Finding employment in a tough job market

The Interview: Grace Lee, executive director of Maryland New Directions

May 16, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Finding a job is tough enough in an economic downturn not seen in decades. But for those with a criminal background, bad credit or substance abuse history, the challenges can seem insurmountable.

Not so, says Grace Lee, executive director of Maryland New Directions, a private nonprofit career counseling and job placement agency. She insists that even when jobs are scarcer than usual, the unemployed and those who want to embark on a new career path can start laying the groundwork for their future.

Maryland New Directions has helped more than 130,000 clients since its founding, originally as Baltimore New Directions for Women, in 1973. The group has since expanded its role to include men and has developed a program for small- and medium-size employers seeking workers that includes screening prospective employees and a year of follow-up support at no cost to employers or participants.

"We are really committed to helping people with various barriers to employment find solutions," Lee said.

The Baltimore Sun talked with Lee about her agency, her work and the challenges amid soaring joblessness.

Question: How did Maryland New Directions get its start? How is the agency different from other job-placement agencies?

Answer: Maryland New Directions started as an agency to help women impacted by divorce, death of a spouse, displaced homemakers. And over the years in the 1980s, we expanded to help both men and women. We combine career counseling and job assistance to help people become career-minded and job-ready. The career counseling piece, that's the special difference. We do career assessment to help identify career fields, even in early stages. People identify what they want to be, who they are, and what they can be doing. So they are more likely to stay in a job and grow from there. Even if they come in as a housekeeper, they may identify that they want to be a medical clerk, but they don't have the education. We help them identify this is who they are now, and this is their career-minded goal, and help them build a stepping stone. Later on they may find a job as a housekeeper in a hospital, and that may be a stepping stone.

Q: What is the typical profile of your clients?

A: They come to us because they are unemployed or underemployed, or they lack the technical skills needed in today's market. Others lack education or have little or no work history, and they don't have the technical skills to prepare themselves to re-enter the workforce. We also have people that come as seasoned workers, and due to economic downturns, they have to choose a different career. So they also come to get services to help them find new career paths.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges for clients who already face barriers during a recession?

A: We have people working as a store manager for 12 years where all the staff was laid off, or in the financial industry over seven years with a stable income who have been laid off, and that's really a shock and a loss. They may be in an industry that really doesn't have openings, and they need to start a new career. That can be frightening. The help from career assessment can help them to identify other choices. What are the transferable skills you can use from previous employment that you can take to expand your job search or other fields? They may say, 'That's all I know, and that's all I do.' We help them boost their self-esteem and find transferable skills.

Others are low-income, working poor or underemployed. They will be having more urgent needs. They may be facing foreclosure or cannot afford the rent and will be evicted. We have partnered with community partners to offer a wide variety of services, even more than before, such as housing and foreclosure counseling, financial management and financial literacy, how to do credit repair and how to manage money now that they have less coming. We help tackle the immediate needs and prepare them for employment. For people who are poorly trained or educated, they face the challenge that now they need to compete for fewer job openings with experienced or better educated applicants.

Q: How can they be better prepared to compete?

A: We encourage our clients … to identify their career interests and seek apprenticeship opportunities. You may get paid a stipend and later you will have better credentials. Even volunteering will boost their personal well-being and expand their networking opportunities. That will help with depression and employable skills.

Q: Are you starting to see more openings?

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