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Community partners address nationwide issue, celebrate progress

2014-05-11T06:00:00Z Community partners address nationwide issue, celebrate progress nwitimes.com
May 11, 2014 6:00 am

Searching for a job in today’s economy can be a soul-crushing experience. Just ask the long-term unemployed.

“In some ways, the job market is tougher now than in any recession,” Chairman of Federal Reserve Janet Yellen recently said. “These workers find it exceptionally hard to find steady, regular work, and they appear to be at a severe competitive disadvantage when trying to find a job. The concern is that the long-term unemployed may remain on the sidelines, ultimately dropping out of the workforce.”

As long as there are more unemployed people than job openings, employers have the luxury of being very selective. In most cases, they exclusively look at people who are currently employed or haven't been out of work for very long when it comes to choosing who they will bring in for an interview and subsequently hire.

In order to shift the paradigm so employers can see the long-term unemployed as qualified applicants who need to be given consideration in the hiring process, Vice President of Workforce Initiatives at the Center of Workforce Innovations (CWI) Robyn Minton met with Indiana University Northwest Assessment Center Director Jana Szostek.

That meeting laid the foundation for the Skill Building Institute, a partnership between CWI, IU Northwest School of Business and Economics and WorkOne with funding from the Legacy Foundation.

Designed to provide intensive assessment and workshops with counseling and coaching in a new light, the innovative 12-week program included paid internships to 20 long-term unemployed Northwest Indiana residents. The goal was to remediate the gap on the participants’ resumes.

“Our mission focuses on building up a skilled workforce, and we needed to think outside the box when it came to the challenges of the long-term unemployed,” Regional WorkOne Manager for CWI Nicholas Elliott said during the inaugural Skill Building Institute celebration earlier this month. “We needed to bridge that gap for them – eliminate the stigma.”

In a paper for the Brookings Institution, former White House chief economist Alan Krueger reviewed data on the long-term unemployed from 2008 to 2013. The findings revealed that just 11 percent were in steady, full-time jobs a year after losing their jobs.

One of the 20 college degreed individuals who had been unemployed for a minimum of six months participating in the Skill Building Institute was so discouraged she had no desire to pursue a career in her former area of management any longer. Ironically, once she left her negative attitude behind and started interacting with the others, enhancing her skills and more importantly regaining her confidence, she was offered and accepted a new position as a local plant manager prior to even completing the program.

As all of the participants can attest to, six months plus is a long time to go without a job, especially with no calls or responses coming in after resumes go out. Job seekers find it difficult to remain motivated, and several factors have been attributed to what has widely become known as the jobless trap.

“I was at a point where my confidence level was so far down – looking for a job is not fun – I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall and wondered what’s wrong with me,” Denise Hills, who is now restarting her healthcare career after being unemployed for 10 months and completing the Skill Building Institute, said. “When I first started I was down on my luck as far as finding work, and it was nice to have somewhere to belong. You feel all alone, but then you realize there are others in the very same situation.”

While some argue that workers’ skills deteriorate during long spells of joblessness - making them less employable - others counter, believing that desperate workers are accepting jobs that are unstable or a poor match for their abilities, often for less money than they were making before - resulting in repeated unemployment.

However, even more daunting is the clear evidence that employers discriminate against the long-term unemployed due to the perception that there must be some reason why they have been out of work for so long.

“We saw the importance of just not meeting people at the door, but getting to the root of the problem,” Minton said. “We needed to look at what’s not working as deeply or as effectively as we would like when it comes to serving the needs of the long-term unemployed. We are thankful to IU Northwest, which helped guide us and lead the workshops with a level of depth and experience from Charlie (Hobson, Professor of Management) and Jana. We are also very grateful to all the local employers who came to the table with paid internships and the Legacy Foundation for their support.”

Hills’ internship was with Globe Star in Chesterton, where she mentored individuals with disabilities.

“Wednesday was my last day at Globe Star, and I start my new job on Monday,” she said at the Skill Building Institute celebration where she was recognized for completing the program. “Since I accepted my new healthcare position, I received a call from another employer interested in meeting me. I definitely improved my resume, but I have to say that I’m also way more confident now. The way we all worked together was great. Jana and Charlie from IU Northwest are two of the most amazing people I have ever met – we were all engaged from the very beginning. I’m really looking forward to picking my career back up now.”

Similarly Bessie Upshaw, who joined the ranks of the unemployed a year ago when the organization she had been with for 20 years as an assessment worker lost funding, credits the Skill Building Institute with rebuilding her confidence.

“I received my last unemployment check in December, and thought what do I do now,” she explained. “Then this program came along, and I found that I have a lot in common with others who are out of work. We all learned from each other, and

I learned so much about myself. You know, after 20 years you don’t know where to start. This program showed me how to do that. I would say it’s like a mini MBA, and IU is a guiding light. I’m looking forward now.”

An intern in the Lake County Clerk’s office, Upshaw related how people in the program were getting jobs along the way.

“It’s inspiring. Some people had more than one job offer to consider,” she said. “This program is going to take wings.”

Echoing remarks by IU Northwest Chancellor William Lowe and School of Business and Economics Dean Anna Rominger regarding community-based engagement, Szostek explained how the IU Northwest Assessment Center provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate and MBA students, as well as Northwest Indiana businesses and individuals to identify and develop the skills necessary for success in the workplace.

Students in the School of Business and Economics, businesses and individuals have the benefit of receiving feedback on their strengths and areas that require additional development from local business people who serve as Assessment Center raters during their course of study.

Local businesses have the opportunity to directly impact the development of prospective employees, while individual participants gain real world experience by working through realistic job-related simulations, including client, employee, project and board meetings.

Similarly, the IU Northwest Center for Management Development (CMD) works with local businesses to customize business development programs that help enhance both the business and employees. Past CMD clients, include Strack & Van Til (manager training), Geminus Head Start (program evaluation and community needs assessment), Portage Fire Department (manager training), and Eagle Express Lines (Americans with Disabilities Act compliance training).

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