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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When people return to work after being unemployed for a long stretch, their new job often is not as good as the one they lost. That's just one of the difficult realities faced by the people we're profiling as part of our Road Back to Work series. For the next year, we're following six unemployed people in St. Louis, and we've given them recording equipment to document their job search.

Today, NPR's Tamara Keith updates us on three of our job seekers.

TAMARA KEITH: When we first met Randy Howland, he had been out of work for more than a year.

Mr. RANDY HOWLAND: It's Thursday, January 6th. It's in the morning. You know, one advantage that Lisa has, my wife, is that me being out of work, I get to make breakfast for her.

KEITH: Howland's career peaked back in 2002. He was making more than $100,000 a year working for the telecom giant WorldCom. Then the company went bust. He's held a series of lower-wage jobs since then. Even though Howland is 50 years old and has a master's degree, the jobs he's been applying for most recently have been entry-level positions in sales and customer service.

Mr. HOWLAND: If I'm not bringing in the bacon, so to speak, I'd better be making some bacon.

KEITH: Howland has applied for more than 600 jobs in the last year. And finally, in the dead of winter, there's an opportunity: an actual job offer. It's not perfect. It's a call center type position, where he'd take customer service calls from home. The pay is low. With taxes taken out, it's less than Howland was getting on unemployment.

Mr. HOWLAND: This is Randy. It's Thursday the - February 3rd. Tomorrow, I start my new job. My salary will be an exciting $10 an hour. It's one-fifth of where I was at my peak. Of course, it's better than where I was when I was 21. Again, I'm 50. We'll see.

KEITH: In the job, he's doing customer service for a telecommunications company. He's back in the industry where he once thrived. And that makes him happy, even if the pay hurts his pride.

Mr. HOWLAND: It's time. I've been sucking government money for quite a bit. So I'm sucking it up. And with my wife's income as a hairdresser, we can barely, barely, barely wing it. But I think we can do it.

KEITH: He's settling for less. And he's not alone.

Ms. JENNIFER BARFIELD: Hello. This is Jennifer and Brian together. It is Tuesday, January 25th. It's 5:30 p.m.

KEITH: Jennifer and Brian Barfield are newlyweds. She's 47, he's 53. They met at a networking group for unemployed people in St. Louis. Brian spent his career in manufacturing. Jennifer is an IT professional.

Ms. BARFIELD: Brian, today, had to take a test for a particular job that he had applied for. And I'm going to hand this over to Brian and let him talk about how it went. So here you go, honey.

Mr. BRIAN BARFIELD: I took my time with the answers and got them correct. And I end up passing the test with flying colors. I go back next week for a interview with the plant manager and the department managers to see if or where they'll put me in the plant.

KEITH: It's a warehouse position at a major St. Louis company. It's a weekend job, just part-time. And he wouldn't be a manager, so a step down from his last job.

Mr. BARFIELD: Hello. It is late Wednesday night, early Thursday morning. It's about 1 o'clock in the morning on February 3rd. We're up here. My lovely wife is ironing my shirt, getting ready for my interview first thing in the morning.

KEITH: This may not be his dream job, but the Barfields need the income.

Mr. BARFIELD: So I assume, if everything goes well tomorrow, they'll have assigned me a department. If everything doesn't go well, I guess I come home without that job.

KEITH: And he really wants that job.

Mr. BARFIELD: It's Friday, February 4th. And I just got a call, and I have been accepted. It's two days a week, but it's way more than unemployment is and it's a chance to get on permanent.

KEITH: He'll continue applying for full-time positions at other companies, too, hoping someday to work two jobs.

According to government data, more than eight million Americans are working part-time now, but want to have full-time jobs. But at least they have jobs.

Brian's wife Jennifer is nearing two years of being unemployed.

Ms. BARFIELD: Hi. This is Jennifer. It is February 7th at 12:22 a.m. Well, I've had a bad day. The day started off for me with a message from a recruiter about a job that I had interviewed for last week that they said on the voicemail that the company just passed on me and didn't give any feedback as to why.

KEITH: It was her third rejection in two days. She still has a few irons in the fire, as she calls them, but they seem to be going cold. Even with Brian's new job, money is tight.

Ms. BARFIELD: It's just our situation. It's so frustrating to me. And right now, I'm so down. I'm just questioning everything from spiritual issues to what's the point of, you know, living life if this is all it is. And no, I'm not suicidal or anything like that, but I'm just really frustrated.

KEITH: For Jennifer, Brian, Randy and so many others, life after a job loss isn't what it was before. There's a new normal, and the adjustment hurts.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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NORRIS: And for more on The Road Back to Work series, visit npr.org.

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