In four decades in the working world, Raul Vargas has been a musician, a salesman and a construction worker. But since getting laid off from his machinist's job, Vargas hasn't landed anything but occasional day labor stints moving furniture or doing yard work.
The downturn has been tough on former factory hands such as Vargas. U.S. manufacturers have shed more than 1.6 million jobs over the last two years; these workers, on average, have remained jobless longer than the long-term unemployed in most sectors.
Vargas, 54, figures he's contacted hundreds of people about work, in dozens of different fields. He's a popular figure at the Rosemead WorkSource Center, where he's such a fixture that he often helps newcomers get oriented. As part of his daily networking routine, he also stops by warehouses and restaurants to ask if they have openings.
"I'll take a job sweeping the floor. I can fit in anywhere," he said. "I have the experience for anything."
His tattered finances have made the search even tougher.
Vargas doesn't own a car, so he has to walk, bike or travel by bus. He can't afford a voice plan on his cellphone, so he only receives text messages. That makes it difficult for potential employers to get in touch. The home he shares with five people has spotty Internet service, so he often leaves in search of a computer to check his e-mail.
Money is so tight that most days he eats only a single meal, typically from the dollar menus at fast-food restaurants. He supplements that poor diet with occasional visits to food banks.
Lately the affable Vargas has found that visiting the job center is wearing on him, emotionally. More than two years of fruitless searching has begun to feel like an exercise in futility, plus he's constantly surrounded by other anxious people looking for work. When he visits a restaurant or store he finds himself envying the employees.
I think, 'You're so lucky, you get a paycheck,'" he said.
Vargas has a high-school equivalency degree and studied music for a short time at a community college. He's finding that opportunities are limited for someone without a college diploma. In August the unemployment rate for workers like Vargas, with some college but no degree, was 8.7%. That's almost double the rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher. Vargas said he felt his age wasn't helping him either.
"To find out you're old and that nobody wants you, it's depressing," he said.
Making music has been one of his few sources of comfort. But with his unemployment benefits slated to run out soon, Vargas is now looking hard at his two guitars, a keyboard and some amplifiers, trying to decide which to take to the pawn shop first. It will be like losing an old friend.
"It's making me sad just thinking about it," he said.
In the meantime, he's trying to keep his spirits up by continuing to get out in the community. People who have given him employment leads, odd jobs or just a kind word are what keep him going, he said.
"We'll talk about the economy, about what's going to happen next year, about where there might be some jobs," he said. "You need to talk to people or else you'll lose your connection with reality."