ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Recent jobs news suggests the U.S. economy is picking up steam. But for those in need of work, the competition is still tough. According to one leading report, for every job opening in the U.S. there are three people looking.
As NPR's Annie Baxter reports, some job seekers face an internal obstacle, too - a fear of going back to work.
ANNIE BAXTER, BYLINE: After Jillaine Smith got laid off three years ago, she went through a period of doubting her professional skills. That was despite her 25 successful years in nonprofit management.
JILLAINE SMITH: And as I'm telling you this, it doesn't make any sense, rationally. But you know, inside - wherever that part is - the fear starts growing that I don't have what it takes anymore.
BAXTER: Smith says her fear began to mess with her job search. She still applied for positions near her home in Bethesda, Maryland. But she didn't take steps that would really help land an interview, like networking.
SMITH: Did I update my LinkedIn resume, and things like that? Absolutely. But did I do the stuff that requires getting up, getting dressed, getting out of the house, and going and talking to people? Not so much.
BAXTER: Of course, this is the worst thing to do when you're running out of money. Jillaine Smith's husband did work full time when she was laid off, but money was tight.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. There was certainly financial stress. I always think it's a bad sign when you have to use your credit card for groceries.
BAXTER: Smith can tell this story because she got over the hump and is working again. But I talked to a number of workers who are still hung up on a fear of returning to work. They didn't want to go on the radio because they were too embarrassed to talk about this kind of thing publicly.
Like Jillaine Smith, these workers said their angst didn't really make sense, given their talents and past successes. But they acknowledged that their fear sometimes resulted in self-sabotage. It could paralyze them to the point where they didn't even look for jobs.
MARY WHITE: It's not like it's apparent to the person. It's not like they're saying, well, I don't ever want to work again so I'm really going to mess this up. It's that they're saying, I'm scared to work again.
BAXTER: Mary White is a job counselor with a nonprofit called Hired, in St. Paul, Minnesota. She says the fear she sees in her clients is understandable. New jobs are full of unknowns. You don't know what the culture is going to be like, or whether you'll fit in.
WHITE: People are scared to death to go to parties. Why wouldn't they be scared to death to go to a new job?
BAXTER: Alice Ferdinand has witnessed that fear from the other side of the interview table. She was a human resources manager for three decades. Before she retired in 2010, she met lots of job applicants who dreaded going back to work.
ALICE FERDINAND: And it was not so much detectable in what they said at first as the body demeanor - the slumped shoulders, the poor eye contact, the hesitancy to respond.
BAXTER: Some even told her explicitly that they feared their skills had eroded, or that they wouldn't enjoy working again. That might seem like a crazy thing to say to an interviewer, but Ferdinand says her grandmotherly nature prompted workers to open up to her. And she says those confessions were not instant disqualifiers. The interview kept going if a candidate was committed to overcoming his or her unease.
FERDINAND: Those people were the kinds that you knew that they were not clinically depressed. And you knew that the underlying angst, and the underlying fear, was situational and would go away when they got some positive reinforcement - that is, a job.
BAXTER: That's what happened with Jillaine Smith. Her fears turned out to be temporary. Physical exercise, volunteer work and some freelance gigs brought her back to a more confident version of herself.
SMITH: Getting some work helped.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: Getting some money in the door helped. Being productive again, being useful - that helped.
BAXTER: In other words, it was enough for her to feel rewarded again since unemployment, by itself, offered no rewards at all.
Annie Baxter, NPR News, St. Paul.