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Losing a job is disappointing, frustrating, and isolating. In a community like Columbia, which has been consistently below state and national averages in the unemployment rate, navigating the tight job market after losing a job can be equally frustrating.
The Missouri Department of Labor’s Division of Employment Security administers the Unemployment Insurance Program. “The struggles [of the unemployed] are many and really need to be reviewed on a case by case basis,” says Michael Rettke, functional leader at Missouri Job Center–Columbia.
Rettke says that once a person loses his or her job, he or she should file for unemployment with the state agency immediately. Once individuals have filed their initial claim, they must continue to file a weekly claim while they are unemployed and should comply with all mailings they receive. Benefits are paid to eligible individuals (those who have lost their jobs due to no fault of their own) on a weekly basis via the claimant’s choice of direct deposit or a prepaid debit card for up to 20 weeks.
There are no brick-and-mortar unemployment offices in Missouri, but claims may be filed online, over the phone, or at a Missouri Job Center location, like the one in Columbia where Rettke works.
Because each unemployment case is uniquely complicated, the process each job-searcher must go through is complicated as well. But there are resources in Columbia to help the unemployed take the next step in finding a new path.
Missouri has a multi-agency workforce system: a network of federal, state, and local offices administered through the U.S. Department of Labor to partner in economic, workforce, and education development. Through the Department of Economic Development, the system includes 31 full-service job centers statewide, which provide resources to the underemployed, unemployed, and employers.
The Job Center in Columbia is located at 800 E. Cherry St. The center serves businesses and all job seekers, including veterans and any underemployed person who’s looking for a change.
“Some people may be interested in changing career paths, and we can put them through training,” Rettke says, “or get them a job via an internship or on-job training that we’ve established with local employers.”
The Job Center’s Truman VA internship program is unique in the U.S. Through the program, veterans work at the Truman VA Hospital as medical services assistants without compensation, with the goal of securing full-time employment upon completion of the internship.
“We created the VA internship program in response to the hospital’s need for MSAs and our goal to get people self-sufficient,” Rettke says. “The VA system is treating the program as a best practice. When it is successful here, they’ll try in other VAs around the country.”
For those who don’t have a resume, have not interviewed for positions in many years, or are not familiar with computers, Job Centers also offer multiple resources, including free workshops. Some of these are administered through partnership with other agencies, such as State Technical College of Missouri and UM Extension.
Job Point, a nonprofit employment center, has been providing career planning and job placement in the community since 1965.
“Many times, individuals who are unemployed are lacking either hard or soft skills,” says Brenda Overkamp, director of marketing, research, and rehabilitation. “Job Point can help with both these situations. Before referring a job candidate to an employer, we ensure that he or she meets the needs of the business, has the skills necessary, and is ready to work.”
Through their training services, Job Point stresses work habits such as punctuality, initiative, collegiality, and appropriate interactions with supervisors. They also help individuals create resumes, search for job leads, complete online job applications, and practice interview skills, and they make the initial connections with the employers.
“The areas in which Job Point offers training have great potential for openings,” Overkamp says. “The trades and health care industries, in particular, are extremely stretched and are definitely seeking qualified candidates.”
Gabe Peters, manager of Peters Heating & Air Conditioning, says HVAC and other trades struggle to fill the positions needed. Peters has hired nine employees from Job Point over the last three years, and six of his 33 employees are Job Point referrals.
“When unemployment is as low as it has been lately, it seems that the trades tend to suffer because potential candidates find it easier to get jobs in more glamorous fields,” Peters says. “The pool to select from in our area is extremely small, and as the workforce ages, that pool will only become smaller. Finding people who are under age 40 and considered qualified is increasingly difficult.”
Because unemployment rates are relatively low, both in Columbia and statewide — Columbia’s is at 2.7 percent, about what most economists consider “full employment” — many qualified workers already have jobs. That forces employers like Peters to leave positions unfilled.
“The HVAC field requires specific training to perform some of the tasks, and that experience is hard to come by,” Peters says. “Emphasis needs to also be put on trade skills and the potential within these fields. These fields will only increase their demand for top-level employees, but with such an emphasis put on technical and academic studies in high school, the trades will continue to suffer.”
Job Point’s adult programs include training in office technology, carpentry, HVAC, highway and heavy construction, and certified nursing assistant, or CNA, skills. They also offer the YouthBuild program, which gives people ages 17 to 24 without a high school diploma the opportunity to obtain an equivalency degree, learn construction skills, and develop leadership abilities.
