Looking for work, not a holiday from it

Labor Day, which celebrates the workforce, arrives with many still hoping to rejoin it

  • James St. James, left, Theresa Stanley, center, and Barb Jones take a class on basic computer skills at the Workforce Development Center.
James St. James, left, Theresa Stanley, center, and Barb Jones… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
September 05, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Other people were readying for Labor Day by stocking up on barbecue supplies, packing bathing suits for one last summer splash or otherwise preparing to enjoy a three-day break from work.

But this particular group was in a classroom, listening to an instructor, pecking at computers and wading through screens full of acronyms and clickable links — all in the hopes that by the next time Labor Day rolls around, they, too, will have a job from which to take a holiday.

"My philosophy is not to leave any stone unturned," said Marc Ceanfaglione, an unemployed computer and electrical engineer and one of 12 students taking a course last week on how to land a federal job. "I didn't really understand the whole process of how to apply, or I would have gone to this earlier."

He was let go from his last job in February, joining the nearly 15 million unemployed Americans who, on this holiday that celebrates the nation's workforce, are simply hoping to rejoin it.

But the jobs continue to elude — the unemployment rate inched up last month, from 9.5 percent to 9.6 percent — and many are finding that they need additional training to retrofit themselves into whatever scarce openings are out there.

They are turning to places such as the Baltimore County Workforce Development Center in Hunt Valley, where Ceanfaglione will be back on Tuesday for the second half of the two-day federal jobs course. It is here that some of the casualties of the recession are finding help in navigating what for many may be the worst employment environment of their working lives.

Increasingly, some workforce experts say, the jobs that are available might not match the skills of people who are unemployed. The fact that there might be openings in the health care sector, for example, doesn't necessarily help someone who has been idled from a construction or manufacturing job.

Additionally, many laid-off workers had been at their last jobs for years, if not decades, and the entire process of finding work has changed since the last time they were on the market. Even applying for some jobs requires a new set of skills.

"They don't have resumes. Or they're used to mailing in resumes and filling out applications," said Lajuene Hubbard, an instructor at the Community College of Baltimore County who teaches courses at the workforce center. "They don't realize it's all online now. People are trying to re-enter an environment and the last time they were in that environment was 25 years ago."

In fact, there is a whole new vocabulary to master: Keywords that will get your resume past the original screening, which more likely than not is conducted electronically rather than by an actual human being. Things called KSAs — the specific Knowledge, Skills and Abilities that an employer is looking for, and that your application has to reflect to avoid getting consigned to the digital trash bin.

"In reading ads, even for a receptionist, they ask for Word, PowerPoint and Excel," D.Y. Woods says. "This is for a receptionist. Even for a call center, they all want computer skills, so you've got to have it now."

Woods is no newcomer to the world of work, having guarded prisoners at Rikers Island in New York and investigated insurance claims for AIG. She has her bachelor's degree and all sorts of certifications but has been surprised at how hard it is to find what she thought was an entry-level kind of position.

Now 58, her last temporary job, as a claims examiner, ended in March. Winding down from the kind of demanding work she's done in the past, Woods is looking for something like an administrative assistant or customer service position to supplement the pension she is living on and tide her over until she starts drawing Social Security checks.

"Experience doesn't mean a whole lot these days," the Towson resident sighs. "They're looking for different things on resumes."

Applicants are finding that every job opening seems to attract a crowded field and that they are having to do more to stand out from the competition.

Cherise Shelton, 45, has worked in a range of mostly lower-level hospital support positions — she's been a rehab aide, a patient escort, an X-ray film librarian. She's been out of work since November, and after applying to just about every hospital in the area, has only been given one interview, as a radiology assistant.

"They found someone more qualified than me," she said.

Realizing she needs more skills for the kind of work she'd like to do, Shelton enrolled in the Community College of Baltimore County to become a certified medical assistant. But it will probably take until 2012 to complete the course, she said, so, in the meantime, she continues to send out resumes and apply for jobs.

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