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Persistence pays off as worker takes long, hard road to employment

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 8:16 PM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2008, Ernie Casillas wore pricey suits, drove a Mercedes and spent without saving
  • He lost his job in November of that year and was unemployed for almost four years
  • Networking paid off when he crossed paths with the CEO of a green cleaning company
  • Casillas says from those years, he's learned to save, be more flexible and less materialistic

(CNN) -- November 6, 2008, 9:06 a.m.: Ernie Casillas can peg the downward spiral of his life to that exact minute, when he was fired from his job as a mortgage broker. Barack Obama had just been elected president as Casillas was leaving the work force.

Nearly four years later, as Obama seeks reelection, Casillas has finally landed his first full-time job, emerging out of the group known as the long-term unemployed.

The Labor Department's July employment figures on Friday showed the average duration of unemployment shrank from 39.9 weeks in June to 38.8 weeks in July. The percentage of people who are unemployed long-term (27 weeks or longer) shrank from 41.9% in June to 40.7% in July.

Casillas says his life is evidence that the economy is beginning to turn around. But the road to his new job was painful, heartbreaking and financially devastating.

July jobs report: Hiring picks up, unemployment rises

He remembers his life pre-November 2008: He wore expensive suits, drove a Mercedes and spent every cent of his paycheck. When he was laid off, he thought he'd be back at work in two weeks.

He was wrong.

The subprime mortgage crisis was eating away at the U.S. economy. Employers were shedding jobs, not adding them. A few credits shy of his associate degree, Casillas found himself overqualified for many jobs but underqualified for higher-paid middle-class ones.

"Overqualified, what does that mean?" Casillas remembers. "They kept telling me that. Meanwhile, my life is going down the drain."

He lost his house, his Mercedes, and then his wife left him. In his 40s, he was forced to take the humiliating step of moving in with his mother. A year after he lost his job, he began selling everything he owned on Craigslist.

Obama closer to breaking even on jobs

Then Casillas decided to go even further. He placed an ad on Craigslist that read, "Unemployed. I need a job."

"I wasn't this rich yuppie anymore," he says. "Driving expensive cars, having expensive suits. It humbles you. This is real."

Casillas continued to send out résumés and network at job fairs. But hundreds of résumés later, he still had no job. He started his own computer consulting company, hoping to parlay his IT knowledge into a paycheck. But in a sinking economy, few small businesses wanted to take a chance on a new entrepreneur.

Last year, he tried a new route: bluntly hitting the Los Angeles financial district with a large sign that read, "IT job needed." Wearing a suit and clean-shaven, Casillas looked no different from the people walking around him at lunchtime.

"I think there's a lot of us walking here who are not that far away from where you are," said a man on his lunch hour.

"Yep," said Casillas, shaking his head in acknowledgement.

Casillas shook hands and traded business cards, but again, no job.

Why this month's good jobs news won't last

Last month, all of Casillas' networking finally paid off when he crossed paths with Anna Rosales, the CEO of Avor Inc. Rosales listened as Casillas recounted his frustrating years on the job trail. The story resonated with Rosales, who had been unemployed herself.

She hired Casillas as a supervisor in her green cleaning company, despite his lack of experience in the cleaning field.

"He deserves it. Everyone deserves to work," Rosales says. Casillas would do well, she believed, because of his upbeat personality and his never-will-quit attitude. "Have you ever been unemployed? Ever not able to pay a bill? There's a whole lot of Ernies out there."

Friday's Labor Department figures say there are 2.5 million long-term unemployed people like Ernie Casillas. While the figure is high, it is an improvement from the month before.

Despite Casillas' painful four-year journey, he says he will still vote for the man who came into office as Casillas was exiting his mortgage career.

"I would definitely vote for him," says Casillas, saying he blames former President George W. Bush for the state of today's economy. He also says Obama is less distasteful than his opponent.

"I don't think he's with the people. Mitt Romney doesn't understand a guy like me, someone who's cleaning and sweeping. He's the guy we clean for."

Casillas says he's learned many lessons from his jobless four years, beginning with learning to save. He plans to save half of his paycheck, just in case he loses his job. He also says people need to be flexible when seeking a job, pointing out that he never imagined working at a cleaning company. What he also never imagined is that his new job would pay more than a career as a mortgage banker.

He is piecing his life together and looking forward to his first paycheck next week. He's also moved out of his mother's house and in with his girlfriend.

Casillas adds that he's become a better person and less materialistic. "I no longer think I'm better than the cleaning crew. I am the cleaning crew. So I feel that it made me a better man."

But when asked if he would ever choose to go through his journey again, he quickly responds, "No. No. No."

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