“Job Point has been a blessing for the fact that they help individuals within their program realize that they can make this field a career instead of a job,” Peters says. “Our biggest battle is finding qualified or experienced candidates. We have tried countless avenues — Craigslist, newspapers, and even flyers at supply houses — and I would say that one in 10 candidates is worth hiring. Job Point brings potential employees to us who already have knowledge and training of the industry, which makes them more capable once we get them into the field.”
Overkamp says minimum-wage jobs are more challenging for employers to fill. “As a result,” she says, “Job Point staff find it easier to place individuals into entry-level positions, most likely because the wages and required hours are not attractive to many people.”
Many of the people served by Job Point receive social security disability benefits, which typically require a long and difficult process to secure. Fear of losing that medical coverage leads individuals to only seek part-time work for supplemental income, limiting their opportunities for full-time employment.
“With unemployment down quite a bit, the employment situation in Columbia is sketchy enough,” says Nathaniel Hartwig, a Job Point client, “but for people with disabilities, it’s almost non-existent. Why would you hire a high school graduate when you could hire a college graduate for the same job? Individuals with disabilities need to make a living too.”
Job Point helped Hartwig, who has a disability, secure a position as a front desk clerk at the Super 8 Columbia East motel, but the road to employment wasn’t easy for him. Hartwig can only work a maximum of 88 hours a month to continue receiving his disability checks and secure Medicaid.
“I was strapped for money,” Hartwig says. “Being on disability, I get a check from the government every month, but I needed a ‘what if?’ account set up for emergencies and extra expenses.”
Hartwig holds a bachelor’s degree in network engineering and has worked as a network design engineer. That was before a car accident in 1996 left him with a brain injury, three replaced joints, and rods in his back. He tried working in fast food but was fired within two weeks because he couldn’t work the drive-thru computer due to his brain injury.
“Job Point made sure that any job I interviewed for was of my capability,” says Hartwig. “Now I have a job. I get out of the house, and I interact with people. It makes me feel good.”
Hartwig had used other employment groups in the past, but they put him into positions for which he was overqualified, or they didn’t take his needs into consideration. Rettke has heard similar stories at the Job Center.
“The case management afforded to individuals via our Job Center career counselors can help alleviate many of the challenges,” he says. “One recurring challenge is individuals not realizing that all of the skills they obtained from their previous jobs can translate into other career possibilities. Assessments can be given to help individuals find careers that match their skills and personality. This should lead to success and satisfaction — by leading one to a career instead of another job.”
Acquiring employment may be a formidable hurdle to overcome, but both Retke and Overkamp say that staying employed also has its challenges.
“Some of those we serve may need additional help, such as transportation or child care,” Rettke says. “We’re able to help them through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA. Additionally, we’ve compiled a resource guide to help individuals who may have a need we don’t specialize in.”
Introduced in 2013, WIOA is a federal law which, according to its text, aims “to reform and strengthen the workforce investment system of the Nation to put Americans back to work and make the United States more competitive in the 21st century.” The act consolidates funding for job training programs, authorizing them for six years with the requirement that they record and report on how many citizens receive new jobs through program participation. Transportation assistance through the act is also dependent upon the particular community’s offerings.
“Individuals who are unemployed often do not own a vehicle and must rely on public transportation, which is limited regarding days, hours, and geographic coverage,” Overkamp says. “The City of Columbia works hard to provide the best bus system possible, but limited funds and ridership has a huge impact. The industrial area on Route B is not served, buses stop running by 8 p.m., Saturday routes are more limited, and there is no service at all on Sundays. Many job openings require work on evenings and weekends.”
Despite the challenges, the unemployment rate in Columbia remains low. In that sense, local resources have proven effective.
“Being unemployed obviously has a financial impact on an individual, but it also affects one’s mental health and self-image,” Overkamp says. “Whether unemployment results from a lay-off, a disability or injury, or other circumstances, finding yourself unemployed can be a very frightening experience.”
For the fiscal year ending September 2015, Job Point served 432 people, with job seekers entering employment at an average hourly wage of $10.42. Seventy-three percent of these adults maintained employment for at least 90 days.
Although they do not have comprehensive data yet for all of 2016, for the fiscal year ending in September 2016, Job Point served 156 people specifically through the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. (People served in this program must have a documented disability.) Seventy-two entered work and maintained employment for at least 90 days. $8.93 was the average wage per hour for these employees, and 98 percent were satisfied with services.