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Bert Van Strander's first blow from unemployment came nearly 30 years ago, and it threw him into an emotional tailspin.
A father of two young boys at the time, he took it out on himself even though his company relocated to another state at a time when the Lehigh Valley's unemployment rate was a sky-high 12 percent. Unable to find new work to support his family, he spent hours in bed, depressed.
"I blamed myself and got down," Van Strander said. "I couldn't find a job for a year and a half. I thought "What kind of a dummy am I?"'
Now 58, Van Strander of Whitehall is older and wiser. His children are grown.
He's unemployed again. The ax fell three weeks ago at Victaulic's Forks Township plant where he spent the past 14 years machining pipe fittings. This time he's determined. It's not his fault. He won't melt down.
"I don't want to sit around idle," he said. "It's been 26 years since I was laid off, and it brings up bad memories. I have a different outlook. I'm going to hit the ground running and I'm going to keep trying and I'll go down any avenue I can pursue."
There is an increasing number of people out of work in the Lehigh Valley and throughout the nation. Economists expect their ranks to continue to swell -- affecting a broad spectrum of professions and industries -- for at least another year as home prices continue to tumble, household wealth deteriorates and consumer spending plummets.
There were about 25,000 people out of work in the Lehigh Valley in September, the most recent data available. That's an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, or 1.5 percentage points higher than it was during the same month a year ago, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The latest pink slip took Van Strander by surprise. Earlier this year he was working mandatory overtime. Then he was down to 32 hours. A few weeks ago he learned his job was gone.
"It's like getting your head chopped right off," he said.
Joblessness is the most personal symptom of a souring economy. For those affected, rebounding is likely to be a long, painful effort. Job openings are scarce and applicants numerous. As unemployment climbs, the odds of landing a new job will get worse.
If that's not enough, it will be tougher for many of those out of work to stay afloat. The tanking stock market leaves their nest eggs depleted. Tighter lending standards make it more difficult to use home-equity, personal loans or credit cards to buy necessities. And for the out-of-work homeowner, it would be difficult to relocate for a new job because of the limp housing market.
Even those who keep their jobs could feel a strain. With fewer people working, demand for many businesses will drop. Workers could see their hours reduced or commissions and bonuses sag. Those who survive lay-off rounds will likely hear some variation of the management refrain, "do more with less."
People are becoming immobilized by a global economic meltdown.
Van Strander is grateful for the support of Patricia, his wife of 35 years. She is helping him cope with unemployment and reinforces his sense of self-worth. With no job, he spends time on those projects he put off in busier days. He enjoys moving things from the "Honey Do" column to the one Patricia labeled "Honey Done."
He painted his front porch, put in a new toilet and installed some carpeting. He's building a perch for their pet birds, Rambo and Niko.
"We're very close and she's been very supportive," Van Strander said of his wife. "She knows I look forward to getting something accomplished each day. It keeps my mind occupied and I'm not thinking about how did I get here. I'm not thinking about how I'm out of a job.
"I went from 14 years of overtime to not having a job. It's a drastic change."
It's also been a drastic change for the local job market. For years, the Lehigh Valley rode a wave of wealth and prosperity buoyed by a go-go housing market and population growth. Unemployment remained at historically low levels at or below 5 percent for years, meaning anyone who wanted a job had little difficulty finding one.
It seemed there were signs of a roaring economy everywhere. Cornfields made way for McMansions. New "lifestyle centers" lured high-end retailers. A casino resort under construction on the long-dormant Bethlehem Steel site was the most vivid symbol of yesterday's industrial economy yielding to a new era of consumption.
Those good times have ended. Homebuilders are struggling to sell lots in new neighborhoods while some of their recent customers face foreclosure. Retailers are desperate to get shoppers in the door for Christmas at a time when consumer confidence is at its worst level in decades. The casino resort is now just a casino. The hotel rooms, shopping mall and convention center will have to wait for better days.
It's the dizzying downfall that inevitably follows a boisterous night. The big questions: How long will the hangover last? How agonizing will it be?
