By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Charles Seeman said he wasn't worried after getting laid off from a job he loved as chief financial officer for a Raleigh, North Carolina-area company.
But out of work for 14 months, Seeman now finds himself in good company among the mostly middle-aged people with college degrees and deep experience who gather weekly for a support group for the unemployed.
"I had always been able to get a job before because of my background," said the 48-year-old certified public accountant with an MBA and a master's in accounting.
White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh is a prosperous place in a growing city, but every Tuesday morning it becomes the center of an economic crisis for the middle class. A support group that began in 2008 with five members now draws at least 65 each week, with more than 340 on its rolls.
Two church members and retired executives who lead the group never expected to still be dealing with high unemployment nearly three years later. Many of the middle-class participants didn't either.
"They get the idea, 'Oh, I can get another job quickly.' Then time starts clicking away, and next thing you know six months have passed and they don't have work," said Bob Gates, a former AT&T executive.
"They aren't even close to a job. So they need some kind of program like this in order to keep focused."
Members of the White Memorial support group have learned firsthand a grim truth of the long economic downturn.
Americans who should be in their prime earning years -- funding their children's college, paying off homes and planning for retirement -- are instead exhausting their savings, losing their assets and struggling to keep pride in themselves and faith in the future. And there's no sign of a let up.
At the start of the recession in December 2007, unemployment among those with college degrees was 2.1 percent. After peaking at 5.1 percent in late 2010, the number remains high at 4.4 percent, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.
More than two years after the Great Recession officially ended, overall U.S. unemployment ticked up to 9.2 percent in June, the highest level since December 2010. On average, there are 4.7 applicants for every job opening.
Thomas W. Arndt, 60, a former CEO of several mid-sized manufacturing companies, thinks unemployment and underemployment are even more pervasive than the figures show.
Let go from a job as part of a restructuring, he has been looking for a senior management position for 10 months.
"I don't believe any of the numbers I hear. I believe they are all suspect," Arndt said. "The number is much bigger."
NETWORKING IS KEY
Arndt attended a recent support group meeting where late arrivals were forced to stand after about 60 seats were filled. The featured speaker, Chapel Hill-based career coach Kristin Hiemstra, opened by asking for responses to certain words.
The first word was entitlement.
The answers came back: "You owe me." "I've got qualifications." "I've got more sense than the young folks."
Then blame: "They don't know what they lost."
Then came pity and fear, as some worried they might lose homes, see their skills slip or never get another job.
Hiemstra urged the group to avoid sitting at home applying for jobs online. She said they needed to muster their self confidence, count their blessings and go meet people.
"The computer will suck the very life out of you," she said. "Seven out of 10 jobs are found through networking."
Her concluding comment spoke to dejection as much as optimism. "It is important for you to remember that you are deeply loved," she said.
Gates and his co-leader, former public relations executive Al Rankin, also bring in speakers who offer advice on resume writing, interviewing and setting up an online profile.
Those skills are crucial, but middle-aged job seekers still face inevitable obstacles trying to reenter corporate America -- age discrimination and a hiring environment altered by technology and globalization.
Group members are advised to scrub their resumes of college graduation years and other signs of their age. They are told to list their experience at "15 years plus," never more.
But the vagueness doesn't change the reality that many are best qualified for work of a different era.
"We have people who come in here and basically their industry has gone away," Rankin said. "They are trained in something that really isn't viable anymore. That is difficult for someone to confront."
Gates said he used to think the unemployed were people who simply weren't trying hard enough to get jobs or blue-collar workers caught in the tidal shifts of industrial change.
But the make-up of those attending the White Memorial support group meetings have given him new perspective. Many have master's degrees. Two have doctorates.
"The list is actually people with credentials," he said.
A few group members travel more than 50 miles for emotional support and advice as they seek work in the worst job market since the Great Depression. Many have been jobless for over a year. Some briefly found work and were laid off again. Others are in their third year without a paycheck.
The financial struggle for people who thought they would work as long as they wanted takes a psychological toll that further reduces chances of finding a job, Rankin said.
One of the biggest challenges for members is moving on from the anger they feel toward their former employers and the bitterness aimed at companies that aren't hiring them.
"It's a Catch-22. Their resources are dwindling, if not gone. They really want to get a job, and in their interactions with potential employers there is this sense of desperation that comes through that really gets in the way," Rankin said.
Gates and Rankin are determined to keep tending to the casualties of the economy, offering sympathy and practical tips against a downturn so deep it hit those who once felt secure.
Ultimately, the group leaders hope members find jobs and leave the Tuesday meetings behind. "We would like to work ourselves out of a job," Rankin said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)