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Layoffs Give Ohio County Double-Digit Jobless Rate

Jobless rate in Ohio’s Huron County has reached a staggering 18.3 percent in January; only a few counties around the country are in worse shape.

NORWALK, Ohio (AP) -- Ask George McCowan about how tough it is to find work in an area where nearly one in five people are jobless. He says he's not giving up, even though it has been 10 months since he lost his job.

Ask about losing his car and he mentions that his ex-wife got it when she left him a few months ago. "She was downsizing and I was one of the downsized," he says.

Ask where he lives and the pain washes over his unshaven face. McCowan, 51, says he could no longer afford his rent and had no choice but to move into his 77-year-old father's house.

"Probably the hardest decision I've had to make in my life," he says. "My brothers think I'm mooching. It hurts."

His story is like so many in Midwestern towns built on factories and farming -- a blue-collar worker who got along just fine until technology started making jobs obsolete and the economic meltdown forced people to stop buying new cars and homes.

Yet nowhere in Ohio is the jobless rate worse than in Huron County: a staggering 18.3 percent in January. That translates to 5,600 people and is more than double the state average of 8.8 percent.

Manufacturing is the dominant industry in the county, a flat expanse of farmland and small towns below Lake Erie and midway between Cleveland and Toledo. There are few high-tech jobs here that require a higher education. One in 10 residents has a college degree.

The high school teams in Norwalk, once home to the nation's largest independently owned trucking firm, are known as the Truckers.

Only a few counties around the country are in worse shape.

South Carolina's Allendale County had a 23.4 percent jobless rate. Several California areas were above 20 percent, and Indiana's Elkhart County was at 18.3 percent because of layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry.

The job crisis here has been a slow, steady trickle that can't be traced to the loss of one big employer. And in some ways it's hard to see.

There are no blocks of boarded-up houses in this city of 16,000. Century-old Victorian and Colonial homes line Main Street. Nearly all of the downtown storefronts are filled with antique shops, banks and diners.

But it is real.

The county's biggest employer -- book maker RR Donnelley & Sons in Willard -- cut hundreds of people last month.

Family-owned Norwalk Furniture shut down in the summer before it was rescued by local investors and restarted with a smaller work force. In an industrial park on the edge of town, auto plant suppliers that make truck cabs and parts for suspensions and acoustics have cut hundreds of jobs.

Many others have lost jobs at the restaurants and hotels that cater to visitors who go to Cedar Point amusement park and the indoor waterparks in nearby Sandusky.

McCowan lost his job repairing machinery in May, then tried to make a living fixing boats and cars and finally moved in with his father in Bellevue.

Lately, he has been looking for work at machine repair shops and trucking companies without any luck. "If it weren't for my dad, I don't know what I'd do," he said.

Each day he visits a job placement office that managed to get just eight people work in all of February.

"From what I see, I would consider it a depression," said Sue terVeen, who helps the jobless in Huron County look for work. "People losing jobs, not having enough food, selling their cars for scrap so they can pay for their medicine. It just makes me sick."

She has a better understanding of what it means to lose a job than most.

She was laid off from a glove factory in Willard, then took a job at Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk where one of her duties was to tell employees they were being let go. Then she was let go, too.

Now she works at The Job Store, where people can learn how to write a resume, use computers to search and apply for work, and learn about education and training programs. It's funded through several local and state agencies.

About 120 come in each day, a dozen for the first time. Many are angry, scared and depressed. Some have never used a fax machine or even know how to use a mouse. Computer skills weren't needed in their factories.

She led Dwayne Mesik, an out-of-work landscaper, to a copy machine and showed him how it works. "You've learned two things today," terVeen told him. "You're going to have to add that to your resume."

Steve Knowles is at the center five days a week. "This is my job," he said. "I see the same people over and over."

He's trained in emergency medical service and lost his job in December. He has applied for jobs in retail, sales, customer service and marketing. The 43-year-old thinks his age works against him.

"You're like a lottery number," he said. "If you're lucky, you get a job. If not, go back in the bin."

Those looking for work often car pool when they hear that a business is taking applications. Others offer to baby-sit when someone has an interview. "What I see every day is people bonding together," terVeen said.

Usually, unemployment rises a bit in Huron County during the winter when farm-related and construction jobs drop, but it has never been like this.

"You can see the frustration. You can see the anxiety people have," said Theresa Alt, director of Huron County's Department of Job and Family Services. "You see a lot of frightening things, but you see people rallying together and trying to save what they have."

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