Five questions with … Karen L. Sitnick
Baltimore's workforce development chief talks about her work and challenges facing city job seekers
Karen Sitnick is head of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. (COLBY WARE, BALTIMORE SUN / December 19, 2012)
As director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore, she oversees an effort that isn't simple, even in the best of times, as residents struggle to overcome education gaps and other challenges. The recession and slow recovery have tested job seekers and their helpers alike.
Baltimore's unemployment rate is averaging about 10 percent this year, better than the 12 percent in 2010 but still far above prerecession levels. What is your office's strategy for helping residents deal with this challenging job market?
Since the economic downturn, finding a job has been extremely difficult. … We tell job seekers that their current job "is to find a job."
We have three One Stop Career Centers and four brand-new Community Job Hubs located across the city. These centers are staffed by professional job counselors and equipped with the technology to help people gear up for the 21st-century workplace. Most employers today are registering their employment opportunities on Internet-based job banks and are using online job applications. We encourage customers to take advantage of our computer training courses to develop basic technology skills, learn Microsoft Office techniques like Word and Excel, and create resumes that can be uploaded. …
While we see our work with job seekers as essential, MOED is equally focused on building strong relationships with area businesses and understanding what their workforce needs are and will be in the future.
How difficult is it for residents without a high school diploma to land a job these days?
Very. It's an employers' market today. With so many people looking for work, businesses can afford to be highly selective in choosing people to fill jobs at all levels. In some cases, employers view the high school diploma as an indicator of a person's ability to stay on track and complete a project. This trend is likely to continue and even grow as the economy stabilizes. …
It's projected that by 2020, over 70 percent of all jobs will demand some level of education and training beyond the high school degree. That's why we work with our public school system to help keep kids in school and encourage our adult job seekers to earn their GEDs.
That said, our agency does work closely with some businesses who will accept applicants for low-skill jobs if they are reading on at least a 10th-grade level and have work experience.
Your office has a Re-entry Center focused specifically on helping ex-offenders find employment. How is that effort going? Are employers more or less willing to hire people with criminal backgrounds than they were before the recession?
We opened the Re-entry Center [ReC] to address the multiple and unique barriers to employment people returning from prison or those having a criminal record often face. In many instances, "getting the job" can't be tackled until a person has acquired identification documents, established a stable living situation and has dealt with past financial or legal issues — to name a few. The ReC helps people navigate through these challenges and gives them the support they need to keep a positive attitude and stay actively engaged in their job search.
In the current economic landscape, ex-offenders are having a harder time than others getting hired. The job counselors at the ReC have had to redouble their efforts just to keep pace with their placement outcomes in prerecession times. And we are finding that some industries that were "ex-offender friendly" in the past, such as truck driving, have recently made their hiring criteria more stringent. …
Yet the advocacy, support and sensitivity the ReC and its staff provide this population continues to be vital. In the past year or so, the ReC connected over 320 ex-offenders to employment opportunities they may not have been able to access themselves.
What got you interested in helping job seekers find work?
I graduated college with a degree in sociology but really had no idea that my long-term career would be in the field of workforce development — I'm not sure I even knew what that was. It was serendipitous that I found my first job in public service helping kids who had dropped out of school get on a track to job training and employment.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Because I have been with the Mayor's Office of Employment Development for so long — January will be 29 years — it might surprise people to know that I was also in the business world. I owned and operated a linen and bath boutique for several years. I think having had a business background and understanding the challenges of running a business has helped me address both sides of the workforce equation.