Is re-invention the blueprint for a new career?

Evening News - Help Wanted Series

WONDER LAKE, Ill. - At age 59, Bill Mielke wonders when he'll find another job. "I've been unemployed for over one year," he tells CBS News senior business correspondent Anthony Mason.

Just down the road in Crystal Lake, 49-year-old Ed Tonkin knows how that feels.

"The company I was working for was closing its doors," Tonkin says.

Both men were construction supervisors when they became statistics of the Great Recession. But now, they're taking different paths to get back to work.

"It was pretty obvious right away that I wasn't going to be able to keep doing what I had been doing," Tonkin says.

You might think that there'd be a market for someone like Mielke, who has 40 years of practical experience. "There should be," Mielke says. "But I haven't found it yet."

In fact, four out of every 10 unemployed Americans - nearly 6 million people - have been out of work for six months or more.

The challenge for government and business is getting them back into the workforce.

"We really could see people who maybe never get pulled back in," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

"Or it takes a very, very long time before they can get a job that comes close to matching what they lost in the Great Recession."

In Wonder Lake, Bill Mielke's solution was to start an Internet business. An avid equestrian, he's selling the steel riding bits used in the horse's mouth.

But, Mielke says, "It's still not generating a significant income at this point in time." His house is now in foreclosure and he just withdrew his last $6,000 in savings.

Mielke is trying to stay upbeat. "I see the light at the end of the tunnel. It could be the end of the tunnel. Or it could be the freight train coming at me."

In Crystal Lake, Tonkin is taking a different approach. He says he wasn't a good student when he first went to school. But now? "I'm doing real good. I have a 4.0."

Tonkin enrolled at McHenry County College. He's now among nearly 400,000 people around the country studying under a government program designed to help laid off workers - part of the Workforce Investment Act.

"This filled in the gaps," Tonkin says. "A lot of the things I didn't know."

He says it's made a difference. "I feel a lot more confident. There's a lot more positions that I'd be willing to apply for that I wouldn't have before I took the course."

Through a classmate, Tonkin's found a job. He gets up before 4 a.m. to make the hour-long trip to Chicago where he supervises a construction site. When work's done, he heads straight back to school - until 10 p.m. "It's brutal," he says.

But Tonkin is fortunate. Only about half of those in the government's dislocated workers program find jobs. Often, those new jobs pay significantly less than their previous ones.

Tonkin's salary has taken a hit - from $95,000 to $65,000. He's making less, but he's happy to have the job.

This Saturday, Tonkin will graduate with his associate's degree in Construction Management.

  • Anthony Mason
    Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"