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As CT Unemployment Rate Falls To 7.8 Percent, More Stories Of Job Success Emerge

By MARA LEE

March 29, 2012

Livia Liburdi, one of thousands of Connecticut residents who moved from unemployment to a job in February, was out of work less than a month before landing a job as an administrative assistant at an Avon tech start-up.

It was one of four new positions iDevices added after getting a $150,000 investment from Connecticut Innovations, contributing a tiny part to a statewide trend of job growth in February, according to Thursday's report from the state Department of Labor. The initial estimate is that the state added 4,900 jobs in February and that unemployment fell from 8 percent in January to 7.8 percent.

The February gains followed an additional 5,400 jobs in January, raising hopes that the strong start in 2012 will usher in a long-awaited period of robust hiring. Connecticut's unemployment rate is now a half-percentage-point below the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate, and is under 8 percent for the first time since April 2009.

Liburdi, 31, was intermittently unemployed throughout the Great Recession. Before it began, she was making $18 an hour as an office manager at a Wallingford manufacturer. But she left the job to briefly move out of state, and couldn't find a foothold to a career after returning.

Instead, for years, she would get a job for a few months, then get laid off, or work two part-time minimum wage retail or restaurant jobs and a few hours a week in the factory's office, which could no longer afford her full-time.

"This juggling of part-time jobs just to make ends meet, it was pretty much my life for a good three years, where I was constantly running from one job to the next just to pay the bills," she said. "Forty to 50 hours, definitely takes its toll."

Now she's planning to move out of her parents' house in six months or so, once she can pay down some credit card debt, so she can shorten her 45-minute commute from Wallingford.

"If I didn't live with my parents, I would be living out of my car," she said.

She's positive the economy is getting better. Not only can she spend again, even with a wage below what she made five years ago, but she sees others spending, too.

And she's feeling better about herself, too.

"It's amazing how getting a full-time job and just being an asset to a company makes you feel like a whole person. It makes you feel like you're accomplishing something. Whereas, before, I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere in life," she said. "Working in the mall wasn't something I thought I would be doing at 30."

As the state's residents spend more in restaurants, stores, car dealerships and medical offices, and stop doubling up with relatives or friends, their choices ripple throughout the economy and create the demand for more workers.

"This is where job expansion typically becomes more apparent and both businesses and consumers start exhibiting a bit more optimism," said economist Don Klepper-Smith of DataCore Partners in New Haven. "Clearly this is welcomed news given the tenuous nature of recovery which we experienced in 2011."

The unemployment rate is down from a peak of 9.4 percent, where it was mired for several months at the end of 2010. Still, the 7.8 percent figure means 148,500 people in the state in February were actively looking for work and unable to find it.

Paola Rubino was one of them, but in March, she began a new job as a risk analyst at Webster Bank. She had been downsized at the end of November 2011 from a credit union that had failed.

For the three months she was out of work, unemployment checks were enough to cover her mortgage, with less than $400 left over to pay all the bills and groceries for her teenage son and herself.

"I'm a single mother, my son will go to college this coming summer. Savings go very, very fast. I have a mortgage to pay, I didn't want to lose my house. It's always a very, very, scary situation," she said. "I sleep much, much better now. Now I'm OK, I have everything again under control. "

She was surprised she found another job so quickly, and even had more than one offer to choose from. Her new job pays slightly more than her last one.

"I still have friends and people that I know that are laid off now," she said. "Frankly, I think life is getting a little bit better, but just with baby steps."

Over the last 12 months, net job growth in the state was 12,100 positions, or a gain of 0.7 percent, reaching 1,634,000 jobs.

Private employers have replaced 44 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but given that the tribal casinos and state and local governments have shrunk their workforces by a total of 5,000 in the last year, the overall jobs recovery is just a third of what was lost.

Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, in a written statement, applauded the gains but said, "We must not lose sight that we are still at the beginning of the recovery. Reclaiming the jobs that were lost will take time."

The state may eventually regain its pre-recession job total of 1,712,000 jobs in March 2008, but because of the severity of the recession, some of the human capital Connecticut lost may never come back.

Paul Bassett, 42, was a research chemist with Pfizer in Groton from 1995 through 2009, when Pfizer cut about 500 research jobs. At the time, it had about 5,000 workers in the state and now, after several more rounds of layoffs and job moves, it has about 3,400.

"They eliminated a significant portion of our department's jobs," he said, "around that time the economy was really tanking."

From January to June 2009, Bassett got six research chemist job offers, from New Jersey to Cambridge, Mass., and each one was rescinded "due to budget cuts, mergers, acquisitions one department lost their entire leadership. "

After that, there was no more progress toward a job. "There were so many people being laid off, the industry was flooded with chemists."

Bassett, who shares custody of two children with his ex-wife, decided he needed to be in something more stable. He chose to go to an accelerated nursing degree at Kent State University in Ohio, where he could live with family, and graduated in August 2011.

There was such a crush of fresh graduates that he couldn't take a board exam until November. He started at Hartford Hospital in February as a nurse managing clinical trials of cancer drugs, at a salary comparable to his old pay. One of the patients is taking a drug he worked on 17 years ago.

He was able to go to school for free, between government help and a private scholarship, and he received 99 weeks of unemployment, which helped pay his child support and keep his head above water.

Only a handful of his friends stayed in pharmaceutical research in Connecticut, he said, as far more went to the Boston area or the West Coast, though it often took them a year and a half or two years to find work with drug companies.

And many left chemistry entirely. One used his severance to buy a gas station in Florida.

Nick Perna, an economist who lectures at Yale University and consults for Webster Bank, reacted to Bassett's story of how many of his friends left science and Connecticut, by saying: "It's a shame. These are skills that have to be transferable into other things.

"Part of making labor markets function more efficiently ought to be focusing on people," Perna said, "and not simply on companies."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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