Looking for work, not a holiday from it

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.

Shelton often uses the computers at the workforce center in Hunt Valley, just to get out of the house. "I feel better going out than sitting at home," she said of the friend's place in Reisterstown where she's currently staying. "I just feel, I don't know, what's the word, my life is on hold. I can't get an apartment. I want to work. I really have to work."

'A terrible recession'

When unemployment will ease remains unclear. Economists who initially predicted an improvement by the end of this year are now pushing the window wider into next year.

"This is a terrible recession," said Richard Clinch, economic development director for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. "It's very deep, and it's lasted a long time."

Clinch said Maryland remains in a better position than other states, with its unemployment rate about 30 percent lower than the national.

"Maryland is cushioned by the federal government," he said. "It has benefited from the growth in government spending."

But that is a double-edged sword — relying on any one industry, as Detroit has learned, can be risky. Should the political clamoring for less government be successful, Maryland won't be able to count as heavily on Uncle Sam as an employer.

"That is the worrisome thing going forward," Clinch said, at least from a jobs perspective. "The deficit has to be controlled, and government spending is going to slow," he said. "Hopefully, we're going to stop fighting wars, and Maryland is heavily dependent on defense spending."

Still, he said, unlike with a private company, government won't go completely out of business. "The federal government is never going to go away," Clinch said. "It's not going to have massive layoffs. It's not going to move to China."

What has to happen, though, is that Maryland will have to develop in other areas if it is to continue growing economically. "Maryland has been very content living off the federal spending," he said. Other parts of the economy are going to have to pick up."

In the meantime, courses on how to apply for federal jobs have proved popular at the workforce centers.

Where the jobs are

"The word is out that generally, the federal government is the only entity hiring in a big way," said Loretta Witomski, who is taking the course at the Hunt Valley center.

She has 35 years of experience as an administrative assistant at various health care companies, but when she was laid off last month, she decided to try to get a federal job because they are known for good health and retirement benefits.

As anyone who has scanned the usajobs.com site knows, wading through what Witomski calls "these hugely long listings" is a skill set not everyone has. When she applied for unemployment benefits, she was told about the workforce center and was glad to find a course, 10 hours in all, that would help her through the process.

"They want you to have done what you're going to do," Witomski said of the highly specific criteria for the federal job openings.

Direct and upbeat in front of a group that has had the usual struggles of finding work in the current climate, instructor Natalie Kauffman guided the class through the ins and outs of the federal application process. She told them jobs are out there, especially with BRAC bringing new work options to the Aberdeen and Fort Meade areas, in particular. She encouraged the older workers in her class that many of the vacancies spoke directly to their own wealth of job experiences because so many long-time federal workers are coming up on retirement themselves.

"They want to replace experience with experience," said Kauffman, who has a private career development business in addition to teaching at the workforce center.

That was good news to Ceanfaglione, who, at 58, wonders why someone would hire him rather than a younger person.

He has applied for about 60 jobs and gotten only a single interview. "I've gotten the 'you're overqualified' rejections," said Ceanfaglione, a Parkville resident, "because I have two college degrees."

His is perhaps a typical story from the front of the great recession. He lost his last job, writing software, when the company's work "dried up." He had been at his previous company for 18 years. "They were bought out by another company who then closed out my department because they had their own people," he said.

Dressed in a workplace-ready tie and sports coat for the federal jobs course, he anticipates the day when he's back on the job.

"I couldn't imagine not working," he said simply.

And he has a message for those who have remained in the workforce through the recession: Help us out by creating a market for our labors.

"In China, they pretty much buy their own cars," Ceanfaglione said. "We're American, and we're buying everyone else's cars."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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