Monday’s Labor Day holiday puts the national spotlight on American workers, but it’s hardly a time to celebrate for many.
The Colorado Springs-area unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in July, an 18-month high, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state and national unemployment rates were both 8.3 percent in July — better than the Springs, but nothing to brag about.
As executive director of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, Charlie Whelan and his staff have seen unemployment woes up close. The El Paso-Teller County agency assists job seekers to find work — providing employment training and education services.
“We try to get them ‘work ready,’ is what our term is,” Whelan said. “We get them to be very viable, very competitive in their pursuit of employment.”
Whelan has been executive director for almost four years; he moved to the public sector after a career in the food service industry. Originally from Massachusetts, Whelan is married with two teenage sons.
He spoke with The Gazette about employment-related topics.
Question: It’s five years since the local and national recessions began, and three years since economists say the recession technically ended. Are you seeing any improvement for people who are looking for work in the Pikes Peak region?
Answer: The unemployment rate in the Colorado Springs area continues to remain above the national average. However, there are jobs. There are 1,962 open positions in the Connecting Colorado/Jobs Central State job database. These are only the jobs posted on the state website. There are many other open jobs in the “hidden job market.” It is likely that these jobs will never be advertised to the public. People learn about these jobs through networking with friends, relatives, neighbors, former co-workers, etc. Job seekers must continue to actively search for work and network.
Q: Which industries continue to be hit the hardest when it comes to people being out of work?
A: The economic impact appears to be across all industry sectors. We anticipate a bounce in retail hiring during the holiday season.
Q: Are there any industries that are rebounding?
A: Call centers continue to hire. In the past months, we have held several hiring events for local call centers at PPWFC. Inclusive of the PPWFC Business Services, we host hiring events at our office for local companies, at no charge.
Q: Are there any new trends you’re seeing among the people who are seeking assistance at the workforce center?
A: Those who are long-term unemployed are discouraged; many may be running out of benefits. Unemployment insurance benefits, particularly extensions, have decreased as the number of weeks allowed has been shortened. We anticipate this trend will continue.
Job seekers are frustrated with the hoops they have to jump through to get an employer’s attention. The required participation in the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provides job seekers a needed kick start to re-energize their job search. September is Workforce Development Month and we are hosting a big job fair Sept. 20. Job fairs offer a chance to explore new opportunities and talk directly with employers. We expect over 50 employers, who are hiring, at the job fair.
Q: Any new trends among the employers you work with?
A: Employers continue to use staffing agencies for temp-to-hire positions. This practice is good for both the employer and the job seeker because it offers the chance to see if there is a good fit, which may lead to a permanent position for the temporary worker.
Q: People who have been out of work have been given all kinds of advice from professionals over the last few years. Is there anything new you can tell people who are seeking assistance?
A: Don’t give up hope. For those who lack computer skills, take the time they now have to learn or enhance their computer skills. Classes are offered at PPWFC and local libraries, at no cost. Be open to new opportunities. Seek volunteer opportunities to keep work skills current, learn new skills and make new connections. Learn to use social media in your job search. The most important job search skill is persistence.
Q: Chronic unemployment takes an emotional toll on people who have been out of work. Can you describe some of the emotions that workforce center employees have gone through as they’ve attempted to assist people who are looking for jobs?
A: The PPWFC staff is a resilient lot who do what they do because they are passionate, committed and give of themselves to serve those in need. A major core of our mission is to offer hope. Many staffers have themselves been laid off, so they understand the emotions our customers go through.
However, dealing with the long-term unemployed does take its toll. Each day offers new opportunities and I remind staff that if they are able to offer hope to just one person that day, they have done an exceptional job.
I am an optimist. Staff touches lives every day, so I ask that taking care of themselves be a high priority. There is always the risk of vicarious or secondary trauma, depression and burnout among staff members. I am sensitive to the needs of and the stress our workers are under. We have mental health resources readily available for customers and staff, and one member of the staff is a trained therapist.
Q: Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach recently challenged local business leaders to add 6,000 jobs a year over each of the next three years — numbers that could lower the area’s unemployment rate to around 5 percent. Are there any suggestions you could pass on to them as they embark on this effort?
A: We clearly understand the integral role workforce development has in providing optimum support to the region’s jobs initiatives. Our mission is to support the business community and contribute to economic vitality. I encourage businesses to utilize our services to connect with work-ready job seekers.
Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity.
Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen
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