Harbut: 'Ultimately I'll be able to replace my income with this.' For more photos, click gallery, above.
Is the job market in Wisconsin getting better or worse?
If you believe the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which crowed in July about an additional 39,300 private-sector jobs added since Gov. Scott Walker took office in January, you might conclude things are getting better. But, if you look at figures from the Federal Department of Labor Statistics, you'll find a steady increase in unemployment in Wisconsin since the beginning of the year - from 7.4% in January to 7.9% in August.
With unemployment nationally hovering at just under 10%, Wisconsin's unemployment rate seems a little less depressing. But don't tell the 1 in 12.5 Wisconsinites who are out of a job how much better off we are here. The numbers don't mean much when the economic misery is personal.
Yet, in the midst of one of the worst economic periods in recent memory, some local folks have managed to make the lemons life threw them into lemonade. They've found good jobs after long periods of unemployment. They've taken a leap and started a new business. They've upgraded their skills by going back to school. Their stories can provide inspiration for those who are still struggling.
Matt Harbut and his family moved to Madison from Ithaca, N.Y., in 2009 so his wife could take a job as an assistant professor of horticulture at UW-Extension and UW-Madison. The experienced landscape architect never dreamed he would not be able to find work in his field.
"This profession had been ranked as one of the fastest growing in the nation over the previous 10 years," he says. "But in the two years we've been here, I've only seen two positions posted in the entire state. And when I've looked at the national job listings, there are only about 20."
With a toddler starting preschool this fall, a second child due in November, and a 10% cut to his wife's state-employee income, Harbut decided he'd have to take a risk and invest in a business. In September, he bought the Madison franchise for FROGBOX, a Canadian company that rents reusable plastic moving boxes.
"As a landscape architect I was a member of the original green profession. The idea that I could be in business while continuing to practice the principles of sustainability was just the motivation I needed to take the plunge," he says. "It has been a tough decision to make, but we feel that if we can establish this business in these hard times we'll be that much stronger when the recession finally ends. At least, that's the theory."
Harbut, 36, raised the money to purchase the franchise with a combination of personal savings, help from family and a small personal loan. He is optimistic that the business will succeed and notes that the 20 other franchises in Canada as well as in Seattle, Boise, and Minneapolis are doing well. "I know the numbers on other franchises and know that ultimately I'll be able to replace my income with this." In fact, he's so optimistic that he plans to open a second franchise in Milwaukee.
With only a few weeks under his belt, Harbut has already rented boxes to his first customer. While he knows the business may be a little slow in the beginning, he's confident that eco-conscious Madison will warm to the idea of this green alternative to cardboard.
"Pricing is designed to be competitive with cardboard boxes. And while recycling cardboard is good, reusing plastic boxes is better. The plastic boxes can be reused up to 400 times [and then recycled]. Cardboard only lasts through two or three moves. Madison is good about recycling, but nationally, 41% of cardboard boxes end up in landfills." He says the company estimates it's saved people from using 250,000 cardboard boxes since it was founded in 2008.
The business also provides Harbut with flexibility. His wife, Rebecca, is the Extension fruit specialist and frequently travels around the state to work with county Extension agents and growers, so he likes the idea of being able to run a business and simultaneously be available to care for their children.
Landscape architecture remains Harbut's passion, however, and when the economy recovers, he plans to return to his chosen profession and perhaps start his own landscaping firm.
"It's always been a profession where I genuinely felt I couldn't imagine what else I'd ever want to do," he says. "It's the combination of design and being outdoors. It was fun to go to work every day and work on restoring or creating landscapes. One of the things I hope FROGBOX will do is expose me to the world of business so I can learn and make connections. Once it is established, it won't require my full attention."
John Holcomb, 41, struggled for years to become a writer for TV and films in Los Angeles. He had day jobs as a temp at a movie studio and in a show-business attorney's office, but he was determined to achieve the L.A. dream and make it in the entertainment industry.
When he came back to the Midwest in 2007 to spend some time with his father, however, he had an epiphany.
"L.A. is great when you're in your 20s because it's very creative and entrepreneurial. But in your 30s...I didn't realize I was over L.A. until I came back," he laughs.
