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King: Job counselor both teacher and painful example

  • Story Highlights
  • Job counselor watched his retirement funds 'evaporate' and went back to work
  • Don Witte, 64, says this recession is like no other in his lifetime
  • "It's the toughest job market I have seen in my lifetime," Witte says
  • Damian Birkle says he's never seen recession "ripple through America" like this one
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By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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Editor's note: On CNN's "State of the Union," host and chief national correspondent John King goes outside the Beltway to report on the issues affecting communities across the country. King traveled to North Carolina to look at how the recession is affecting the newly retired.

Damian Birkel of Professionals in Transition says the current recession has affected "those you would least expect to be impacted."

Don Witte's classroom is a diverse one: A former senior executive, an auto mechanic, nurse and laborer are among his students.

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina -- Don Witte is in command of the classroom, offering advice on how to write an attention-grabbing resume and extolling the virtue of truth-in-advertising while networking.

"Be yourself, always be yourself," he tells the crowded classroom at Forsyth Technical Community College. "Don't try to be someone you are not."

The diversity in the classroom is telling: A former senior executive sits a few feet from an auto mechanic. A middle manager chats with a nurse. A teacher and a laborer listen as Witte doles out tips.

"It's affecting everybody," Witte tells us. "Each one of them has a little different story and the common thread is they haven't looked for a job in 10 years or so."

In these tough economic times, Don Witte is both a teacher and a painful example.

His job counseling advice is borne of 35 years in the airline and other industries helping hire and recruit talent. To drop in on a class is to see a man who clearly loves his work.

But he is here not just because he enjoys it -- Witte needs the work.

"I retired about four years ago -- had a very enjoyable retirement until last year," Witte says in an interview at his home. "A lot of the funds we had counted on evaporated."

It is all the more frustrating because Witte did things by the book. When his daughter moved out and got married, Witte and his wife downsized to a smaller, less costly home. His investments were conservative, and as he approached retirement, he smartly filled out his nest egg with blue chips with a long history of paying decent dividends.

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"Diversify, diversify, diversify -- I did it but it didn't make any difference," Witte says. "It is the American dream: You work hard for a number of years and you know you can -- quote -- 'retire and enjoy yourself and relax.' Unfortunately no more."

The career counseling at Forsyth brings only a modest paycheck, but it helps with health insurance and other bills and with Witte's understanding of a recession he says is like none other in his lifetime.

"It's the toughest job market I have seen in my lifetime," Witte says.

He sees more evidence in the evening hours, when we tag alone as Witte volunteers at the meetings of a nonprofit organization called Professionals in Transition -- a polite way of saying looking for work.

"I know a few people in town and I will share my contacts with you openly and gladly," Witte tells those at the meeting. In such tough times, with so many applicants for every job, Witte encourages aggressive networking because he says a recommendation from a friend or pastor with credibility to prospective employers could make the difference.

Damian Birkel founded Professionals in Transition in 1992 and says he has seen nothing like the current economic crunch.

"Banking, housing, construction -- everything kind of exploded," Birkel says in an interview as one recent session was filling up. "I have never, in the 17 years I have been doing it, ever seen the economic impact ripple through America like this. ... It is your neighbors. It is your friends. It is the people you would least expect to be impacted."

People like Don Witte, who sees the headlines from Wall Street and all the bailout money being spent in Washington and believes reckless greed washed out his years of careful investing.

"Me and a million other people like me," Witte says. "They were playing with our money and not in a safe and prudent way. And they are not suffering -- we are."

Witte says dinner out is now a treat, not a weekly event. Plans of frequent travel have been scaled back. Buying clothes and other items now usually wait for a sale.

"In contrast to a year ago, we are counting every single penny that goes out. And not because we want to but because we have to."

Witte nonetheless is an optimist who says there are others far worse off than he. The economy -- and the market -- will bounce back eventually, Witte says with confidence. But not knowing just when, and how fast, leaves a gnawing uncertainty that Witte did not expect at this point in his life.

"Being 64, is there enough time left in my life to get it back where it was?" he says. "Because I would like to leave something to my daughter and my granddaughter and my grandson -- my grandchildren. But at this point, there is very little there."

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