For a full year after he was discharged from the U.S. Marines, Ryan Hackett looked for a job that would put him on a path to a career. Three weeks ago he landed a finance assistant position at Yale University, joining a wave of successful job-seekers that pushed the November unemployment rate to 8.4 percent -- the lowest level since mid-2009.
Yale's hiring of Hackett, 29, helped lower the number of jobless Connecticut residents by 4,700, according to Monday's report from the state Department of Labor. It was the fourth consecutive month of declines in the unemployment rate, which was at 9.1 percent in July.
The decline in November, three-tenths of 1 percent from 8.7 percent in October, was the sharpest drop in at least six years. And it was not the result of people becoming discouraged and giving up looking for work, as the total number of people working or actively looking for jobs increased.
"It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," Hackett said of his search. "Part of it was I was unwilling to go below what I thought I was worth or I was capable of."
He could have taken a job making $8.25 to $10 an hour as a security guard or a sales clerk, but after managing reconstruction payouts in Iraq and managing workers at UPS before he enlisted in the Marines in 2005, he felt that would be a step backward.
"As more and more people start to find work like I did, the overall attitude is more hopeful," Hackett said. "I think the economy's improving more than it seems."
The same report Monday also showed more robust job growth than had previously been thought. In October, employers in the state added 7,500 jobs, not 6,500 as previously reported, the labor department said. The November total, based on a survey of employers, showed a gain of 100 jobs, a figure that's subject to sharp revisions.
Job gains have been slow in Connecticut and the nation, with the last 12 months bringing a net gain of 7,500, or about one-half of 1 percent. Still, six of the last eight months showed gains.
"All of that is positive news for the state of Connecticut," said Ed Deak, an economist from Fairfield University who served on former Gov. M. Jodi Rell's council of economic advisers.
Deak said these kinds of reports start to make him rethink his grim forecast for 2012.
"I am very pleasantly surprised," Deak said. "Hopefully it's saying the state is on a self-sustaining expansion, that the state is on the rebound. That's my wish for the new year. ...When people are working ...that helps families enjoy the holidays. It generates more revenue for the state to help balance the budget."
There's still a long way to go, of course. Three years ago, the unemployment rate was 6.4 percent and four years ago it was 4.9 percent.
Connecticut employers have added enough jobs since the recession ended to get 30 percent of the way back to where things were before the downturn. By comparison, the country has only recovered 17 percent of the jobs lost.
Alyssa McLaughlin, 24, will move to Cromwell next week to take one of those new jobs. McLaughlin, who has been living with her parents in New Hampshire since graduating from UConn in May 2010, will be working as an underwriting analyst for Aetna, making about $40,000, far more than she has been making as a substitute teacher.
"I was underestimating how hard it was going to be" to find a full-time professional job, McLaughlin said.
When she graduated with a double major in math and psychology, she had thought she'd go back to school for a master's in education. But after working as a teacher's aide, she realized teaching wasn't for her. It took her six months to find the job at Aetna, after a search for jobs in both Manchester, N.H., and Hartford.
"I was a recent college graduate. I thought a lot of companies would look for that because they could pay you less," she said. But she added, "They were having applicants that had so much more experience than me that was trumping anything I had to offer."
Hackett could have continued to go to college full time and not worry about working, because he first lived with his mother in New Britain and now lives with his girlfriend in Southbury, and she has a good job. But he didn't have health insurance, and more importantly, he felt his life was on hold.
Once you go back to work, "you feel like you're actually making progress in your life as opposed to just waiting for something to happen," he said. Hackett interviewed for several supervisory jobs that he wasn't offered before getting his 30-hour-a-week job at Yale, and he thinks the reason he wasn't chosen was that he hasn't graduated college.
"If you don't have a degree it just closes every door," he said. "The fact that I got the interviews was a testament to my military experience. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't have gotten the call."
He's working on a degree in business management at the University of New Haven under the GI Bill.
The improved picture also has helped older workers. Almost a year to the day after he was downsized, Mike Daigle, 54, of West Hartford, started a job as a senior systems analyst at Cigna. He had two offers to choose from in information technology at Cigna in November.
Daigle was laid off in 1992, and it only took him a month to find another position. He hadn't expected to be jobless for a year, though he thought it might take six months this time.
"Next thing you know a year's gone by, and you're thinking, is it going to be another six months or another year?"
Finding a job, he said, "definitely causes me to stop and give thanks, definitely a sigh of relief." Daigle took a pay cut from his last job, but he said he took an intentional step back from management, to reduce stress and to refresh his technical skills.
McLaughlin also is thankful. " I feel so lucky, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders," she said. She has friends who graduated with her 18 months ago who are struggling, one working retail, and another who's working the night shift in a factory.
Hackett said he wants the news of the state's economy to bring cheer to others who are still unemployed.
"I'm hoping there's a lot of other people out there that will look at it and say: 'Things can get better.' There's a lot of people who have been out of work a lot longer than I was. It's got to be disheartening."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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