PRINCETON, N.J. It takes just a few minutes for the sheet of ledger paper to complete its trip around the circle long enough for 28 pairs of hands to log months of frustration on its ruled blue lines.
Among those gathered in this church classroom for the Tuesday night meeting of JobSeekers, 21 mark boxes indicating they've been out of work at least six months. For 15, it's been a year or more. For two, the last paycheck was 25 months ago.
''It's a pleasure to be here,'' says a latecomer, Vera Agarwal, pulling another chair into the support group's widening circle. ''Or maybe not.''
Unemployed workers, struggling for traction in a stagnant labor market, are slogging through some of the longest job searches in 20 years.
The time the average jobless worker remains unemployed stretched to nearly 20 weeks in April. That is up from about 12 weeks in early 2001, and is the longest since late 1983, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many searches take even longer. Nearly 22 percent of unemployed workers 2 million people have been out of a job more than six months. That is double the number of two years ago. About 13 percent have been out for a year or more.
''I figured with my experience ... I'd be a good catch for somebody,'' said Mike Pawelczak of Hamilton, N.J., a regular at JobSeekers meetings since losing his position as an information technology executive 16 months ago. ''But I've come to find out, there are literally thousands of good catches out there right now.''
The increasing futility of many job searches is overshadowed by the attention focused on the national unemployment rate. At 6 percent in April, up from a low of 3.8 during the same month of 2000, it is still much lower than the peak in previous downturns. During the last slowdown in the early 1990s, unemployment topped out at 7.8 percent.
But past recessions were followed by job growth quick and robust after the downturn in the early 1980s, delayed and incremental after the slump of the early 1990s, economists say.
''What we're seeing now is it's actually deteriorating,'' said Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist with Economy.com, a research firm based in West Chester, Pa. ''This is what's frightening people because we're in sort of a different world now.''
Although the recession has not been formally declared over, many economists believe it ended 16 months ago. But most companies are still doing little, if any, hiring. In the three months that ended in April, the economy lost a half million jobs.
The result, say many of those out of work, are searches that drag on, often with no apparent benefit.
''We all thought if we can just get through 2002, it'll get better, and it hasn't,'' said John Vaden, who runs a JobSeekers USA unemployment support group, not affiliated with the New Jersey group, in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody.
Vaden's group, which was drawing 30 people for a mix of networking and Christian Bible study just a few years ago now averages more than 150, filling the dining room of a Fuddrucker's restaurant at 7:30 a.m. every Monday.
They include jobseekers like Bill Schwartz, who is Jewish and runs an unemployment support group at his synagogue. When his own job search reached its fourth month with few prospects, he shelved his reservations about joining a Christian networking group.
''I said, well, this isn't working. I'll have to try something else,'' says Schwartz, who worked in the accounts payable department at United Parcel Service's headquarters.
Out of work since May 22 of last year, Schwartz has been drawing down savings to support his family, money that was supposed to pay for his two children's education. He's begun worrying what could happen if he's still looking six months from now, when he's no longer eligible to buy health insurance through his former employer.
In Ballwin, Mo., outside St. Louis, the weekly meeting of Businesspersons Between Jobs has been filling nearly all 170 of the chairs organizers set up in a church gymnasium. In the late 1990s, it was drawing just 15 or 20, and organizers joked it might even put itself out of business.
One regular, Dale Chisholm, an electrical engineer who lost his job in February, says he feels his confidence crumbling.
Chisholm, who was also cut from a previous job in 1999, remembers how the inclusion of his ''mini-resume'' in the networking group's mass mailing back then generated calls from a half-dozen recruiters within a week.
His information has been included in two circulars this year, but netted him just one phone call from a company that said it was merely looking for the future.
''It's tough to be optimistic. I really don't know. I live from week to week,'' said Chisholm, of Chesterfield, Mo. ''I'm not sure that people who are working really understand.''
People in the unemployment support group at Princeton's Trinity Church probably would. Members, most cut from middle-management jobs in information technology and financial services, many in their 40s or early 50s, are accustomed to seeing the same faces week after week.
''The people who are there have become friends with each other,'' said Niels Nielsen, a management consultant who runs the group as a volunteer. ''The turnover, even a year ago, was much, much more rapid.''
Those who come to the meetings trade stories that sound discouragingly familiar. If they've gotten severance pay, it's long since spent. Unemployment insurance, both the standard 26 weeks and the 13-week extension, expired months ago.
They've sent out countless resumes, put out queries to friends of friends of friends. Employers rarely call them back. When they do, the paychecks discussed are meager.
Amy Wassum, a 32-year old software analyst from Yardley, Pa. who lost her job a year ago, was offered a position this past February. When she tried to negotiate a better salary, the employer told her she was lucky to be getting a job at all and retracted the offer.
This week Wassum starts a position as a consultant, a job that is supposed to last 3 months. Then, she wonders, what next?
''Now I'm afraid,'' she says, ''and I've never been afraid before.''
Uncertainty has spread throughout the ranks of job searchers, many who have begun to doubt themselves as well as the prospect of things getting better.
''Now the problem is .... to help people who get discouraged because it's so tough out there,'' said Geoff Boole of Right Management Consultants, a Philadelphia-based ''outplacement'' firm retained by employers to help laid-off workers find new jobs.
Job searches for Right clients have been running about 4 1/2 months, but vary by salary range. Workers making under $50,000 averaged 3.8 months in 2002, up from 3 months. For those making more than $125,000, searches stretched to 7.2 months last year, up from 6 months in 2001.
For people like Pawelczak, the New Jersey IT executive, such a quick search is just wishful thinking.
Since being let go last Feb-ruary, he's churned through 30 reams of paper and four toner cartridges printing out cover letters and resumes.
The process has filled eight loose-leaf binders. Half contain lists of recruiters, personal contacts and letters to companies Pawelczak is waiting to hear back from. The other four are stuffed with correspondence for leads that have failed.
Pawelczak tempers his frustration by taking his Harley-Davidson out for long rides in the country on weekends. He's put his house on the market to help pay the bills, but won't consider getting rid of the bike.
''That would be an absolute last resort,'' he said. ''It is my one touch to sanity.''
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