By ALEXA MILAN
SANFORD — Unlike this time last year, Sanford resident Rhett Isley and his family rarely go out to eat. His four children, ranging in age from 7 to 15, can’t participate in extracurricular activities. Instead of going to summer camp or taking a vacation, his two youngest children went to visit Isley’s mother in Tennessee as a way to get out of the house.
The family has had to make a lot of lifestyle changes in the past 11 months, because Isley is one of the thousands of people in Lee County who are unemployed.
“Traditionally, I’ve always looked at things as the glass is half full,” Isley said. “But there isn’t always an opportunity available three to six months down the road.”
Isley was a project manager for AT&T, providing program management to retail operations. During his time with the company, he built a couple of $3 million stores. He was under contract with the company for two years, but because of the worsening economy, AT&T started letting its contractors go. Isley’s last day was Oct. 2, 2009.
His wife, Vickie, has a quilting business that pays the bills and pays for health insurance, but money is tight. Isley immediately began looking for other options, but found that job opportunities in his field were slim.
“I’ve put out about 200 resumes now for IT management and similar jobs,” Isley said.
“Working to find a job today is harder than any job I’ve ever had.”
It’s a sentiment Sanford resident Bart Willis knows all too well. Willis worked as a project manager for commercial construction and modular building, but he was laid off in February 2009.
“Initially, we thought I was very marketable,” Willis said. “Since we hadn’t experienced it, we were kind of in a ‘it can’t happen to me’ mode.”
Willis’ wife works as a mental health therapist, but prior to being laid off, he brought home about two-thirds of the household income. With two young children to think about, Willis didn’t waste time in searching for another job.
But soon the savings ran out and the interviews stopped, and the Willis family had to get creative with budgeting. Willis and his wife canceled their landline and reduced their cell phones to the minimum plan. They started clipping coupons to help with the cost of groceries, reduced their satellite TV package and made arrangements with their children’s daycare center.
“Depression definitely set in,” Willis said. “There’s a loss of self worth. For me at least, you go from $85,000 a year to zero. That’s a significant hunk of change.”
To combat those difficult emotions, both men established routines and stuck to them. Most days, Isley is up by 8 a.m. He receives e-mails from multiple job boards, and he checks every job site from Craigslist to Tech Wire. He also tackles whatever temporary work he can find, such as working with the U.S. Census earlier this year.
“I do better if I have a purpose or some responsibility,” Isley said. “I need to feel like I’m a contributing part of something.”
Isley and Willis also both found a saving grace in Sanford Jobseekers, a weekly support group held at First Baptist Church. Each week, Sanford Jobseekers features different programs ranging from interview tips and how to market oneself to stress management and networking. The programs also incorporate spiritual guidance.
“It’s given me an avenue for spiritual support and an opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Isley said.
The church also offers free use of computers for jobseekers, and guest speakers share words of advice. Isley and Willis both took on leadership roles in the group, sharing their skill sets and offering help and support to others going through the same experience. Both men cite their involvement with Sanford Jobseekers as a fulfilling experience that helped them grow on a personal and professional level.
“It’s a community of people that can share what’s going on,” Willis said. “It makes you feel like you’re not alone.”
With unemployment statistics in Lee County as high as they are, Isley and Willis worked to make their skills stand out. In addition to writing customized cover letters, Willis ended up with 11 different resumes highlighting different strengths and skills. One of those 11 resumes led to Willis becoming one of the lucky ones. After nearly 16 months of unemployment, Willis found a job.
In June, Willis started working as an estimator for Disaster One, a contractor that handles restoration projects after disasters. Willis develops scopes and budgets for insurance claims, work that is different from his old job but similar enough that his skills transferred.
“I’d applied for a marketing job with them several months before and they called me out of the blue,” Willis said. “There’s a time in the interview process when you’re pretty sure you have the job. The human resources person was on vacation, and there was a three-day wait when we knew I had the job but it wasn’t official.”
When he finally got the official call, Willis felt overwhelming relief. The financial strain and personal stress began to lift. If they wanted to, the Willises could have restored their landline, stopped clipping coupons and increased their satellite and cell phone packages again. But Willis said the adjustments the family made when he was unemployed will stay in place.
“You learn a lot when you have to do without,” Willis said. “By giving up certain things, we grew closer as a family. It was a humbling learning experience.”
Isley is still looking for a full-time job, but he remains committed to his routine and staying active. For the past few weeks, he has been substitute teaching at Lee Christian School, keeping busy with grading papers and developing full lesson plans.
Willis said it’s easy to become depressed when unemployed, but he encourages people to keep busy and never give up. Isley said the long process of job hunting is frustrating, but he knows a lot of people today are unemployed through no fault of their own. It’s important to find fulfillment in other areas, Isley said, and to always keep one’s head held high. In spite of everything, he still has hope for his future.
“In five years, I want to be back in management somewhere or running a business,” Isley said. “I want my kids to be able to go to college without having to worry about money. I don’t need to travel the world or own a Rolls Royce, but I want to live comfortably. I want to provide opportunities for my kids.”