Pilot program puts middle-age metro Detroiters back to work

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By Frank Witsil | Detroit Free Press

Romona Irvin, like many other middle-age metro Detroiters, lost her job during the recession and has been looking for a job for so long that desperation is setting in.

The 58-year-old, who has a degree in accounting, has been turned down so many times that even though she didn’t want to color her hair when someone suggested too much gray might be off-putting to employers, she bought a black wig and wore it to a recent job interview.

“I’m not dying my hair,” she said proudly.

But, she half-joked to the fellow job-seekers also in a 13-week pilot program at the Northwest Activities Center that started last week, the wig might have worked. The company called her back for a second interview. Now — Irvin wondered aloud — should she don it a second time, or let them see her as she really is?

“Unemployment does more than deprive you of the paycheck you’re used to,” Joe Carbone, CEO of WorkPlace, told the group of program participants who met Jan. 16. “You did not cause this. You were caught up in a storm.”

The economic downturn — from 2007 to 2009 — was so bad, economists dubbed it the Great Recession. More than 8.8 million jobs were lost nationally, and even as the economy recovers, many like Irvin are still struggling to find work.

Many quit looking for jobs

In Detroit, the latest figures put the unemployment rate at about 15%, more than twice the national rate. The Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. is using a new program, Platform to Employment, to try to address this problem.

The program was developed by WorkPlace in Bridgeport, Conn., for that state in 2011 and has been launched in other states. Since then, similar pilot programs have been launched in other states.

If successful, the DESC said may start as many as one new Platform to Employment group a month.

“We have a passion to let you live up to your potential,” DESC’s Chief Operating Officer Jose Reyes told the group. “We know to bring the city back, we have to do something for the individual. Opportunities are here.”

Reyes said the first five weeks of the WorkPlace program give people the hope, confidence and skills they need to keep looking for work. The second part offers them a job — and employers a low-risk way to try out workers by covering the participants’ wages for eight weeks.

After that, it’s up to companies to hire the workers.

Nearly 90% of the program participants are hired, according to WorkPlace.

Private foundations cover the program costs, which are about $6,000 per participant.

Emotional roller coaster

For the pilot program in Detroit, the DESC selected 20 people to participate. To be eligible, they had to be out of work for at least six months. Many have been unemployed for years.

Among them: a teacher, a nurse, a medical assistant, a banker, a quality analyst, an accountant, an engineer and a professional fund-raiser.

In their first meeting, many participants described their job-search efforts as a roller-coaster ride they can’t get off.

“I had many ups and downs — and now it seems like no one’s calling,” said Debra Stallworth, 54, of Detroit. She lost her job in April as a medical assistant. “Sometimes, I get so depressed, I just go into my room. I feel like I’m not worth anything.”

Bill Coughlin, 60, of Livonia said the pressure to find a job — especially as a man — has weighed on him, especially when he was in the hospital with no health insurance.

Sheila Bryant, 50, of Detroit said after she lost her job at Compuware after nearly 20 years, her family cut out whatever extravagances it could. She told her son, now 16, they wouldn’t be eating out, and she set up spreadsheets to account for every penny.

To tide them over, many of the participants talked about how they took temporary, part-time and odd jobs. Some said they went back to school to get new skills and “reinvent themselves.” Others did volunteer work to pass the time and feel useful.

All of them said they just want a chance to go back to work.

“I’ve been employed for 34 years in mental health, but now, I don’t know how to do a résumé,” Joyce Parrott, 53, of Detroit said, with tears in her eyes. “How do you put down people as references that you’ve worked with but lost touch with?”

She hopes the program will help her find the answers — and find a job.

Original article. 

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Seneca has worked with the Detroit Jobs Alliance since 2016.

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