DES MOINES, Iowa-Gene Rawls knew layoffs were possible, but the 22-year Wells Fargo employee didn't expect to be in the first wave. He looked around the meeting room with some 200 others, and before anyone said a word, knew that even his position as vice president of continuous improvement was gone.
Even as he thought to himself, "I didn't see this coming," he had a more important realization: God did. "So right away I had that reminder that the Lord is in control," he said.
A stubbornly sluggish economy is producing a large number of Americans in Rawls' position. And the job creators who normally bring an economy out of recession, small businesses, are finding it frustratingly difficult to do so now, leaving many of the unemployed with few options. Iowa, despite a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.1 percent, is a microcosm of the nation in this regard.
For Rawls, losing his job proved to be a chance to help others. Through a consulting opportunity, then a recurring two-month contract with Aviva Insurance, he has comparable pay and helps companies improve methods and measure performance. Along the way, he began to have opportunities to speak to others who were facing tough times, first former co-workers, then their friends.
Over two years, he's spoken with 30 to 40 people about facing joblessness. Sometimes it's just a conversation, sometimes more. He shares practical knowledge of job-seeking tools, but he is also able to talk about the role of faith. "People are good at looking back on a trial and seeing God's hand," he said. "We need to learn to look ahead and see it."
John Ottley recommends job-seekers hold fast to Psalm 53:6. Until recently a Des Moines area pastor, Ottley was one of the people who picked up the phone and called Rawls and other friends for practical and biblical advice. Tom Evans, a former family physician, joined Ottley for long bike rides to hash out the practical realities of Ottley's strengths and opportunities for a "late life transition" at age 55. Another sat down at Panera with his Bible open to share some counsel: "And I was the pastor!" jokes Ottley.
After several months of looking into positions he thought might make sense, an unexpected door opened wide. Within weeks of hearing about a position at Grace Evangelical Church in Germantown, Tenn., he was serving again. "I certainly can appreciate the test of faith it is," he said. "Faith is easy to talk about, harder to practice."
The solution to unemployment traditionally lies with the small businesses that are the nation's top job creators. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses created 64 percent of new jobs over the past 15 years. But with consumer confidence low and budgets tight, hiring hasn't bounced back.
In 1974, Gene and Susan Lutz opened the Lutz Pharmacy in Altoona, Iowa. "I was able to start on a shoestring then," he said. "That's just about impossible today. You've got to be a certain size to make it even practical."
Pharmacists must sell twice the volume that would have supported his business in the early days, as audits and other government-caused costs are increasing. For example, required waste, fraud, and abuse training is not reimbursed. "Regulations are stifling," said Lutz, past president of the American Pharmacy Association. "I don't think it's going to get better."
The Lutz Pharmacy employs 28 people, a mix of full and part-time. Pharmacies have some built-in immunity to downturns, buoyed by customers using government and third-party payers. But the economy is a concern to them because they're now in view of that point in their lives when they will expect to find a buyer and retire.
Still closed on Sundays, the store's front doubles as Healing Touch Book and Bible. The little Christian bookstore is partly just something they wanted to do, partly another way to differentiate from the national chains. "One of the benefits of being an independent business is that you can make decisions quickly and change gears," Lutz said.
Across town, the downturn had a bigger hit on Mike Beckett's small business, manufacturing equipment for heavy-truck alignment, which now employs just six. "We were up to 18 [employees] before the recession hit. Everybody quit buying. We had to retrench and reorganize, but we're surviving," he said. "We'll be here, but it's been a tough three years."
He started a heavy truck alignment business in 1988. He and an engineer then teamed up to manufacture the equipment to align trucks, and he pivoted to selling the product in 1996. The general lack of confidence in the economy is now costing him sales. Most of his buyers plan to finance their purchases, yet many have trouble getting the necessary financing. For about 30 months, he did not have any financed sales because purchasers could not get loans. A secondary complication is not new: Each state has different tax laws, increasing paperwork for each out-of-state sale.
Rollie Clarkson, owner of Remodeling Contractors in Des Moines, has been in the home-remodeling field for more than 30 years, starting out by working his way through college. One change in the industry is the focus on "green" or environmental methods. That increases costs, such as certification to handle lead-based paint properly. The layers of government involvement go all the way to the local level, with each community determining sprinkler requirements. Even so, he's optimistic: "The last three years haven't been good for housing, whether building or remodeling," he said. "But your house is still a good place to put your money."
Bryan Regier, one of the pastors at Faith Bible Church in Cedar Rapids, said that the church had nine or 10 families out of work in 2008, when the city battled a flood, and the jobless are always a part of their ministry. "People found employment again, but they're underemployed," he said.
The church has a benevolence fund and an ad hoc committee process in place for when members end up in financial turmoil. They start by working up a new, lean budget. "We don't just bail them out," he said. "We get the numbers down, and we address hard issues."
Jobs are a constant topic of presidential hopefuls in Iowa, and Gov. Terry Branstad is touring the state talking jobs in town halls. With the federal government already borrowing 40 cents on the dollar, Branstad expects to continue looking for solutions at the state level. "This is a very slow recovery," he said. "That's why we've got to control costs."