HARTFORD, Conn. — By almost any measure, the odds were against Bob Rohrig after he lost his job as an account manager for a printing and direct mail company in 2011.
He was nearly 61 years old. The commercial printing industry was, and still is, in decline. The unemployment rate in Connecticut was above 9 percent.
Some people in that position might have collected unemployment until they turned 62, resigned to rely on Social Security, and entered an early retirement.
But Rohrig had barely begun saving for retirement when he was laid off. He was determined to get back to work — and not in a part-time retail job.
“My mother always used to tell me, ‘Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and march forward,'” Rohrig said, sitting in the Hartford-area apartment that he shares with his wife, where the neutral apartment-complex standard carpet and paint contrast with the decor of antiques and photos of old houses.
In June last year, Rohrig returned to full-time work in the same industry — three years and four months after he lost his job — and he’s still in the position.
There were days in those three years and four months — he always includes the four months when he talks about it — that he couldn’t bear to make another call to a printing executive. When he saw others getting jobs and he hadn’t had an interview in months.
“Certainly I had moments when I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t going to happen.'”
And, in fact, the vast majority of people like him — those who were out of work for a long time, even well after the recession ended — still weren’t working more than a year later, or were working only part-time, or in temporary jobs.
Among Americans who had been out of work a half-year or more in March 2013, just 28 percent of them were back working full-time for at least three months by June 2014, according to a paper by Federal Reserve economists. And that doesn’t even single out people older than 60, who, by many accounts, face a bias in the workplace.
But Rohrig was steadfast.
400 BUSINESS CARDS
Before his layoff, he had been working for Data Mail, an 800-person combined printer/mailer in Connecticut, for nearly four years. He had been a senior account manager, and when one of the major clients switched to another company to save on postage, he was no longer needed.
He had been making between $70,000 and $80,000 when he lost his job. His new job pays far less.
“I didn’t limit myself to printing and mail industries,” Rohrig said. He applied to manufacturers, warehouses, a fuel oil company, a nursery and many others.
Soon after he lost his job, he attended a 6-month, 20-hours-a-week, government-financed training program in quality management. But it didn’t help him switch to manufacturing.
“I felt bad about that,” he said. But he understood why classmates who had been downsized from factories were getting job offers and he wasn’t.
“I don’t care what they tell you, everybody wants somebody from their industry,” he said.
But when he did networking in the printing industry, he was constantly reminded of how troubled it was. A company would say they’d been stagnant for three years. Another company would say they were laying off, not hiring.
One small printing company’s owner told him “within six weeks, I’ll be sitting on your side of the table,” because his business was about to go under.
It took him more than six months to get his first real interview. At the time, he was spending thousands of dollars on an executive placement firm in a last-ditch effort to return to a general manager level he’d achieved decades before. All for nothing.
But Rohrig kept networking, armed with the support of his wife — whom he’s known since high school in Elmira, N.Y. — and the ability to talk himself out of funks brought on by the grind of unemployment. He sent in applications and joined support groups.
Federal data show that people 55 and older were the most likely to end up out of work for more than a year during the time when Rohrig was looking. In May 2014, the last month that he was jobless, the average length of unemployment for that demographic was 51 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Because unemployment was so high, he was eligible for unemployment checks for 63 weeks, not the half-year of normal times. When he turned 62, he applied for Social Security, which means he’ll receive 25 percent less than he would have if he had waited until 66, full retirement age.
“It enabled us to keep our head above water, pay our bills and get somewhat out of debt,” he said.
It didn’t make him try any less to find a job, however.
Although he dedicated himself to networking — he met so many people, he had about 400 business cards filed in books — he found most of the dozen interviews he had were from responding to job ads. He was interviewed in Dayton, Ohio, and Cleveland at printing firms.
Locally, he interviewed with four companies outside printing and a handful of printing firms, too, including the giant printing firm R.R. Donnelly.
Four of the companies he interviewed with never told him why they didn’t offer him a job. In other cases, he said, the company decided to go with someone local, changed the job description, or told him he was too expensive, even though he’d taken steps back in pay other times in his career. His peak earning year was 1995, when he earned more than $90,000.
‘THEY CAN’T SAY IT’
According to a paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “A sharp downturn gives employers cover to engage in age discrimination.”
A report from the Congressional Budget Office said interviews with workforce professionals found that employers steer clear of older workers because they believe that they’ll raise the cost of the company’s health insurance and because they had higher wages in past jobs than younger candidates.
Rohrig said he absolutely believes that his age was a big part of why he was out of work for so long.
“They can’t say it, but you just know,” he said. “Someone cheaper, someone younger, more energetic, is more attractive.”
According to a scientific survey published by Rutgers in September 2014, 46 percent of all those who had been unemployed since 2009 had to take a pay cut when they got back to work. And data suggest that the older you are, the bigger the pay cut.
It was hard keeping his spirits up as one year of unemployment dragged into two. He went swimming every day, starting in the middle of 2012, and lost more than 15 pounds. He went to weekly meetings with other unemployed people, which sometimes made him more down, but sometimes made him feel useful.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
“There were days when I read the paper and watched TV and I didn’t do anything. It’s very easy to say I don’t have the energy to make one more call,” Rohrig said. But he never let himself stay stuck for long. He’d say to himself, “OK, I’m going to call these five people.”
“You have to have a strategy for working your way out of it,” Rohrig said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
In 2013, he landed a 2 1/2-month consulting assignment with a former client — he had been a consultant from 1999 to 2005.
The temp work made it possible for Rohrig and his wife to pay for a move from the house they were renting to the apartment where they live now.
By early 2014, Rohrig had seen other unemployed people get back to work, but he just told himself: “I’m doing all the right things.” He said that although statistics suggested the economy was improving, he wasn’t getting any more interviews. “For people who are unemployed post-55, it’s still tough as hell,” he said.
And even with networking, he felt he was running out of places to try. He’d already talked to every printing and mailing company in the region.
But retiring early wasn’t an option. Rohrig only started saving for retirement in his 50s, and he liquidated that 401(k) during his long unemployment.
When his children were young, he was paying Montessori school tuition, and when they were older, he was helping them with their college loans. In hindsight, he realizes that he and his wife could’ve found $100 a month to put away in their 30s and 40s.
“Maybe we weren’t as smart about money as we should’ve been,” he said. “I’m encouraging my son and daughter now” to save for retirement.
In late 2011, he had met with the owner of a couple of Minutemen Press franchises, and had a good networking meeting, but there was no job. In April 2014, he thought he should call that owner again.
“I’ve just started looking for an estimator,” the man told him.
“We met for two hours, and he hired me,” Rohrig said.
Rohrig now earns about 55 percent of what he made at Data Mail, but he doesn’t express even a smidge of bitterness. He says simply that he knew he wouldn’t be able to earn the same amount, and expected to land a job that paid less than $50,000.
He intends to work until 70 so he can build some retirement savings.
“I love going to work every day. I love it. Not only going to work, but the job itself. It’s a lot of fun. It’s not that stressful.”
©2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):