Jobs program targets the long-term unemployed

August 23, 2013

Flickr/Jim Wall
Valerie Brown was an audio technician for a local television station until her job was outsourced.

As of July, the unemployment rate for the Chicago area was 9.2 percent, significantly higher than the 7.4 percent national average.

A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found people who switch jobs or who have been unemployed for less than 26 weeks have an easier time getting hired. Anyone unemployed for longer than that is likely to continue to struggle with their job search.

That’s what happened to Valerie Brown. She was an audio technician for a local television station. She mixed sound live for Monday night football games.

“I saw two famous play-by-play individuals, and they looked at me and they were totally shocked like I was a Martian that walked through the door. And my supervisor told me they weren’t used to seeing women in the booth,” she said.

Last spring, Brown’s job along with others at the station were outsourced. She was laid off. At first, she wasn’t too worried. Finding a job in the past was easy, so she figured she’d take a couple of weeks to consider a different career path.

“I used to think, how can you possibly be unemployed for a year? Please. When you realized you’re in that boat, you’re not incapable of working. You’re just not going about it the right way, the new way of doing it,” she said. “You just can’t walk into an employment agency and have them do it for you.”

Since May of last year, Brown has been churning out dozens of resumes each week looking for a job in broadcasting or administration, but rarely would she get a call back.

Then, she saw a posting for an intense job coaching program called Platform to Employment. 866 people applied for only 24 spots. Most of the group is over the age of 50. The few younger ones are veterans. But all of the participants have been long unemployed like Brown.

As of June, people 45 years and older made up about 43% of people filing for unemployment in Cook County.

Brown, 60, was struck by how much the job search had changed, especially with everything moving online.

“You don’t talk to someone. You really don’t know if you’re doing it right or now. You can put the wrong information in the wrong box. So it’s not as easy as it used to be,” she said.

Platform to Employment started in Connecticut in 2011. It expanded this year to other cities including Chicago.

Karin Norington-Reaves is CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, which runs the pilot program.

She says people long out of the workforce often struggle with resume writing and interview skills. Most people think, if it worked for them in previous job searches, there’s nothing new to learn.

But the program allows participants to get actual feedback from prospective employers on their job interviews.

“Generally, you don’t find out how well you are or aren’t doing with respect to the hiring process. You have no clue as to whether you put your foot in your mouth during your interview or you were really good about showcasing your skills and abilities,” she said.

Platform to Employment also offers financial consulting and clinical counseling, other issues prevalent among the long unemployed.

Money for the privately funded pilot is pending. Though, Norington-Reaves hopes to expand and widen the reach next year.

“Our focus is not just on getting jobs. We consider jobs to be temporary. Our goal is to help people develop career paths and to be thinking of their career pathways,” she said.

Valerie Brown and the other participants graduated from the program. A few classmates were missing from the ceremony because they started new jobs. Even though she hasn’t been hired yet, Brown is hopeful.

“I know that I am going to get a job. And for all these months, trying to find employment on your own is very, very hard,” she said.

Brown was recently offered an internship. She’s keeping those details under wraps until she has solid footing on that opportunity.

So far, 9 of the programs 24 participants have accepted jobs. Brown’s hoping she’ll soon add to that number.

Susie An covers business for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon.