The tough work of introducing job-seekers to opportunity

    Every day people walk into Karen Brownley’s office, people who are looking for a job.

    “We have clients who have worked with an employer for 15 to 20 years and, for whatever reason, they’ve been laid off and just reinvent themselves for the current market,” said Brownley. “Then we have a lot of young mothers who are teenage to 20 to 21 with one or two children that really have no background in the employment market and might not have a high school diploma.”

    Today we begin an occasional series on the public system that’s supposed to help the unemployed and Philadelphia’s businesses find each other. This year, taxpayers will pay about $67 million into that system offering face-to-face services for tens of thousands of job-seekers as they try to overcome the big, 21th century challenges to finding work.

    Every day people walk into Karen Brownley’s office, people who are looking for a job.

    “We have clients who have worked with an employer for 15 to 20 years and, for whatever reason, they’ve been laid off and just reinvent themselves for the current market,” said Brownley. “Then we have a lot of young mothers who are teenage to 20 to 21 with one or two children that really have no background in the employment market and might not have a high school diploma.”

    Her organization, Jewish Educational Vocational Services, has the job of helping those people. It’s also trying to find businesses that need employees. Because Brownley wants to keep working with these businesses, she works hard to send them the right person.

    “We have to begin to work with the person and the personality, and deal with the core of what’s going on with them to help them make a good decision,” said Brownley.

    One success story

    Basically JEVS and Brownley are matchmakers for what’s called the workforce development system. They’re who the state hires to fix up Philadelphians looking for work with employers — people such as Joanne Devlin who, after 20 years away, moved back to Philadelphia with her son.

    “My brother wanted me to apply for SEPTA at the time. But I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know the roads anymore. Everything was just so different,” said Devlin.

    Devlin wasn’t on email. The center’s staff made her sign up. They taught her how to fill out applications online, but they also would find her paper applications, which she was more comfortable with. It was actually one of those paper applications that got her a job.

    “I work for the sports complex. I get to do the different sports games, which I love. I get to drive for the different valet parking at different places in Center City which is awesome,” said Devlin.

    So it worked for Devlin and for the system.

    What exactly makes up that system? This center is part of what’s called the EARN system. Counselors work with people such as Devlin who receive certain types of state aid. The clients here are about 95 percent women.

    Establishing that crucial link

    And then, there’s the other big piece of the workforce-development system, called Pennsylvania CareerLink. Anyone can walk through the double doors of the spacious office north of Chinatown, the first CareerLink to be established in Philadelphia in the late 1990s.

    “It’s really from one end of the spectrum, with occupations, to the other that we see walking in the door today,” said Nicki Woods, CareerLink administrator.

    Does the analogy of a matchmaker hold?

    “Yes, because one of things you know our customer is not just the job-seeker,” said Woods. “We also have the employer as our customer. Without the employer, there’s really no need for customers to come,” she said. “So it’s important that we establish relationships with employers.”

    Demand on the job-seeker side has been growing, a lot. Visitors to all the CareerLinks in the city nearly doubled in 2010, the most recent year for which there is data available. But sending all of them out the door to a job — that’s been harder.

    And JEVS is considered relatively successful and a model for how to work with hard cases; this year, JEVS has placed 49 percent of their clients in paying jobs. A smaller number will still be in that job in six months. Some people may be placed again.

    Restructuring ahead

    The workforce-development system is working on a major restructuring and says coordinating with employers is going to be a top priority. But it’s going to take more than working the phones to reach the core of the unemployed.

    But there are bigger problems, and they’re not just the economy. A few months ago, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative report did a pretty basic analysis. Pew broke down the region’s job postings and found there were only about half as many openings requiring a high school degree or less as there were job seekers in that category.

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