By Annie Goeller, Daily Journal of Johnson County staff writer

Bills are piling up at home, money problems caused fights in his marriage, and now he knows he can't pay his February rent.

Keith Shelton has been unemployed for nearly two months since he was laid off from his job installing drywall in remodeled homes and buildings.

He's applied for at least 30 jobs and listened for any tidbit of advice on where to look next.

Now, his unemployment benefits have run out and he's preparing to have surgery on torn cartilage in his knee, which will keep him laid up for about a month.

He's left hopeless, wondering what he can do next.

"I have no clue. I'm trying not to think about it," he said.

Shelton is one of an estimated 4,565 workers in Johnson County who were unemployed as of December 2008, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

This year, the county's unemployment rate hit a 10-year high, with 4.7 percent of the labor force out of a job, compared with 3.5 percent the previous year.

December 2008 was a monthly record for the county, too, hitting a high of 6.2 percent of workers unemployed, compared with the previous high of 5.4 percent in November. Johnson County ranked 81st among Indiana's 92 counties, with some reaching as high as more than 15 percent of the local labor force out of work.

The impact of unemployment is hitting local families hard.

Shelton expects to be evicted from his Franklin apartment in the next month and has separated from his wife as the two try to sort out their money woes.

"It's hard in a relationship when I am supposed to be the provider and I can't," he said.

He would take any job as long as he could get enough hours to support himself and his family, including his two children, and knew the work would last more than a few weeks or months, he said.

"If somebody had a job, I'd take it in a heartbeat," Shelton said.

Local employers are seeing evidence that the unemployed - those who are looking for a job but can't find one - are getting desperate.

At the Indiana Masonic Home in Franklin, an advertisement for an open receptionist position has drawn more than 150 applicants, including engineers, pharmacists, office managers and department heads, director of human resources Demetrius Logwood said.

Most of those people are too qualified, Logwood said, and he fears they might quit when something better comes along, leaving the company with an open position again.

Economists predict the downward spiral likely will get worse in an economy that already has workers, companies and governments scared.

Local governments fear shortfalls in income tax collections, which almost certainly will fall as people lose their jobs.

Companies that hadn't ordered layoffs before may be considering them now that numbers from the final quarter of 2008 have come in, showing a worse picture of the economy, economist Morton Marcus said.

Some analysts predict Indiana will hit an unemployment rate of 10 percent, nearly 2 percentage points higher than the 8.1 percent of workers who were unemployed statewide as of December.

Indiana is getting hit especially hard because most of the state's jobs are in manufacturing, many in the automotive industry, and distribution, Marcus said.

In a poor economy, those jobs are some of the first to go as people stop buying products and cars, he added.

The continuously bad news about the economy isn't helping either.

The nation is just now hearing about the big drops in spending, housing and employment from the fourth quarter of 2008.

Economists predict improvements during the beginning of this year, but those numbers won't come out until late spring, Marcus said. Until they see the numbers, businesses won't go on a hiring spree or stop layoffs, he said.

"Most businesses are not willing to take a chance on those anticipations," Marcus said.

What that could mean is more layoffs, which would lead to even higher unemployment rates in the coming months, he said.

That would mean even more competition among workers who already are sparring for any open job.

An administrative position at the Indiana Masonic Home would usually draw 20 to 30 applications and about a dozen qualified candidates, Logwood said.

Now, people have lost their jobs or fear the end could be coming and so they are looking for any work, even if that means taking three or four steps back in their career path, he said.

"It's been really overwhelming. It's a good problem to have if you're (a company) looking for a person now," he said.

The health care industry has been a point of interest for people looking for work.

An opening for a licensed practical nurse at Village Oaks at Greenwood has been drawing at least one walk-in applicant a day, business office director Linda Gogulis said.

Some of those people are coming from as far away as Noblesville, which is extremely uncommon since typically the same position is open at many area nursing homes, she said.

And the applicants aren't as picky as people have been in the past, with many of the people willing to take the second shift position, Gogulis said.

But companies are picky, the unemployed are finding.

One strike against a job applicant, such as a criminal conviction or a lack of transportation or training, is putting them at the bottom of long lists.

Edinburgh resident Herb Bladen is having trouble even applying for jobs because of his limited computer knowledge.

He was laid off from a trucking position this fall as work dropped off and has been working with the local unemployment office.

But he has yet to apply for his first job because of the time he's needed to get familiar with the computer system, Bladen said.

Christopher Thomas is being fined $19 a day while he is unemployed because having a job was part of his sentence to work release from a drunken driving conviction.

He's been looking for a job for nearly three months but has had no luck because of two drunken driving convictions and a lack of transportation since he lost his license.

With warehouse and forklift experience, including six years as a supervisor, Thomas sees himself as a good candidate. But companies can be picky since they have plenty of applicants with a clean record and a car.

"I definitely have the skills to work, but I just can't find (a job)," he said.