There has been some good employment news lately.
Jobless claims fell in February to a nearly four-year low, with initial unemployment claims at 348,000 in the week that ended on Feb. 11, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But for some, irrespective of the nation's economic fortunes, employment is going to be an uphill battle. In Morgantown, Barry, 43, has had a hard time getting work, and he has lived at the Bartlett House, a homeless shelter, since November.
His job prospects may improve with the help of College of Business and Economics students and staff. In December Natalie Committee, a 2010 MBA graduate, contacted Susan Robison, associate director of the Center for Career Development, with an idea. Committee is executive director of E4P in Morgantown, an organization that addresses poverty through education and entrepreneurial activities. She is interested in helping residents at the Bartlett House emerge from their struggles by finding employment. She recalled how much help staff at the Center were to her in honing her job-search skills. Would the Center for Career Development be able to help homeless people with theirs?
Robison welcomed the opportunity and has been working with a group of Bartlett House residents, including Barry, to help them seek employment. Assisting her are members of the Industrial Relations Student Association (IRSA), a club comprising members from the College's Master of Science in Industrial Relations (MSIR) program.
Barry was in the Navy from 1987 to 1992 on the USS LaSalle, a command ship. He was a storekeeper and forklift operator. In 1979, the ship assisted in the evacuation of 260 American and foreign national civilians from the Iranian seaport of Bandar Abbas, and the ship became the focal point of U.S. activity in the Persian Gulf at the outset of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Barry has had a difficult time since he left the Navy. He had several strokes and has an impaired short-term memory. Yet he's willing and able to work. He has been working for a company that does home restorations after fire and water damage. When business is slow, as it has been this winter, he doesn't get called to work.
He has applied for numerous jobs, including maintenance jobs at WVU, to no avail. "I don't blame them," he said. "But I know I can do the job. I don't apply for jobs that I can't do. I'm trying to overcome my disability, and I don't use it as a crutch."
Often, Robison said, job seekers such as Barry need confidence as much as anything else. "Sometimes people don't recognize their own abilities. When they get into a job interview, the first question may be 'Tell me about yourself,' and sometimes they start rambling. We are trying to point them in the right direction so they can answer that question and get the job," she said. She even helped Barry find some good interview clothes through Morgantown's Christian Help, which operates a used clothing store.
For Barry and one other Bartlett House resident, the help from B&E and others made a difference. Barry landed a job in mid-February and is now working in the shipping department at Coca-Cola Bottling. The other resident was hired at the new Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant location as a food prep cook.
Troy Holler, Bartlett House program manager, said helping homeless people such as Barry find jobs is essential. "We don't want to be a place where people come for a hot cup of coffee and a cot for the night," he said. "We need programs that target the causes of homelessness, and we can't do this without the help of the community. We really value the relationship we have with WVU. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without its help."
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons nationwide as of January 2009. Additionally, about 1.56 million people used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program during the 12-month period between October 1, 2008, and September 30, 2009. This number suggests that roughly one in every 200 persons in the nation used the shelter system at some point in that period.
Steve Westerman of Philadelphia, Pa., graduates in May from the MSIR program and has a three-month internship lined up with Dow Chemical. He hopes it will convert into a full-time position.
He worked with Barry to practice interview skills and said Barry was motivated to "get back on his feet and provide for his family." He gave Barry advice on how to take difficult questions and use them to his advantage and how to be sure, if he were offered a job, that the employer shared his values. "Some things have happened beyond his control," Westerman said. "He needed to be sure he gets into a stable employment environment where he won't have to worry about whether the job will be there."
Westerman called the experience "humbling." "This really opened my eyes as a HR professional that there are people who want to work and are doing the best they can to find jobs," he said. "I wasn't sure what to expect. I've done a lot of interviews with B&E juniors. But this was with a real person who was going to use these skills I helped him gain in the real world. It wasn't an exercise; it was real life."
Jeff Houghton is the College's MSIR coordinator. "I'm proud of our MSIR students and their efforts to help the Bartlett House residents," he said. "This is an ideal service project that allows our students to invest in our community while applying concepts they are learning in their HR classes regarding interviewing techniques and applicant selection processes in a real world context where they can make a difference."