Egg Harbor Township resident and Stockton graduate Lauren Laielli just graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy. Job shortages in the local public safety sector drove Laielli, valedictorian of Holy Spirit High School's Class of 2004, outside the area and require her to commute two hours roundtrip daily for her new job to pursue her chosen career. She's not alone in her decision to pursue work in the public sector, despite historically tight finances. Ben Fogletto

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Police officer Lauren Laielli clutches a pair of handcuffs as she sits at her kitchen table nearly 19 hours after she got up for work.

Engraved with her last name, the cuffs were a gift from her college friend for Laielli's graduation from the Philadelphia Police Academy two months ago. Laielli immediately went to work for the SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) Police Department, more than a year after the women graduated from from the Richard Stockton College criminal justice degrees. Neither Laielli's friend nor anyone else from their department has since landed a law enforcement job.

Recent grads have struggled to find work in a stagnant economy, but the scarcity of government jobs is particularly marked, given the traditional ability of the public sector to withstand hard times better than private industry. Local government will face an added challenge during the upcoming year with the onset of a state-imposed 2-percent limit on annual increases for operational expenses while state legislation that could buttress municipal budgets remains stalled in Trenton.

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Hiring freezes and layoffs — most notably in Atlantic City, which has cut 60 patrol cops during the past year — have shrunken local police forces. Laielli's fiance, an ACPD detective, kept his job, but she has witnessed the difficulties other friends have experienced after losing theirs. Given that, the 24-year-old says, she's grateful to have found work with SEPTA. Her makeup-free face showed no trace of the fatigue one might expect after a three-hour, round-trip commute to her nine-hour shift in Philadelphia capped off with a gym session near her house in the Bargaintown section of Egg Harbor Township.

But the daily grind is not comfortably sustainable for her long-term, so she and her fiance might sell her house and move. Laielli had hoped to find a job closer to home, but shortly after starting her job hunt, it became clear she would need to cast a wider net.

"I applied for 1,000 jobs. It felt like it at least," she said.

More like 20, but total number of pages in the combined application packets actually did number about 1,000.

Laielli provided "every address I ever lived at, every car I've ever driven, every license plate I've ever had" for each prospective employer, notarized the documents and enclosed a college transcript before sending each package on its way.

She got calls back from five departments, continuing the process through the physical, psychological exam and one-on-one and panel interviews, only to find out she didn't get the job.

"It was really disheartening, but didn't want to do anything else. I'd rather drive an hour and a half to do something I love than seven minutes to do something I can just live with, that just pays the bills. There's a big difference. So I never gave up," she said.

In one case, Laielli contended with 500 other applicants for one opening.

That degree of competition wasn't unheard of in better economic times, according to Atlantic County Police Training Center Director George Nettles.

But the recession has made opportunities scarcer. The center has long fielded daily calls from prospective recruits looking to optimize their chances of landing a public safety job; now they often qualify their inquiries with references to the poor economy and job shortage, Nettles said.

"We tell them keep pushing for it, the economic times are what they are, don't give up on it. It's a great career to have. But you have to be realistic in your outlook, but we don't discourage them at all. Keep pushing, and maybe you'll get your dream job, it just might not be the first agency you look at," Nettles said.

That held true for Laielli.

Financial difficulty has prompted hiring freezes at many police departments in the Philadelphia region, but not layoffs, according to Richard Evans, chief of the SEPTA Police Department where Laielli now works.

Universal financial difficulties have recently delayed or cancelled training classes at the Philadelphia Police Academy. But SEPTA has so far managed to maintain its 256-officer force, which patrols city streets and train and subway cars and platforms throughout the tri-state area, according to Evans and SEPTA's director of recruiting Daniel Amspacher.

SEPTA hired Laielli and 11 others from her 164-recruit class; the next class has already started and includes 15 SEPTA recruits, Laielli said.

"A number of people look at SEPTA as an opportunity to join the police force and become a police officer," Amspacher said. "There are people whose careers are focused on police officers or some area of law enforcement, and when an opportunity and there isn't a residential restriction, they're not limited to being Philadelphia citizens because we do serve the (tri-state) area. ... The challenge we're facing now, as most organizations are, is the unpredictability of what's going to be the funding stream in future. Governments are challenged economically."

SEPTA's last testing session drew a record 2,000 applicants from a wider-than-usual geographic area, which Amspacher attributed to fewer opportunities elsewhere brought on not only by funding shortages, but also changes in retirement patterns. Economic uncertainty drives more officers to stay at work after they qualify for retirement; those that do leave are not replaced by governments looking to save money, Amspacher said.

During the next eight years, job opportunities for patrol officers will grow 9 percent versus 10 percent for the labor market overall. Other fields, like biomedical engineering, could grow as much as 72 percent; textile workers will see their occupation shrink fastest (between 39 and 45 percent, depending on specific job function), according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By then, Laielli hopes, her long days will have propelled her closer to her ultimate goal of becoming a supervisory officer.

"Honestly, they could pay me nothing and I'd still do the job," she said. "Showing up and putting on my uniform makes me feel like I have a purpose in life."

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