Wednesday, Dec. 23
PITTSFIELD -- Pounding the pavement looking for work is never easy -- but imagine hitting the streets with a busted knee.

That's the reality for Bobby Jones of Pittsfield. After slipping on ice and re-injuring a knee fracture earlier this year, the 42-year-old former waitperson has spent the past nine months living at the Barton's Crossing homeless shelter in Pittsfield.

Tuesday, Jones pushed through arthritis and joint swelling to walk from Tyler Street all the way to Merrill Road, filling out 15 applications for work. It took bumping into a friend in the middle of his frigid journey to convince Jones to finally try meeting with a counselor at the local branch of the Department of Transitional Assistance.

"It's really hard to find a job -- believe me, I'm not lazy," Jones said. "As a man, it's so important for me to work -- who wants to collect money for free? I'd rather just work ... all my life, I've worked."

As Berkshire County's unemployment rate increased slightly in November -- moving from 7.7 to 7.9 percent over the last month -- Jones could easily be seen as a statistic. But his story, his frustrations, and his anxiety are not unique, and are shared by 5,657 unemployed workers throughout Berkshire County.

"I'm not surprised that [unemployment rates] went up slightly," said Heather P. Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.


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"There's going to be fluctuation in the employment rate as people come off the unemployment insurance rolls, and the seasonality of the holiday shopping season brings some employment opportunities as well."

According to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, unemployment in-creased by four-tenths of a percentage point in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, and by half a percentage point in North Adams.

Researcher Rena Kottcamp of the Division of Unemployment Assistance explained that while the county's leisure and hospitality industry lost 200 jobs, the county's total labor force grew by 386 people, tied into slight gains within the trade, transportation, and utilities industry, as well as education and health care.

"There really is a growth in opportunities right now," Boulger said, noting some slight growth in the education and health care industries. "With the green jobs sector, the creative economy sector, and retail, there's always openings because people are retiring."

That said, Boulger warned against putting the job search on hold during the holidays.

"This time of the year is a good opportunity to be networking and to get résumés cleaned up and out there," Boulger said. "There are a lot of companies who start their fiscal year in January, and who are looking to ramp up their work force."

Yet many looking for those opportunities have felt more discouraged than ever.

Nick Daniels, 21, of Pittsfield, spent Tuesday trying to help his girlfriend, Heather Martin, 18, find work. With Martin having no method of transportation to leave the county, she has found her options even more limited.

"We've been looking two or three months ... there's no help, we fill out applications, nothing ever happens," said Daniels, who currently works as a server at a restaurant, after "calling every mechanic's shop in Berkshire County" in vain for work. "There's just nothing -- nothing out there."

Victoria Vaughn, 54, of Pittsfield, said that her troubles were twofold, as both she and her 19-year-old son had been looking for work for months without success.

"My son, he's been looking, and he's just totally discouraged," Vaughn said. "I am trying to see if he wants to enlist in the military, to give him some training and education."

Vaughn, who has worked as a medical assistant, in retail, and as a machine operator for a family-owned plastics company, said that the sheer number of candidates was overwhelming to the point where she was hospitalized for diverticulitis, an inflammatory disease of the large intestine.

"Job hunting and acquiring [a job] has always been competitive," she said. "Now it's way beyond that -- I don't know what to do. Even if you have the best clothes, or the best presentation ... it's impossible. Just absolutely impossible."

For Bobby Jones, he said that the real issues of the recession have been obscured by the charts and figures. "I've just been thinking -- this really is the story here. Isn't every person not just a number, not just worth attention and love, but consideration?" Jones said, just before his interview with DTA. "I mean, morally, this is just degrading. I can't even believe I'm here. ... I'm just trying to keep my head above water."