Parts of Garrett Lichtman's story are familiar: He graduated from college during the Great Recession, and for the past three years, has been unable to find a full-time job. He's still living at his childhood home and is staring at $45,000 of debt in student loans.
But where the plot diverts from the usual narrative is in the responsibility 26-year-old Lichtman has had to shoulder. His dad died without any warning from a heart attack in 2005. His mother is unable to work, and he and his younger brother are counted on to help pay the mortgage on their Northeast Philadelphia home, the utilities and every other bill.
With the approach of Labor Day, Lichtman is among those American workers who are still unemployed or underemployed. After the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania reached a three-year low in May, the numbers have worsened the last two months. The rate in July was 7.9 percent, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The lack of growth in the economy has hurt those around Lichtman's age more than most. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in July was 8.2 percent among people ages 25 to 34, compared with 6.9 percent for those ages 35 to 44.
But he's not looking for sympathy.
"I get so sick of people complaining," Lichtman said. "People think because everything isn't ideal, because I wasn't born Paris Hilton, you have to feel bad for yourself. But you can't. You have to do what you have to do and get by."
Instead, he's seeking assistance. In April, Lichtman contacted JEVS Human Services.
The JEVS Helping Hands program, funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, takes a holistic approach to boosting clients' chances of finding employment. In some cases, helping clients is as simple as prepping them for an interview or examining the grammar in their cover letter. In others, the organization acts as a counselor, diving headfirst into a person's life to help them rebuild.
"I think that is part of tikkun olam," said Penny Kardon, director of career services at JEVS. "I do think that we look at people not just as you're a number or you lost a job, but as a whole."
After graduating from Kutztown University, where he majored in business administration, in 2009, Lichtman continued to spend his summers doing landscaping and worked part-time as a marketing coordinator for a graphics company.
"My goals coming out of school were to find a position. I assumed it would be entry-level but somewhere where there could be long-term growth," Lichtman said.
But the graphics company has significantly cut his hours over the last few months. In a good week, he gets 15 hours.
As the need to find a full-time job became more urgent, Lichtman began signing up with temporary work agencies. He would call regularly, and the most common response was, "Call us next week, and we'll see if we have anything."
Since contacting JEVS, the organization has helped Lichtman polish his resume and craft cover letters. He's participated in informational interviews with high-ranking officials at Philadelphia companies, quizzing them on what they did to be successful.
"JEVS really helps you with your networking, to get your name out there," Lichtman said.
Samara Fritzsche, a career counselor at JEVS, has focused on helping Lichtman find certifications that would augment his bachelor's degree, rather than encouraging him to go on to graduate school. He has taken classes on Microsoft Excel and Outlook Express.
"Many times he's commented to me that no matter what path he chooses, he wants to be able to keep moving up the ladder. He doesn't want to get stuck in a job," Fritzsche said.
She is optimistic about Lichtman's prospects, saying: "He makes a very professional presentation, and he's really motivated."
Overcoming an Obsession
When Arthur Cohen contacted JEVS in early 2011, he was just weeks away from being homeless.
The 55-year old Cohen had spent most of his career selling women's fragrances and later women's shoes at Strawbridge's and then Macy's when it took over. In 2007, he accepted a buyout from Macy's. Two and a half years later, $50,000 in savings was gone, much of it spent on rare music recordings.
"We worked really intensely together to get him a job as soon as possible to help him remain in his hotel room at the time," Fritzsche said. He was living at the Parker Spruce Hotel, a notoriously seedy residence.
In Cohen's case, JEVS had to do more than help him find employment. He was in crisis, and a fresh start required more than just money and a place to live. He had to overcome a lifelong fear of people and an obsession with music that had dominated his life. He not only needed a job coach, he needed a counselor.
"I think that he had finally found comfort in coming to me," Fritzsche said. "He hadn't been in counseling. He hadn't reached out in that way before."
Cohen said he has had acquaintances but no close friends most his life. Music, he said, was a salvation from loneliness. His favorites are girl groups like The Crystals and The Ronnettes. At one point, he had more than 800 records from that era. Almost all of them are now gone, some sold in desperation for far less than their actual worth, others auctioned off when he couldn't pay for a storage unit where they had been kept.
"He seemed to come to the realization that these materialistic things that he had been attached to for so many years weren't worth it, and it really seemed to be an evolutionary process for him," Fritzsche said.
Cohen had become obsessive in collecting, in part, he said, because he never had found a job that interested him. As a teenager, he had wanted to study broadcast journalism and enter the radio, television and film industry, but declined to go against his father, a "Depression-era baby," who told him to pursue a more traditional field, like accounting. More afraid of success than failure, Cohen said he sought to do as little as possible in almost every job he took.
"I wanted it to be, 'Don't count on Art," Cohen said. "I would notice that they would give work to someone else, which I think is what I wanted."
Fritzsche met with Cohen several times each week. She encouraged him to find recreational activities that he would enjoy but didn't cost much, if anything. She encouraged him to reach out to old contacts, to try to rekindle relationships. They set goals each week that would ensure that he left his residence and did some socializing.
For someone who had such social anxiety, Cohen speaks eloquently. In sharing his story -- which he also did at a recent JEVS event celebrating its 70th anniversary -- the words pour out of him.
Fritzsche observed Cohen's sense of humor, his ability to engage a listener. In counseling sessions, she tried to help him recognize these qualities in himself.
"Arthur is one of a kind," Fritzsche said. "He has an amazing combination of humor, intelligence and just an amazing ability to connect with people. I just knew from the moment I met him that he had the opportunity to be successful."
Cohen's life is more stable now. He still attends concerts and loves music, but with the help of JEVS, he has found a more reasonable balance. "It was a big transition for him in terms of personality, not just his finances," Fritzsche said.
For the last year, he has lived at Kate's Place, an affordable housing building funded by the nonprofit organization Project H.O.M.E., and has been working as a teller at TD Bank in Center City.
Fritzsche said the bank has asked her for more "Arthurs" and has honored him with an award.
"There's a certain amount of discipline -- that was my thing always with collecting; and with money, I have to be the same way," Cohen said. "I think it's a good job for my personality."
After his motivational talk at the JEVS¿event, Fritzsche said, clients clamored to be around him and soak up his advice.
"To look at life, maybe happiness is about having good health and a bad memory," Cohen said. "Not to be bogged down by bad memories of the past or to obsess about anything."