Holcomb decided to channel his creative energy into an enterprise that would make money.
He started Outrigger3, a local digital creative agency that helps organizations and businesses with everything from fundraising to connecting with customers using Facebook and Twitter. In business just over two years, he has a client list that includes the United Way of Lake County, Ill.; Summit Credit Union; Madison College; and Famous Dave's.
"I had seen the corporate world, and I always knew it wasn't for me," he says. "I always felt like I was round peg in a square hole. But with all the changes in technology, the world has gotten a lot rounder for a lot of people."
Holcomb and his wife, Amanda Veith, run the business out a small office in downtown Madison. The couple has two young children, and their desire to raise a family provided the impetus John needed to explore the idea of starting this company.
"Child care is expensive," he notes. "I needed to make something happen."
He started by applying for and receiving a grant to attend the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center's Entrepreneurial Training Program. He credits the program for his success.
"There is so much to learn about establishing a small business, and SBDC has a great program and great consultants who worked with me on developing my idea."
SBDC grants provide 75% of the $1,000 fee for the course. But students are warned from the outset that they have to complete the program and write a viable business plan or be prepared to pay back that $750. Holcomb wrote such a good plan that his startup is featured as one of SBDC's success stories at sbdc.wisc.edu.
"I'm amazed by how far we've come and how fast," he says, noting that starting Outrigger3 was something he just had to do. "It wasn't an option, so it didn't feel like a risk."
Most people in their 60s are thinking about retirement. Not Jan Torkildson. At 65, she's happy to have finally found a stable, fulltime job after years of scratching for enough temporary and part-time work to stay afloat. In August, she was hired as a financial specialist at the Waisman Center at UW-Madison, the first "real job" she's had in 10 years.
Ask her about retiring and she laughs at the idea.
"I expect to keep working for the rest of my life in some capacity," she says. "I don't golf. I don't play bridge. I will continue to work for financial reasons, but more because I enjoy working. I will always work whether I get paid for it or not."
After about 20 years in the credit card services business, first in Chicago and later at Credit Union National Association in Madison, CUNA closed the division in which Torkildson worked in 1996. She and a number of others were laid off. She managed to find another job with North Farms Cooperative, but when that business filed for bankruptcy in 2001 she was once again out of work.
Over the past decade, this divorced mother of two grown daughters has taken on jobs through temp agencies, worked at Hospice, Costco and Home Depot part time, and scoured Craigslist for work that sometimes lasted only a few days. She filed for unemployment compensation when she had to. And through it all, she says never lost hope.
"I learned to look at every opportunity as an opportunity for growth. I don't think any kind of work is below me. I cleaned houses, did gardening work, ran errands for people. I did anything I could get. It's easy to get depressed when you're unemployed, so it was important to me get out and do something to interact with other people."
In addition, Torkildson took advantage of the time out of work to go back to school. She graduated with a degree in event management and planning from MATC in 2005.
Unable to find work in that field, she returned to MATC, where she continues to work toward another degree in the administrative professional program. Going back to school turned out to be a wise move in two ways, she says.
"I knew I had to get more education to find a decent job. But because I was so poor, I got really good financial aid and that helped me to get by."
While things look good now, Torkildson says she's learned never to assume that hard times won't come again. Although she recently moved from Stoughton to a more expensive apartment in Madison, she's careful to keep other expenses as low as possible.
"Over the years, I've downsized my life and learned to live on the bare minimum. I don't accrue debt. Even now, with this great new job, I'm forcing myself to live on what I'd have to live on if I were on unemployment again. Everything I earn that's more than that goes into savings."
Peggy Furlan dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast for years. She even filled a storage unit with antique furnishings. So when she found the perfect house for sale on East Gorham Street four years ago, she wasn't about to let a little economic recession stop her from turning the dream into reality.
It took four years to close the deal on the 160-year-old Gothic revival mansion and sell the Furlans' more modest home on the near west side, but, as of Aug. 1, the Livingston Inn, freshly painted inside and landscaped outside, is open for business. All four guestrooms have been occupied on football weekends, and business travelers sign in during the week.
