Where the Jobs Are

Where the Jobs Are

Special Report on South County SkillSource Center.

James Carvelle, campaign manager of President Bill Clinton's first run for the White House, advised his campaign staff, "It's the economy, stupid." That axiom may well be in play again.

Unemployment is at its highest level not seen since the first Clinton/Bush campaign. And although the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, there is still a significant number of residents either unemployed or underemployed.

To address that problem, Fairfax County government has established "SkillSource." With seven locations throughout the County it provides services to both employers and job seekers, according to Matthew Vaughan, center manager, South County SkillSource Center, located in the South County Government Center, 8350 Richmond Highway.

The center is an unusual resource for both job seekers and potential employers looking for qualified employees. In a sense it's an economic matchmaker.

"We basically provide services to employers and job seekers," said Matthew Vaughan, Center manager. "We can be a headhunter for employers as well as help job seekers locate jobs, training and education."

One of the goals of the center is to make people self sufficient, according to Vaughan. "If someone doesn't have sufficient English skills we'll put them into ESL classes."

Clients cover such diverse occupations as airline pilots to IT "geeks." Vaughan explained, "At the high end we've trained 80 airline pilots that were laid off as a result of 9/11. They flew big aircraft but needed 737 ratings to be hired by smaller airlines."

THE CENTER DOES not do the actual training. "We broker the training. We send them to a private training vendor. We help with tuition expenses. Living expenses are up to them if the training is out of this area," Vaughan said.

"But in the case of pilots, most can get free flights to the training areas, many of which are in Florida. They are also drawing unemployment compensation which can help with the daily expenses while they are in training," he explained.

Funded by both the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board [NVWIB] and the U.S. Department of Labor, the Center is operated by Fairfax County government and is certified by WFIB.

During 2003, it's initial year of operation, the Center placed more than 100 job seekers with an average annual wage of $28,000, according to Vaughan. Throughout the County, the seven centers collectively placed nearly 800 people in jobs.

The Center focuses on job clusters in high demand occupations, Vaughan acknowledged. At present, those areas are health care, construction, administration and IT, Vaughan clarified.

"Although IT has been downsizing for the past couple of years, the U.S. Department of Labor is predicting a high demand again by 2010," he said. "The other really hot area is healthcare. That includes nursing, allied health, and elder care," Vaughan said.

ALLIED HEALTH encompasses such things as pharmacy technicians, radiology technicians, and other areas that don't demand a four year degree, according to Vaughan. "Elder care is another high demand industry, particularly as the baby boomers age," he noted.

"What we don't want to do is place people in industries that are declining. That only means they have a higher likelihood of being laid off and being back here searching all over again," Vaughan said.

One of those who made a radical change of direction through the Center was Mount Vernon area resident Steve Leslie. "I was in telecommunications and got laid off after the bubble burst. I went about eight months looking for a job in the communications field and finally realized I wasn't getting any bites," he said.

"I had been using the Center for about 30 to 45 days to do my job search when I realized I needed to look at other options. The staff there was very helpful in getting information on another field," Leslie noted.

That other field was Home Inspection. He has just completed training at a school in Manassas and will take the certification test next week.

"They are doing a heck of a job. There was great follow up. And they were able to push the paperwork through for me to get enrolled in the Home Inspection class as soon as possible," Leslie said.

IN THE CASE OF Thelma Smith it was a matter of getting back into the workplace after an absence of 19 years coupled with relocating to her former home base in Northern Virginia.

"I last worked for the Post office in 1985 in Richmond," she said. "I was moving back here because this is my home. I wanted something in the customer service area," she explained. "A friend of mine told me about the Center. So I began using their services in April 2003."

Smith rated the Center's services "excellent." She admitted, "I knew nothing about computers. They taught me about them as well as how to develop my resume. I came in everyday to do my job search, but, I started to get depressed because I wasn't getting any responses."

Instead of giving up, Smith began to help others. This in turn, helped her to regain her confidence, she confessed. "Now I have a permanent job with Micro Technology and I'm taking more computer classes. I had to rebuild my confidence and they helped me with that," Smith said.

