A stubbornly tough job market, combined with stagnant or decreased funding for training programs, is making it harder for area job seekers to bridge the “skills gap.”
With college costs hitting historic highs, agencies such as Warren County One Stop Career Center are trying to meet the needs of more job seekers despite historically weak funding. Locally, programs for job seekers have spent stimulus money provided at the onset of the Great Recession, although the programs themselves remain in high demand.
Chris Hunsinger, director of Warren County One Stop Career Center, said his agency’s funding has fallen 42 percent over the past 12 years, from $1,255,755 in 2000 to $725,999 last year.
“We had stimulus money, and that literally doubled our budget in 2009,” Hunsinger said. “I can tell you the numbers we’re seeing in terms of customer visits continue to rise. And if you do any research on unemployment, one of the phenomenons that you see — and it’s played out a little bit recently — is that even though the number of jobs is going up, the unemployment rate goes up as well, because more people enter the labor market.”
So more people are seeking to build resumes, conduct job searches, and in cases where their skills don’t match the demands of available jobs, get training for new careers, Hunsinger said. The squeeze has pushed organizations like One Stop to find alternatives, and a new e-learning option is helping.
“We still send people to nurse’s training and some other training courses, but because we don’t have the resources we used to have, we really need to look to programs that are more cost-effective, like the e-learning, where we can send 90 percent of our training customers and it only costs 10 percent of our training budget,” he said.
Easy and inexpensive
One Stop center has offered online courses for a while, Hunsinger said. But only recently did the agency start offering professional certifications by contracting with New York Wired’s Metrix Learning program.
Through Metrix Learning, job seekers are able to earn certification in programs such as Quickbooks,
Microsoft Office, Six Sigma and others, explained New York Wired CEO Brian Lee. He launched the company in 2008, at the onset of the Great Recession.
“In 2008, we were in New York state, and in 2013, we’re doing some work in 15 states,” Lee said.
Much of the increased business, he said, comes from programs like One Stop centers, where administrators have realized they can use online learning to meet training needs with smaller budgets.
“A blind man could make this case,” Lee said. “If you would like training in something called QuickBooks — 85 percent of all small businesses in America use a software accounting system called QuickBooks — if you go to a traditional trainer, it’s going to cost $800 to $1,000 for training and certification.”
Through One Stop, the state pays a reduced fee — because of the online nature of the course — of about $140 for the training, Lee said. The state also pays for the certification exam, which is taken at the One Stop office under the supervision of a proctor.
Hunsinger said the programs have been embraced by job seekers because the learning can happen anywhere at any time.
That’s what attracted Cory Heyman of Glens Falls to the program.
After high school, she went to college but didn’t finish her degree, mainly because she knew she wanted to train horses and didn’t think a college degree would help with that.
“Then I had a family and children, and I stopped the horse business to raise my family and help my husband with the Lake George hotel that he owns,” Heyman said.
But once the kids started going to school, Heyman decided she had the time to take on a part-time job during the winter months. What she lacked were the computer skills she was seeing in job advertisements.
“I didn’t have enough education to do anything meaningful,” she said.
A visit to the One Stop center put Heyman on the path to certification in QuickBooks, a program she had used at the hotel.
“Once I started taking the course, I realized I wasn’t using much of it — just basic functions,” Heyman said.
Online courses weren’t the only avenue she considered in her quest to become more employable.
“I looked into college,” she said. “I had one person quote me $30,000, and it would be a two-year degree. There are so many college graduates out there looking for jobs, I don’t think that’s going to give me enough of an edge. I think this puts me in a different category, as far as what an employer is looking for.”
Through Metrix, she has taken 82 courses and earned certifications in Microsoft Excel, Word and, most recently, PowerPoint.
“Not a penny,” she said.
Many are looking
Lee, Hunsinger and Heyman all agreed online learning may not be for everyone. It takes motivated, disciplined students to commit to the work, since there is no scheduled class time. And because it’s a relatively new learning system, there isn’t a lot of data on how many Metrix students land jobs because of the certifications they’ve earned.
“We’ve had some customers say it’s really helped them, and we’ve had other customers say it really hasn’t,” Hunsinger said.
Heyman is working with local employment agencies to keep her resume updated as she earns new certifications, but the job market has been difficult to crack, she said.
“There’s not really a whole lot out there,” she said. “I’m hoping the market gets better.”
Karen Howe, director of strategic placement for Keena Staffing, an employment agency in Queensbury, said the work is likely to pay off.
“I think (professional certifications) do hold merit, and if I’ve got two candidates, and I’ve got one that just has indicated on an application that, ‘Yes, I have intermediate skills with Outlook, Excel or whatever,’ and then I have a second person that has been certified, then I definitely am going to look at the individual that has been certified,” she said.
The One Stop center, located in Northway Plaza off Route 9 in Queensbury, isn’t the only local agency facing headwinds in the fight to get people back to work.
When Carollee Sipowicz became Adirondack regional manager of Northeast Career Planning in Glens Falls in 2001, the agency had 13 clients, and she was the only employee. Now, there are 12 employees, and the agency gets about 50 referrals each year.
At any given time, the agency serves an average of 175 clients through various programs, Sipowicz said.
Like the One Stop centers, Northeast Career Planning has used the last of its stimulus money, and the agency’s budget has not increased in recent years, despite the growing need for its programs. As a result, several programs have ceased, including one that, for more than two years, provided computer skills instruction at Crandall Public Library.
That program had nearly 2,000 participants in two classes, one for the general public and a more exclusive class for job seekers. Among the job seekers, 45 to 50 people ended up with jobs after taking the course, Sipowicz said.
From couch to office
The more common type of program offered at Northeast Career Planning is an eight-week class for job readiness provided to social services benefits recipients.
The class teaches employment basics, including interview skills, resume writing and how to conduct Internet job searches. But there is also some computer training, and participants are able to make use of the agency’s clothes closet, Sipowicz said.
“Students learn about first impressions and the importance of being well groomed and appropriately dressed,” she said. Most have some sort of disability.
Sipowicz said an average of 12 people land jobs through the program each year, and another 20 are placed in “work experience” programs, in which they work for nonprofit organizations to build job skills.
But the organization’s funding hasn’t changed in six years, despite increases in expenses such as teaching supplies, building costs and the price of computer programs for training students, Sipowicz said.
“We’re working at a deficit, but it’s a program that’s well worthwhile, so we’re sure it will pay off,” she said.
Like the Crandall Public Library computer course, other programs through Northeast Career Planning may have to end if the agency continues to be squeezed, she said.
The agency hopes to get a boost from the June 1 Freihofer’s Community Walk in Albany, immediately after the Freihofer’s Run for Women. Anyone can participate. Information on how to help can be found on the agency’s website.
Kathie D’Agostino knows where she would likely be today, if she hadn’t showed up for her first class at Northeast Career Planning back in 2005.
“I’d probably still be sitting on my couch, watching ‘Dr. Phil’ and ‘Oprah,’” she said.
That’s where she found herself after she got her first Social Security disability check.
It came after she injured her back on the job at a nursing home, where she was in charge of housekeeping for 12 years.
“When I was working at the nursing home, I thought everything was lined up,” D’Agostino said. “And one day, your life changes.”
That first disability check made her feel like the state had given up on her.
“I felt like, my life can’t be over right now. I wanted to do something.”
Eight years later, D’Agostino is a paid member of the Northeast Career Planning staff, and part of her job is to help incoming clients see there’s a better way to live.
“I tell them my story when they first come in,” she said. “I was where you are today. You can stay where you are, or you can move up.”