February 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in Spring 2015 B2B magazine.

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Mike Gawley punctuated the day he was let go from his job with a thud.

As he was cleaning out his desk after 30-plus years at a company he had grown and nurtured, Gawley could feel the tension tightening around him. He hadn’t eaten very much that day nor did he drink enough water.

“And I passed out,” he says matter-of-factly, with no dramatic gestures. “I passed out that evening during a prayer service. I knew then my health was going to be the most important thing.”

Keeping his mind and body as free from stress as possible is perhaps the reason Gawley, 58, gathers his thoughts and measures his words carefully about the difficulties in finding a job—as if he’s still trying to grasp what happened to him upon hearing the words, “Your services are no longer needed.” On a June day in 2013 Gawley went from president and CEO of Oakview Construction, a developer of commercial properties, to just another name on the Great Recession’s roster of its hardest-hit demographic: skilled workers ages 55-64.

“We try hard to avoid recessions because they’re not a shared burden; their cost (in joblessness) tends to fall disproportionately on certain people in an unpredictable way,” says Dr. Eric Thompson, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As director of the Bureau of Business Research, Dr. Thompson crunches a lot of data, but he’s sensitive to the human toll the numbers represent. “People hear, ‘Oh, the economy has recovered,’ but it hasn’t recovered for them because their skills haven’t transferred to a position comparable to the one they lost.”

Even by Nebraska standards, the last downturn—technically pegged from December 2007 to June 2009—was pretty tough overall. The unemployment rate of 55- to 64-year-olds stood at 2.2 percent statewide in 2006 (pre-recession) but rose to 2.8 percent in 2013. Nationally, the jump was much greater—3.1 percent in 2006 to 5.8 percent in 2013. Nebraska did outpace the nation in one area, however.

graph“There was a growth in discouraged workers here, greater than the national average, among those 55 and over,” says Dr. Thompson, referring to those who stopped looking for jobs.

Mike Gawley had never looked for a job before. He didn’t have to. As a construction engineering major at Iowa State, the tall, lean farm kid from rural western Iowa hooked up with Oakview Construction in Red Oak during the summers and had a job waiting for him upon graduation in 1978. He oversaw a variety of building projects before opening a branch office across the river in Omaha in 1987. Within five years the new Omaha site bettered its Iowa counterpart in projects and revenue. Gawley became President of Oakview Construction in 1997. They were licensed in 48 states, including Nevada. That ignited the company’s downfall.

“At the beginning of the recession, about 15 percent of our work was in Las Vegas and the projects, mostly warehouses and offices, were financed by banks, including Lehman Brothers,” says Gawley, citing one of the biggest investment bank failures on record. “As the banks went under, we couldn’t collect the money. So we had to be sold.” When Gawley’s three-year agreement with the new owners of Oakview was up in 2013, he found himself on the outside looking in.

“The construction industry doesn’t have much interest in me,” says Gawley with resignation. “They say I’m too old and too senior (in position). I was a CEO and that’s where people think I fit. But how many companies are looking for CEOs?”

Not too many, and the prospects for a supervisory position aren’t much better since companies have learned to do more with less. “The middle layer of supervisors was eliminated during the recession, so now it’s just the workers, mostly young, and the top people,” according to Debbie Christensen of the Nebraska Department of Labor. “That’s a big issue. There’s not that stepping stone [to the top] as much as there used to be.”

Christensen, who works at the Omaha Career Center, encourages older workers to “say in their cover letter, ‘I understand I’m starting over and my pay will be different, but I’m willing to do that.’”

Gawley has worked with a job coach and has posted his new resume online. Every day for a year and a half he has followed pretty much the same routine: wake up early and get to Lakeside Wellness Center by 5:30, exercise, shower, put on dress pants, a starched white shirt and a sports jacket, drive home to Elkhorn, go downstairs to the computer, check the want ads, trade magazines and his job networking schedule, and make phone calls that all too often aren’t returned.

Why get dressed up? “To give me the right mindset of, ‘I’ve got to work now, I can’t get distracted’” he says.

A quiet, gentle man by nature who displays an almost pastoral approach to people, Gawley finds solace in his church, St. Patrick’s, his wife, Colleen, their three married children and five grandchildren. He admits he hasn’t found his job niche yet, but he’s grateful for his friends in Omaha’s business community who have proven the most valuable in helping him with leads. Gawley has also accepted a credo straight from a job coach’s handbook.

“My expectations now are much lower than a year ago,” he says, but he remains optimistic his niche is just over the horizon.