On the employer side is Stewart Bentley, project manager, MVM Security. "They [the Center] have been extremely responsive to us and our needs. They have opened their doors to us," he said.

"They conduct screening for us. This is particularly sensitive in the security business. Over the last three years they have found approximately 20 employees for us," Bentley verified.

PRIOR TO THE OPENING of the South County Government Center, SkillSource was located in the IMP Building. Visits to the Center there averaged 500 per month. Since moving to their new location monthly visits have skyrocketed to 1,300, according to Vaughan.

"A lot of this may be due to the tighter job market and higher unemployment. In 1999, you could get a job if you had a heart beat," Vaughan said. "Now it's a lot tougher."

Even though the Fairfax County unemployment rate is less than three percent, there are still thousands out there who are out of work, according to Vaughan. "IT, telecommunications and the airlines, have cut back the most," he said.

Operated under the aegis of Fairfax County Family Services, this Center offers a variety of services to job seekers. One of those is on-site day care to help working mothers doing job searches.

"They can use this service up to two hours for free," Vaughan acknowledged. This is particularly significant since nearly 60 percent of the job seekers at this location are female.

Mount Vernon area resident Camille Payne is a single parent who utilized the Center's resources. "I went there to do my job search. I had some computer experience but no technology knowledge," she said.

Payne attributes her success story to Vicki Thomas, employment specialist at the Center. Thomas enrolled Payne in the New Horizons Computer Learning Center in Manassas. "Now I'm with the American Diabetes Association in Fairfax," she said.

As verified by Bentley, the Center is used almost as much by employers as job seekers. "Employers often contact us seeking help in filling positions. We write up job orders and put those out to all our centers," Vaughan said.

"For unskilled employees, we cover a certain portion of salary for on-the-job-training. We will subsidize wages up to one half for up to three months if they are enrolled in our OJT program," he confirmed.

THERE IS UNIVERSAL access to centers across the County and all services are free. There are no residency restrictions or income guidelines to use the basic resources to conduct job searches. But the more intensive services such as one-on-one career counseling and skills training require County residency.

"We do require the job seeker to have a "right-to-work" status. That means they must either be a citizen or legal resident. They don't have to be a permanent resident," Vaughan explained. "We do not work with day labor situations or undocumented workers."

On an initial visit to the Center, a job seeker receives a full orientation to the Center's resources and must log-on to the computer to register. "After that, when they come in, the computer is ready for them to start their search. When we get very crowded we do set a time limit for computer use," Vaughan said.

Three programs under the aegis of the Workforce Investment Act [WIA] operate through the Center:

*Adult Program which has income guidelines and is income based;

*Dislocated Worker Program designed to aid workers who have been laid off; and

*Youth Workforce Development Program designed to help youth age 14 through 21 who are experiencing educational or environmental difficulties that are adversely impacting their employment capabilities.

THE CENTER ALSO partners with a variety of other organizations. Their most active partners are United Community Ministries, Virginia Employment Commission, Department of Rehabilitation Services, and Fairfax County Public Schools.

Designed as a one-stop concept, the Center provides job seekers with access to a variety of different government agencies at one location. Previously potential employees had to travel to different location depending on their individual situation such as elderly, disabled, needing a GED, etc.

"We have representatives from all different agencies that work here one day a week. Their schedules are posted on our calendar so that job seekers will know when they will be available," Vaughan said.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Center today is the present labor situation. "People are getting jobs but it is taking a lot longer and requiring a lot more effort. There's a lot more competition for each job," Vaughan emphasized.

"There is also pressure on lower level jobs because higher skilled people are taking them in order to get some income. This makes the job search for lower level employees even harder. It's a trickle down theory in a negative sense," he pointed out.

"The other problem is the increased security clearance requirements for government jobs. Although both the government and government contractor are hiring more, particularly in this area, security clearance restrictions make the waiting time to actually commence work much longer," Vaughan said.

Even with all the aid and technology available, "Networking is still the number one method for finding a job," Vaughan said.

For a full inventory of services offered by the Center go to their web site at www.myskillsource.org or call the Northern Virginia Investment Board at 703-752-1606.