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The Unemployed Shift Gears

About 45,000 people are seeking jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region.

And for every job that opens, there are about 4.5 unemployed workers eager to snatch it up, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. That is almost three times the level in 2006.

Job candidates last year spent an average of 33 weeks -- more than seven months -- searching for a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As tough as all that sounds, the numbers may actually underplay how difficult it is to find a job now.

"The average amount of time someone's been out of work gets longer, so the pool gets bigger, and it takes awhile to absorb those," said John Slenker, regional economist with the state Department of Labor.

While Americans worry that the country is edging toward back-to- back recessions, The Buffalo News took a look at people in Western New York who are in the job hunt.

The stories include:

* A woman looking for a full-time banking or paralegal job for five years.

* An electrical engineer willing to drive a forklift.

* A laid off vice-president of a Rochester-based business school, who has made networking a full-time vocation since she lost her job.

"You have to overcome those obstacles that are out there relating to your age or education," said Gerald Groulx, who lost his job in hotel management in January. "You sort of have to figure out what the new landscape is, the new normal."

As Groulx said, the job market has not only shrunk, it has changed.

"A lot of employers are looking at employees to do a lot of things," said Gary Keith, regional economist at M&T Bank. "When employers can be that selective, they can take their time and look for candidates."

"Businesses have evolved and they're leaner and meaner, and candidates haven't," said Joan Graci, president of Career Savers, a career counseling company.

But job hunters, facing a regional unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, say they are trying to adapt, trying to find new ways to land the jobs they so desperately need.

Here are portraits of a few of Western New York's unemployed.

Craving stability

Sonja Auls has been looking for a permanent job as a paralegal or in banking for five years.

She has never been one to stay home and has been working at temp jobs while she seeks permanent work.

"I'll be 40 in a couple weeks and I figured I'd be somewhere by now," she said.

Auls lost her job in North Carolina before moving back home to Buffalo five years ago. She has had 10 jobs through temporary agencies. Even with 12 years of experience in the banking industry and a recently attained paralegal degree, nothing has stuck.

Auls' unemployment benefits ended at the beginning of August because she turned down a temporary job on Grand Island. With an undependable car, she wasn't sure she could make it to work.

"You can get by, and you can get paid [doing temporary work] but you cannot get stable," Auls said.

Auls earned a paralegal degree after moving back the Buffalo, and that education has helped her.

Changing direction

Gerald Groulx is taking classes to improve his skills and help him evaluate which field to enter.

"I try and take it as an opportunity to change direction since the economy has changed," said Groulx, who lost his job in hotel management in January.

Groulx is taking a class in Microsoft Word and Excel at the Buffalo Employment and Training Center. He also is trying to figure out where to go next, he said.

He plans on working in a service industry, possibly health care, but doesn't want to rule out anything.

Needing a challenge

Bruce Brown has worked in sales on a contract or mostly commission basis in the three years since he stopped working as a salesman at a major pharmaceutical company. But the pay cut was steep, he said.

He also worked for his wife's company, a family-owned service business, but it was not challenging enough, he said. So he has been on the hunt for a job in his career field.

"It comes back to what experience do you have? What are your specialties?" Brown said.

He has taken classes in orthopedic device sales and on becoming a leader in life sciences -- which may have helped him at an early August interview with Buffalo Pharmacies, a Kensington Avenue orthopedic device and pharmacy service company.

"A guy like me would be perfect to do what they want," Brown said. "They're going to need a representative to go out and talk about all the services they provide."

That is the kind of a partnership that businesses are looking for now, Graci said. They want self-directed employees.

They also want employees who have specialties, she said, not someone who says they can do anything.

A backup plan

Ray Janak has specialized skills as an electrical engineer. If his six-month unemployment stint continues, he may go back to a different job he has experience with -- driving a forklift.

"My first approach was to look for the same sort of work I was doing because I enjoyed what I was doing," Janak said. "My backup plan is drive a school bus, and maybe drive a forklift. I used to enjoy driving a forklift when I went to college."

Janak spends most of his day in a worklike rhythm, out of the house applying for jobs, interviewing, networking and taking classes.

Through diligent work and networking, he said he has had several job leads and a few interviews.

Janak said his being out of the house and networking makes his wife less nervous. It also makes good job hunting sense to break through the logjam of applicants, said Slenker, with the state Labor Department.

Building a network

Saundra Loffredo has made networking a full-time job since being laid off as vice president at the Everest Institute in Rochester in April.

"It took me about a month to figure out what I wanted to do," Loffredo said.

Now she and her husband are moving to Buffalo to be closer to his family, and Loffredo is building a Buffalo network to find a job in the area.

She has a long list of groups she regularly attends or plans on attending -- The Parachute Group in Amherst, a networking group at the Erie Community College One Stop Center in Orchard Park, Western New York Executive Candidates and the American Business Women's Association.

"I've been connecting with people on LinkedIn. I took a week- long class in Rochester on how to find a job, plus a number of other workshops. I've been doing research on branding statements," Loffredo said. "You have to use all the tools at your disposal."

So far, no luck.

It's a refrain heard over and over across the United States, which has an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. That's almost twice the 2006 national rate.

President Obama is planning a speech in September to lay out a jobs and deficit-cutting initiative. Western New York's unemployed will be among those hoping that the translates into new opportunities.

Because, as Graci said, "there's a lot of different options. But staying home and collecting an unemployment check and hoping the Publishers Clearing House is coming isn't it."

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