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Maine Job Seekers Crowd Bangor Jobs Fair
10/11/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Word last week that the unemployment rate had dipped below eight percent nationally offered more evidence that the economy is slowly improving. The conventional wisdom in Maine has been that the recession didn't hit quite as hard here as it did in other parts of the country. Our unemployment rate, for example, never rose quite as high as the national average. But census data, released last month, dispels the assumption that Mainers have somehow been spared the kind of economic suffering that has afflicted people in other states. Jay Field visited a job fair on the grounds of an Army National Guard Base in Bangor and found people still struggling to recover.

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They walk through a small door at one corner of the large aircraft hanger. A man in fatigues welcomes them. The job seekers wear a mixture of outfits - jeans and flannel shirts, suits, pantsuits, tweed jackets and frilly blouses. Some head straight for the employers - rows and rows of tables where the Army helicopters usually sit. Others circle the room awhile, resumes tucked under an arm, taking in the scene.

"It was overwhelming at first." That's Josh. This isn't his first job fair. "Been to one a few years ago, but I really didn't get into it."

Josh, who didn't give his last name, is living with a friend, but says he doesn't have a choice now. "Winter came up a year and a half ago, and I was roofing and doing framing. The work slowed right down, so I lost my apartment and my car and everything," he says. "So now I'm just trying to better my situation."

Josh has a GED. He wants to return to school to become a certified welder. But getting a loan, he says, may be hard because his credit isn't so good. So in the meantime, he's applied for jobs at Taco-Bell and Wal-Mart.

They're the kinds of minimum wage positions that some workers might have once dismissed as beneath them. Not any more. James Murray is also walking the perimeter of fair. I ask Murray what kind of job he's looking for.

"Anything! I'm getting kind of tired of sitting around," he says. Murray lives in Medway. He started at the paper mill in Millinocket 30 years ago. He worked there and at the mill in East Millinocket, off and on, for 30 years before being laid off for good.

"There's nothing up there," Murray says. "It used to be if you had a saw or something you could go in the woods and work. Not anymore 'cause it's all mechanical."

Murray says getting rehired at the East Millinocket mill, which has reopened under new ownership, was never an option for someone with his level of experience. "They're hiring younger guys. Now, they don't pay you nothin' up there compared to what they used to."

It's a story you hear over and over again. The unemployment rate is dropping. Companies are hiring. But the jobs don't pay that great and there aren't enough of them.

Jean Hatch is looking for work as a secretary. "It's been a lot of competition," she says. "Unless you want the really low-grade paying jobs, anything over $10 or $12, you're fighting 20 other women for - if it's secretarial, that is."

Any hope that ought to accompany an uptick in the labor market, meantime, comes against the grim backdrop of recent data that shows just how big a toll the recession has taken in Maine.

In September, the federal goverment released new census data on the state's economy. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of unemployed people increased by 43 percent, the number of people living in poverty jumped 15 percent and Maine median household income dropped by nearly 8 percent. "Ours, of course, did significantly when we stopped careers outside and came back to farming," says Dan Vanwart.

Vanwart is waiting in line to have his resume checked out by a career counselor. In 2004, Vanwart and his wife came back to Maine, after a career with the Navy in California, to run her family's wild blueberry farm. But the couple found it increasingly difficult to stay afloat financially and decided to re-enter the workforce. Vanwart's most recent position doing maintenance at Acadia National Park ended a few weeks ago.

"I just want to see what they have to say about my resume," he says. "It's been so long since I've done one - I'll see how close I am to correct."

A few minutes later, the person ahead of him finishes up and Vanwart takes a seat. The line behind him continues to grow longer, as Vanwart and the counselor go through his resume, line by line.


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