Joe Konopka didn’t think he could be one of the millions of middle-aged men who are out of work.
He had the education, the status and the stability of a long industrious career. His job in academia was secure because it couldn’t be offshored or automated.
But in 2016, the 51-year-old was called down to the office. What followed was a life-changing moment, as his identity was suddenly stripped away. His services would no longer be needed.
“The first 15 minutes after I was let go, it was complete and utter shock,” Konopka said.
Konopka had to consider how he could support his wife and his two kids, one in college and one about to go to college. He had bills to pay and a difficult job search ahead of him. But first, he had to reclaim his footing so he could turn finding his next job into a job.
“I was actually the highest-level academic administrator in New Jersey. After 40 or so years of working, I didn’t know what to do,” Konopka said.
He would not complete the journey back to employment alone.
A program from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, the New Start Career Network (NSCN), helped Konopka and serves other mid-career workers like him to get back on their feet and into the new economy.
The Road Back
The Great Recession (2008-2015) was a seismic event for middle-aged men and its ensuing employment shock left 10 million prime aged men (aged 25-54) on the sidelines.
As the manufacturing sector cratered, many of these men who did not have college degrees would give up looking for work entirely. The jobs they were skilled for, manual repetitive labor disappeared. Work that required advanced skills or certifications would be out of reach.
Konopka was different, he had an MBA, a Ph.D. and valuable work experience. Though he could not escape the ripple effects of mass unemployment as it reached white collar jobs, his experience would help him avoid a radical career change or re-skilling. Unlike low-skilled workers, people with advanced degrees stay unemployed longer while they find jobs with pay scales equivalent to their old jobs.
But the emotional pain which comes from unemployment goes deep. The longer people are out of work, their health and well-being usually suffer, as stress builds, savings evaporate and identities are erased. It becomes a self-repeating cycle of worry and despair. Konopka said he was “terrified” at the prospect of not having the means of supporting his family.
“Other than the death of a family member or a close friend, this is the most devastating thing that happens to most people if they lose their job,” Heldrich Center Director Carl Van Horn said during the WorkingNation/Heldrich Center Town Hall.
It would take Konopka about two months of dealing with the trauma of being laid off before he could ask himself, “OK, what do I do now?”
The Next Step
Despite receiving a severance package to soften the economic blow, Konopka couldn’t stay put after the initial two months. His wife, Ann Marie, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004 and cannot work. Konopka, as the sole provider for his household, had to get back to the working world.
“Because of my condition, I did feel helpless. I was very concerned he wasn’t going to find a job. He was pounding the pavement, but he didn’t know where to turn,” Ann Marie said.
Konopka began applying for jobs and learned to trust the process and that his persistence would eventually pay off. This persistence would lead him to a networking event where NSCN Director Maria Heidkamp introduced the program and explained its mission.
“We launched the NSCN to try and provide assistance to job seekers like Joe. Individuals who’d been out of work six months or more, who were 45 and older, who were really struggling to get back into the labor market,” Heidkamp said.
The NSCN assisted Konopka in understanding his unique skillset and encouraged his persistence in job searching, where he would sacrifice precious weekends when normally he would spend quality time with his family.
A New Start
Since 2015, the NSCN has responded to a nationwide unemployment crisis which continues to impact the Garden State.
New Jersey ranks high nationally in unemployed older workers and nearly half of the state’s unemployed are in this age group. They are more likely to be ignored, Heidkamp said.
“The problem of long-term unemployment for job seekers [is that] you kind of forget they are there,” Heidkamp said, “We sometimes say they are hidden in plain sight.”
Many are caught in a downward spiral where they deplete their savings after their unemployment benefits, leaving them more vulnerable to budget shocks or negating their retirement plans.
“They are in a sense nobody’s customer in the government,” Van Horn said, “They’ve exhausted government insurance. They’re not going to community colleges to start [over]. Who is going to help them?”
Getting back to work in 2017 requires more than a simple perusal of the help wanted ads in the newspaper. Older workers must learn how to use online job boards daily and submit a seemingly infinite amount of applications. They must learn how to craft well-written resumes to get beyond algorithms and get callbacks. They must network, no longer a skill relegated to younger job-seekers, to get a good job.
“We have tried to put together a program that provides them with a lot of information about what the job search process consists of today to try and help them navigate this changing labor market and to try and help them stay positive and think about how to move ahead,” Heidkamp said.
However, the road back to gainful employment is made more difficult because employers often discriminate against people who are out of work for longer periods, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. The AARP also cited research stating that long-term unemployed job applicants were less likely to receive interview callbacks compared to those who had shorter unemployment periods.
At its recession peak in 2011, nearly half of all unemployed workers aged 50 and up were out of work longer than 27 months. Today, that number has fallen to 33 percent as overall employment has rebounded. However, there is ample evidence of widespread age discrimination against older workers, despite the practice being outlawed 50 years ago. They have found little to no recourse when their applications are turned down due to the double-whammy of employment gaps and subtle ageism.
These are the barriers which the NSCN is working to overcome by providing job-seekers with coaching and seminars created with their generation in mind. Through this, the NSCN’s collective of educators, volunteer counselors and employer partners are steadfast in their commitment to raising awareness of this valuable, but neglected workforce, one job-seeker at a time.
Back at a Desk Again
Once connected with the NSCN, Konopka was paired with volunteer counselor Mallory Jones and the two hit it off immediately.
“Mallory was great from the first time we met,” Konopka said in an email interview. He credited her with giving him a different perspective on the job search process.
“I remember our first conversation and I asked him to give a little bit of history of where he worked and what he liked,” Jones said. “From there I was like ‘Let’s try to find a job that will help you live in this space where your heart sings.’”
Having an outsider willing to be a sounding board was the first step. Jones said that they worked from that point to create a strategy as Konopka went through multiple job interviews. She added during our town hall that she would ask him about what he liked about each employer and to synthesize from that list his ideal job.
With a plan of attack in place, Konopka kept at the job hunt. He said that the process should be treated like a job itself. Weekends were not for relaxation because a job posted on Saturday could be gone in an instant.
“With Mallory’s help and with the support that I received, [I learned that] you just have to get up every day, put your suit and shoes on and get up. Even if it is going to a different part of the house to make sure you are immersed in your job search,” Konopka said.
He forged ahead and made sure that he followed-up after each interview. Jones said that his follow-through was a skill that landed him a job back in academia as the senior aide to Ocean County College President Jon H. Larson.
Though OCC did not initially hire Konopka after his interview, he said that he kept in touch with the school. And that persistence, driven by a need to provide for his family and the support of NSCN and Jones, made the difference.
He has settled into his new, but familiar role, back behind a desk as a school administrator. Konopka said that his extensive experience has helped him adjust. Larson said that Konopka has made a great impression on his co-workers and is an “indispensable” member of the OCC team.
Konopka’s new work restored much of what he lost: a desk, a place to go and his identity. The burdensome worry of finding another job is gone though. But most important, he has his weekends with his family back.