Starting a business at a time when the economy - and especially the real estate market - is in a shambles has been "a journey, maybe a little crazy," Furlan says. But she and her husband, Dave, were determined. With their previous experience in hospitality and running a restaurant, they believed they could succeed even as they encountered a series of obstacles and delays.
"Initially, I had oodles [of offers] for financing," Peggy says. "We had three banks that wanted to work with us."
The Furlans put in offer after offer for the Gorham Street property, but the seller was slow to respond. By the time their offer was accepted and the couple put their house up for sale, the bottom was falling out of the real estate market. Lenders got skittish.
"We couldn't qualify. I went to 20 banks and they all said no. You had to be a millionaire to get a loan."
In addition, Peggy and her husband couldn't sell their house. Early on, they had accepted an offer, but the prospective buyers couldn't sell their house and the deal fell through.
"That went on for years. We had people who wanted to buy it but couldn't get financing. We had 39 people who wanted to rent it because they couldn't sell [their homes elsewhere]."
The house finally sold last spring. The previous owner of the Gorham Street mansion agreed to sell to the Furlans on a land contract, which means they make their house payments to the seller rather than a bank. Work started immediately to thoroughly clean and redecorate, rebuild the front porch, and clear out overgrown gardens. The work went on at a feverish pace all summer, with family and friends stepping in to help with tasks that didn't require a contractor.
Built in 1854, the Livingston Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places as the William T. Leitch House. Two of Madison's first mayors, William T. Leitch and Moses R. Doyon, lived in the house. It was a private residence until the mid-1990s, when it became a B&B.
The Furlans and their three children have living quarters in the back of the house and in the finished basement. But they enjoy using the entire house, with its nine fireplaces and 11-foot ceilings, and Peggy feels it is a Madison treasure.
"We enjoy living in this house. And we want to open this house to all of Madison."
Steve Lary had no clue it was coming when his Lodi employer of 16 years went bankrupt and he lost his job in 2001.
"It happened so fast. They didn't tell the employees [that the company was in trouble] until they started laying people off," he says.
When Lary was laid off again in 2008, this time after two years as national sales manager for another company, he realized he was one of many professionals feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.
"It was the beginning of the recession. The company laid me off because they just could not afford me anymore."
The past 10 years have been filled with professional ups and downs for Lary, an engineer with expertise in food-processing equipment. He was unemployed for 20 months in 2001 and 2002 before he started accepting a series of jobs that didn't pan out for one reason or another. In all, he had five jobs over 10 years. But finally, last January, what had been a part-time, temporary position became permanent, and Lary is relieved to have a job that feels stable. His current employer is the Brady Corporation, based in Milwaukee. He's a consulting engineer who works with customers to develop procedures for shutting down equipment so a mechanic can work on it safely. Although the job requires him to be on the road most weeks from Monday through Friday, he's enjoying the work.
"I could be working with any kind of business. Right now I'm looking at air-handling units in a hospital in Denver and a steel mill in Alabama. I like it. I get to travel to new places and visit all kinds of industries."
Lary, 59, wasn't too concerned about finding another job when he was laid off in 2001. But as the months of unemployment and then years of short-term jobs wore on, he started to worry.
"Initially, when I was out of work, it was kind of nice to have some free time to do things. But as it drags on, you start to wonder what will happen in the future. How am I going to retire? Will my wife ever be able to retire and do what she wants to do?"
The solidly middle-class family had to make adjustments.
"I was lucky that my wife was working," he says. Judith Lary is an editor at Middleton's American Girl, and they live in Cross Plains. "But we gave up buying salmon and generally cut back on our food bills. We didn't buy anything and tried to live off her income."
During his months of unemployment, Lary spent every morning scouring the Internet for job leads and talking to contacts in the food industry who might know of an open position. His advice to others who are out of work is to develop and maintain contacts in their field. He says it is important to keep looking and take what is available.
"The job I have now I got because I was doing it as a part-timer working through a temp agency. At my age, there is age discrimination, so having a good network helps a lot. And, depending on your age, get more training because if you are older and haven't updated your training, that's a problem."