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Greenfield's and West Allis' unemployed face harsh realities

Sept. 8, 2009

The many hours Dennis Zdroik logs on to his computer each day in his Greenfield home are not spent trying to beat his high score in solitaire or aimlessly surfing the Web.

Instead, with each click of the mouse and tap at the keyboard, he checks the same job and social networking sites he visited the day before in the hopes of finding employment.

"I am 55 and I have many, many good years left to give a company," he said.

Ever since Zdroik lost his job at an Oak Creek manufacturer in November, he has persistently used Web sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Monster.com to find a job. But after 10 months, he has had only one phone interview.

The problem: Zdroik is just one of more than 4,800 unemployed people in Greenfield and West Allis, and companies don't need his services right now.

Fortunately, Zdroik's wife has a full-time job and he falls under two government programs that allow him to collect unemployment for two years and receive job training in mechanical design for free.

"I'm hoping this will improve my skills and make me more cross-functional," he said.

Zdroik and his wife are very frugal, he added. Combined with his wife's income and the unemployment he's receiving, they have no debt.

"We monitor our expenses quite closely," he said. "If we don't need it, we won't buy it. We just have to wait until I get back to work."

Numbers tell the story

According to the most recent state figures, the Greenfield unemployment rate in July was 8.5 percent, just a notch below the state's 8.7 percent rate. That's a drop from Greenfield's June rate of 9.3 percent, but significantly higher than the July 2008 rate of 4.6 percent.

After rising about 10 percent in June, West Allis' unemployment rate dipped to 9.8 in July, which put the city right in the middle of the 31 Wisconsin municipalities tracked by the state Department of Workforce Development. In July 2008, West Allis' unemployment rate was half of what it is now - 4.9 percent.

Cheryl Maranto, an associate professor of management at Marquette University, says unemployment rates in these cities and the rest of the state won't be lowering any time soon.

"Although there are some signs that the economy is starting to stabilize and get stronger in some areas, unemployment is a lagging indicator," she said. "So even once the economy overall gets better, it's going to be a while before unemployment actually goes down."

Circling the problem

She credits this to our consumer-driven economy.

Like Zdroik and his wife, consumers who have lost their jobs are being very cautious about spending, she said. Even those who haven't lost their jobs are worried they're going to, so they've pulled back as well. Until this changes, unemployment rates will stay high.

"In the kind of economy that we've had where employers have had to let people go, they're not going to be anxious to rehire until they're sure that they're going to have the demand to keep people employed," she said.

Marc Levine, professor of economic development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees.

"I would guess that the unemployment rate will continue to tick up for the next three to four months," he said. "In October or so, maybe we'll start to see the beginning of a recovery and drops in the unemployment rate."

Suburban advantage

He added that the suburbs have actually been somewhat lucky; their unemployment rates have remained lower than the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee's unemployment rate in July was 12.2 percent.

Education, he said, is a factor.

"The education levels and skill levels of residents in suburban areas tend to be a little bit higher than the residents in the central city," Levine said. "As a consequence the unemployment rate is lower in those areas."

About 35 percent of Greenfield residents above the age of 25 had at least an associate degree in 2007, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. In both Milwaukee and West Allis, only 26 percent of residents had the same level of education.

However, 88 percent of West Allis residents had graduated from high school. Only 80 percent of Milwaukee residents had done so.

Witnesses to the unemployed

Mike Kuchar, the coordinator of a West Allis food pantry, has seen the effects of the increasing unemployment rates.

"It seems like every week we're getting more and more families," Kuchar said.

The St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, located at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on South 117th Street, saw a 27 percent increase in the number of families it served in the first six months of 2009 compared to the first six months of 2008. It served 905 families from January through June 2008. Between those same months in 2009, it served 1,152 families.

Traditionally, the majority of the pantry's families come from low-income housing or are retired and fixed-income elderly. Since last summer, there has been a gradual increase in the number of unemployed families, he said.

"We've had a couple of people who have lost their homes," said Kuchar, but with a sad nod toward the pantry's limited resources. "We try doing the best we can to accommodate them."

Joan Hundl, president of the pantry, often talks to the new families who share stories about birthdays, grandchildren and lost jobs.

"Most of them are without jobs and have been laid off. A lot of them say, 'I had a job for two or three months and I got laid off again.' "

Stocking the pantry

The pantry is supplied by Hunger Task Force, a private, nonprofit community organization that distributes food to a network of pantries, homeless shelters and meal programs for free. It also holds a food drive the first weekend of every month for the parishioners of the church to donate food.

Families are allowed to visit the pantry twice a month and receive bags of groceries that are prepared for them by volunteers. Everyone's bag is the same and filled with a variety of foods like canned goods, noodles, rice, meat, bread and produce. Food is rationed based on the number of people in each household.

Unlike many families, Zdroik and his wife have been fortunate enough to afford their own food. And as the months continue to roll by, Zdroik remains optimistic about finding a job, but not in the near future.

"I have a suspicion with the way things are still going and from the people I have been talking with, maybe sometime next year," he said. "It's that slow."

HOW TO FIND A JOB

If you're searching for a job, here are some tips to assist you as taken from various employment and job-search Web sites.

Network - informally and formally

• Informal: contact everyone you know - friends, family, neighbors, college alumni and old coworkers. They may know someone who's hiring.

• Formal: Visit job fairs or business socials and use the Internet - discussion boards like the Job Search Forum and Web sites like LinkedIn are designed to help you find a job.

Go the extra mile

• There are hundreds of other people searching for a job just like you. After e-mailing your resume, make a phone call to make sure the right person gets it.

• If offered, always opt for an in-person interview. Give your name a face.

Update your resume

• Be specific about your experience and relate it to the job description of the position your after.

• Make it easy for employers to see why you're right for the job.

Local unemployment rates

  July 2009 June 2009 July 2008
Greenfield 8.5% 9.3% 4.6%
West Allis 9.8% 10.2% 4.9%

Source: Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Rates are seasonally unadjusted.

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