102 older, white-collar job seekers who recently took part in a pilot project on long-term unemployment at MIT’s Institute for Career Transitions, which was co-founded last year by Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Long-term unemployment — which, according to Sharone, disproportionately affects older workers — is at 2.3 percent of the nation’s workforce, a historically high level. More than 38 percent of America’s unemployed job seekers have been out of work six months or more.
In Massachusetts, some 62,000 job seekers have been unemployed for a year or more. (State officials define long-term unemployment as one year or more, rather than six months.) And that Massachusetts tally "is a little bit stuck" in coming down since 2012, according to Labor Secretary Rachel Kaprielian, who makes it clear, however, that long-term unemployment is “absolutely an area of strong focus and strong priority” for the Patrick administration.
In an interview at his MIT Sloan office, Sharone tells me why the issue needs more attention.
“We have a ton of studies showing that once you hit the six-month [jobless] point, by so many indicators it becomes a real crisis,” he says. “It’s a financial crisis. It’s an emotional crisis. And then when you get to this scale of numbers, it’s a social crisis. We’re losing out on a whole cohort of workers.”
In prior research, Sharone had found support for unemployed job seekers lacking, so ICT, his institute, initiated the recent pilot project. More than 40 career coaches volunteered their time and services, and the 102 job seekers were split up into two groups: a control group, which received no assistance, and a group that got team or one-on-one support. Sharone calculated the value of the in-kind contributions of the counseling to be about $80,000.
The three-month pilot ended earlier this year. At a recent conference — which brought state and federal labor officials, researchers and career strategists to MIT — Sharone cautioned about the small sample size, but for the first time detailed the project's preliminary results.
Of the group that got support, 30 percent obtained a full-time job or contract work of at least four months. That compares to just 18 percent from the group that received no aid.
"It clearly shows that the job market is very, very tough, even for someone in an ideal situation," as "most people did not get jobs," Sharone says. "On the other hand, I think we can say that there's a meaningful difference to getting support."
Another finding is more striking.
In a survey administered at the beginning of the pilot, 61 percent of job seekers said "yes" to “something is wrong with me.” Months later, that figure dropped to 41 percent for those in the group getting support. For the other group, the number ballooned to 84 percent.
Sharone finds the project’s preliminary results encouraging.
“[It] indicates to me that the damage being done by the unemployment can be mitigated,” he says. “You’re not only increasing the chances of getting a job, but you’re also making the experience less damaging to one’s sense of self.”
Abe Gorelick, 58, of Natick, was laid off from a marketing position in March 2013.
The layoff took the married father of three from a six-figure salary down to $674 a week in jobless benefits. The family cut back on spending, extended family members lent money, and Gorelick tapped into his retirement savings. (It’s pretty much wiped out now, he says.)
Then came the first of this year, when, after congressional inaction, his extended unemployment benefits expired.
“I began to panic even more than I was already panicked, and feeling more stressed than I was already stressed,” Gorelick says.
He took part-time jobs at Whole Foods and Lord & Taylor, and as a cab driver. Gorelick estimates that 40 hours work across the three jobs would have added up to about two-thirds of his unemployment benefits.
There were touching moments — like the two old women who bought him a souffle as a treat after he drove them to Panera in his taxi — but there were tough moments, too.
Gorelick recalls seeing acquaintances at Whole Foods in Wellesley.
“The first few times, when I would see someone, I certainly would not avoid them,” he says. “I would go over and talk to them. I’d have my Whole Foods apron on with my name badge and all of that. But the first few times when I turned after the conversation, I would get very emotional. … I’d be in that moment and I’d think about, you know, this is difficult to do. But I knew that it was important to do.”
He tried to stay focused and compartmentalize. He speaks about meeting with the president of the marketing agency Digitas in New York City the day after driving his Natick cab, of putting aside thoughts about bills and staying “in the moment” during job interviews.
And when the free MIT pilot came up, he figured he had nothing to lose, and applied. Gorelick was paired with a coach, and the two met weekly, often at Natick’s town library. Gorelick appreciated his coach’s “fresh perspective,” and he learned interviewing tips.
Gorelick is one of the MIT project’s success stories. In mid-April he got a new job: a six-month contract leading a digital marketing campaign at Boston firm MMB.
But the position came to him in a unique way: He was included in an April New York Times report on ICT and long-term unemployment. A senior person at MMB, with whom Gorelick had done some work in the past, read the article and reached out with an opportunity.
Gorelick says he’s very happy with the job. He says he’s simply focused on doing his best work, but admits he’s “a bit” worried about the fact that it’s a six-month contract.
“I can’t say that things will not be difficult moving forward, but I have to, again, try to be resilient and focus and know that I have a lot to offer still,” he says.
'I Know What I Have To Do'
Binzel, the unemployed management professor, is still looking for work, but she’s in a much more confident place since her sessions with Lisa Shapiro, an Arlington career coach.
After their initial meeting, “I saw a real difference in her demeanor,” Shapiro says. “She was much more upbeat. She was more hopeful. And she was really making great progress.”
Binzel had searched for development jobs over her stretch of unemployment, and she and Shapiro — who has a background in development herself — decided to focus Binzel’s search there. Binzel “immersed” herself in the field, she says, and they labored to recast her resume. Her nonprofit leadership experience, for instance, “wasn’t fully utilized,” Shapiro says.
“I feel like I know what I have to do,” Binzel says. “I just have to keep implementing. And [Shapiro] gave me that.”
Though she’s still out of work — among the 70 percent in the MIT pilot project's support group to not find a job over the months — Binzel is grateful for the assistance.
“It totally changed my state of mind because I felt like [the job search] was futile. I really just felt like the black hole was there and it was just receiving my resume and nothing was ever coming out,” she says. “Now I feel like, I am going to find something.”
Sharone, the MIT researcher, is a bit more measured. He hopes his project shows the need for increased funding for similar support efforts, and he wants to expand to other locations.
But Sharone also knows there are bigger economic forces at work, and there are much larger-scale steps policymakers and employers could take to mitigate the continuing crisis.
“Supporting job seekers is only going to take us so far,” he says.