ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
It's been almost a year since we launched our series the Road Back to Work. We followed six people in St. Louis who started 2011 unemployed and searching for work. They came from different backgrounds and different industries. What they shared was the struggle to find a job in this challenging economy. Ultimately, they all returned to work.
But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, keeping a job in this economy can be every bit as tough as finding one.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Randy Howland spent most of this past year working at a $10 an hour customer service job. He used to make six figures. With this job, he was settling, just so he could have the satisfaction of working. It was essentially a call center job. At times, Howland struggled with the pace, taking too long on the calls because, he says, he wanted to make sure the customers were happy. So, it wasn't entirely a surprise when Howland got a call from his boss.
RANDY HOWLAND: My boss just said I was on the list to be cut. And that was it.
KEITH: All year long, Howland and the others have been using a small digital recorder to document their job situations. It takes him a few days to get around to recording this update.
HOWLAND: Well, it's Saturday the 27th of August. This is Randy and I got laid off, so back where we started.
KEITH: He brought back out his job search spreadsheet documenting every application, every contact, every interview.
HOWLAND: September 14th, I'm at the Hilton Hotel. No, I'm not on a vacation. I'm at another job fair. October 20th, I had a second interview with a company, a position that I really, really, really would like. OK. November 3rd, 2011. Yep, on my way to another interview.
KEITH: And then, after two and a half months of searching...
HOWLAND: Monday the 7th, 1:04 Central. This is Randy and just got a job offer. And I took that job offer.
KEITH: It's with a company called Express Scripts. They help companies and government agencies manage health benefits, specifically prescription drugs. Howland will be doing customer service, and he's excited about the company's emphasis on customer satisfaction.
HOWLAND: Is it still a third of what I made about 10 years ago? Yeah. But it's also 30 percent higher than I was just making at a job I wasn't too thrilled with. So it's a good day.
KEITH: Howland isn't the only one on the Road Back to Work to lose a job. The Barfields, Brian and Jennifer, who met in a networking group for unemployed professionals both had temp positions earlier this year. In September, Brian was let go. Then in November, it was Jennifer's turn.
She turns on her recorder as she drives home at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. She had a meeting with her boss at three.
JENNIFER BARFIELD: I'm sure you can surmise what has happened. Today was my seven-month to the day anniversary and I was let go. My boss basically said it wasn't working out.
KEITH: Barfield was doing IT work. Now, both she and her husband Brian are essentially in the same unfortunate spot.
BARFIELD: Brian is basically unemployed and my job was holding us down. And I'm a little concerned of what the future holds.
KEITH: She's afraid she may have to sell her engagement ring or maybe the house.
BARFIELD: I don't know. I never thought life would turn to this for me.
KEITH: In 2010 there were 19 million people like the Barfields and Howland who at times worked, but also experienced unemployment. Put another way, a whole lot of people know that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them again.
HOWLAND: Thanksgiving, 2011. This is Randy. New job is going quite well. Two weeks into my five week training. So far, I think everything is good. I got A's on everything, except for one B so far.
KEITH: There is a lot to learn, so new employees have to take tests. Howland is confident in a way he never was with his last job. He's upbeat, and thinking about things he hasn't entertained in years.
HOWLAND: We are considering taking advantage of employee benefits at my new job at Express Scripts.
KEITH: It's been about a decade since Howland and his wife, Lisa, had health insurance. It either wasn't offered or was a luxury they couldn't afford. Less than a week later, before he even has a chance to sign up, Howland is let go after he failed to get 90 percent correct on a final exam.
HOWLAND: Retook it. I was still in the 80s. I don't know what I missed. I was just escorted to a room, told to turn in my information and then escorted to the door.
KEITH: He blames test anxiety. That Sunday he's listening to country music, in what's almost become a ritual after a job loss. He decides to write a letter to the company CEO, describing his situation.
HOWLAND: Pleading for my job back and to help get our holidays back where we were feeling good about things. So it's a - it's a long shot. But, boy, I really wanted this position.
KEITH: Howland hasn't heard anything back yet. He's not even sure his letter will make it to the CEO. His job search is well under way again.
Just this week, Jennifer Barfield started a new job, at a law firm doing IT work. It's a lot like the job she lost more than two years ago, though with less pay. But she's still uneasy. She's learned the hard way, no job is forever.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.