Painful months ahead
In the Lehigh Valley, layoffs should continue to accelerate through 2009 and unemployment is expected to peak in 2010 just shy of 8 percent, a level not seen in the Valley since 1992, said Ryan Sweet, an economist with MoodysEconomy.com.
"The next several months will be painful," Sweet said. "Consumers in the Lehigh Valley and across Pennsylvania are concerned about the outlook for their jobs and their incomes. The job outlook is weak for retail, particularly in auto sales. The holiday outlook is pretty dour, which means retailers won't be hiring as many seasonal workers. Construction outlook remains weak because housing has more room to fall. And in financial activities, the question is, how many more layoffs will occur not only on Wall Street but also at the regional banks because of tighter credit and the amount of loans being issued."
Some jobs are safer than others. Health care and education remain comparatively stable and bad times are good times for the bill collector, bankruptcy attorney and repo man. But even traditionally stable government jobs could be at risk as municipalities look to trim budgets to reflect a soft tax base, Sweet said.
Tales of people looking for work only reinforce the bleak outlook.
Jose Oliveras, 47, of Allentown, has been in the distribution industry for 25 years. He worked at a Breinigsville warehouse and his company wanted to transfer him to Chicago, but his wife has a good job in the Valley. With no prospects, he's worried about the holidays because he has two children.
Job counselors, "keep telling me to look for work at temp agencies, but when you go there, they don't have any jobs," he said.
Saika Qureshi, 32, has been job hunting for four months. She owned a convenience store in Hamburg for several years, but went out of business after a Sheetz opened nearby. More recently she worked in home health care but had to leave the job because the evening shift did not work with her family's schedule. She has two children and her husband works overnight as an electrical engineer.
Qureshi said she is not afraid of hard work. She can paint, fix cars and pump gas. She has applied for jobs at Auto Zone, Redners, Wawa, Giant, UPS and DHL.
"Nobody is hiring," she said. "It's all silence."
Some who have been on more protracted job searches are using the time to enhance their skills.
Ada Soto, 58, of Bethlehem, has been looking for work for about a year since losing a job in a Bethlehem garment shop. With few jobs in light industry, she is taking English classes.
"Most of the jobs are in an office and you need to know English and how to use a computer," she said. "It's bad. I'm looking for anything."
Steve Yoachum, 25, of Allentown, has been looking for steady work for a year. His last job was conducting lab tests of concrete samples at construction sites to make sure the concrete met specifications. But with little construction going on, there are fewer tests to be conducted. He did some fence installation over the summer, but the work was here and there.
"I'm getting desperate because my money is running out," he said. "I look at warehouse jobs, but they ask me questions like "How do we know you won't be looking for another job in two months because you don't like the ass-busting work?' And when I look for jobs in my field [computer programming], I don't have enough experience."
So he wants to return to school for a bachelor's degree in computer science, which he thinks will open more doors than his associate's degree.
Bethlehem economist Kamran Afshar said his survey of business optimism has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since 2002, reflecting broad pessimism about the local economy. During such times, it is imperative for businesses and workers to keep on their toes.
"When you look at the generalities, it's all doom and gloom," Afshar said. "But even during the Great Depression, there were a bunch of companies that made great profits
Right now, things are not good. We have to understand this and devise a strategy to benefit from and not be hurt as much, and that is possible."
Van Strander said he has a more positive outlook today than the last time he was laid off in the 1980s. He recalled his last shift at Victaulic, when he found out the rumors swirling through the parking lot were true. The message came in a group meeting with the plant manager. The company was suffering from a sluggish construction market and it had more people on the payroll than it had work.
Van Strander worked every minute of his final shift. He returned his uniform. And before leaving the plant, even though he felt lousy, he told a human resources manager how much he enjoyed working there.
In the past three weeks, he's applied for several jobs and has landed some interviews. He had a telephone interview Thursday with a company that makes coaxial cable and he has an in-person follow-up scheduled this week.
Despite the gloomy outlook, he's hopeful that there's a job out there waiting for him.
"It's so different now," Van Strander said. "What's helping me now is I've been through it. I know what to expect. That's what hit me the first time. The unknown."