Cheri Schober has been here before, between jobs, waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about the future.
Yet Schober, 60, has never faced a job market like this one, so rough, so tight and so unforgiving, especially for older workers like her.
Unemployed since October 2009, Schober has gotten precisely three job interviews since. Despite all the networking and the hundreds of resumes she has sent out, this electrical engineer fears that time and age may be working against her.
"I don't expect people to think about age, to think if I'm a girl or a guy," she said. "I'm an engineer. I work hard. I don't ever plan on retiring."
Schober's plight is hardly unique. The Great Recession has dealt a harsh blow to job veterans.
Although older workers still have unemployment rates lower than the national average, they often remain without jobs for longer periods than younger workers.
They're trying to cling to a middle-class way of life that often hangs by a thread as unemployment lingers for weeks, and then months, and sometimes even years.
For those who have been in the workforce for decades, and who are suddenly without work, the journey is difficult as they try to regain jobs in factories and offices.
They have to market themselves in a virtual world of online resumes and job boards, while also retaining work skills and trying, however they can, to maintain their self-esteem.
"It's like a roller coaster," Schober said. "You get pumped up, and then you go down."
She is a mother of three and grandmother of eight. She and her husband, Jim, built their dream home 13 years ago. She designed it and then watched it go up, log by log.
During the 1982 recession, when Schober's husband was on extended layoff, she decided she would never go through something like that again. Her children were young, but she returned to school.
"I could do anything, anything if I wanted to," she said.
Six years later, she emerged from Marquette University with a degree in electrical engineering.
She knows her way around nuclear generators, jets and mining equipment.
Her last job was as a process improvement engineer with P&H Mining Equipment. Her dad and uncle worked at the firm for 40 years. Her husband has been there for decades and is still on the job, trying to get as much overtime as he can so the couple can keep afloat financially.
In 2009, three weeks after the death of her mother, Schober was laid off.
"I've had a year of healing," she said of losing her mother and her job. "It was a big shock."
She had to start over again, going from earning a good wage to collecting a weekly unemployment check. The unemployment runs out in April.
"That big pendulum hangs over your head. It's always there," she said of the pressure to find another job.
Here's what relieves the pressure, tells her she's not in this alone: networking.
In churches, shopping malls and community centers, older job seekers have long banded together to provide one another guidance as they try to find work. Part informational and part inspirational, job networking support groups provide a vital link for those who need to fight their way back into the workforce.
Interfaith Older Adult Programs serving Milwaukee County has an array of programs for older adults seeking jobs.
Schober has gained friendships and job tips at Pewaukee Opportunities Networking Group, or PONG, which meets Monday mornings at the Goodwill Community Services Center in Waukesha, Wis. In the past year, the group has catered to around 200 people. At least 40 have found jobs.
Finding work "is probably the hardest job you'll ever have," said Pat Katisch, the volunteer who leads PONG.
Katisch, in her 60s, has wide experience in marketing and continuing education. She, too, is looking for work.
Newcomers to the group, Katisch said, often feel "alone and isolated." But then they hear the stories of others, and realize they're part of a larger community dealing with a troubled economy.
The job seekers come from all walks of life, salespeople, secretaries, engineers, software professionals, even a former school principal.
"All of the (political) discussions about the joblessness and the unemployed are statistic-oriented," Katisch said.
"We sometimes lose track of the psychological side of it, families, people spending down savings, people close to losing their homes, the fear factor. What happens in a marriage when one person who has always been the breadwinner hasn't had a job for a year or two?"
The PONG group is tight-knit, friendly and warm.
Among those looking for work is Pete Marrari, 54, of Milwaukee, a certified electronics technician. Laid off in March 2009 from the Gordon Flesch Company, where he had a steady middle-class job, Marrari's unemployment benefits are nearly exhausted. His wife has a good job. But he misses driving around town, fixing copiers and faxes, interacting with customers.
"I've been working since I was 12 years old and had a paper route," he said.
He still wakes up every day at 4:21 a.m. and is in the downtown YMCA gym by 5 a.m. A former body builder (a 5-foot-tall trophy sits in the corner of his living room, along with dozens of other prizes), Marrari exercises to keep in shape and to maintain his spirit.
"If I were to get depressed, gain weight and watch 'Oprah,' the employer would think I wouldn't care," he said of his fitness regimen.
His business card reads "Like Ferrari — it's Marrari" and features a photo of a tool kit.
He has a binder filled with his resume, letters of reference and transcripts of training courses he has completed for several lines of business machines. He is coping with the new way of gaining employment.
"This isn't the 1980s anymore where you could just walk into an office to get a job," he said. "You have to get online, network."
He has sent out hundreds of resumes and gotten a handful of interviews.
"We can't look like we're desperate," Marrari said. "I'm out of work. I'm a job seeker. There's something down the road for me."
Linda Kleven, 51, of Waukesha also tries to keep her hopes up. She was laid off from her job as an employment research specialist in June 2009. She lives in a small apartment. Her unemployment benefits are due to expire this spring. She clips coupons. For Christmas, she brought herself a pair of slippers.
"I'm in survival mode," she said. "I'll look under every rock until I find a job."
But she says she's up against a tough market.
"They want to hire someone younger, someone cheaper," she said of prospective employers.
Others in the PONG group try to help Kleven with her resume and her online skills. The group has only one rule: no whining. They pull for one another.
Schober said that a few weeks ago, she looked around the room at PONG, saw the talented people, and thought to herself, "What a corporation this would be."
She thinks back to her work life, the one she had, the one she wants to continue.
"Engineer, you're the night in shining armor who saves the day. You get the line moving," she said.
The other day, she went on an interview. It was wonderful. For hours, she talked engineering.
"My whole psyche perked up," she said.
Schober knows she's going to get a job. She has to. Any day now, any week now, it's "going to pop," she said.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.