For some some desperate job seekers, the world's a zombie apocalypse

The latest unemployment rate for Philadelphia was 10.3 percent, more than two percentage points ahead of the national average. Shutterstock
The latest unemployment rate for Philadelphia was 10.3 percent, more than two percentage points ahead of the national average. Shutterstock
Posted: July 25, 2012

MARQUISE Kittrell, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia and just turned 20, has taken a couple of community-college courses since graduating from high school, but earlier this year he decided to dabble his toes in the full-time job market.

It hasn't gone well so far.

Summarily rejected for entry-level jobs at the likes of Target and Pathmark, Kittrell recently applied to work as a zombie.

Seriously. When Kittrell read an article about a plan to open a 200-acre zombie-inspired theme park called Z World in the industrial wastelands of Detroit, he instantly applied to play one of the undead. "I'm a big fan of zombies, so I filled that out," said Kittrell, his voice brimming with youthful optimism.

But as an insurance policy, back in the land of the living, Kittrell also sprang into action a couple of weeks ago after reading an article in the Daily News headlined, "Community College of Phila. offering free job training for unemployed." Those 10 words turned out to be like a dog whistle for many of the thousands of Philadelphians who normally live in the shadows of long-term, hard-core joblessness.

The relatively small article in the middle of the newspaper generated an avalanche of phone calls — at least 1,324 in the three days after the paper hit the streets — that overwhelmed the staff at the CCP office handling the job-training grant.

"It was all hands on deck," said Michelle Williams, who directs the program at the college with the unwieldy name of Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training. Her staff also sorted through several hundred emails and faxes for a federally funded program with just 200 slots.

And those statistics alone don't fully capture the desperation of some of those seeking to apply for free job training. Dozens more also called the Daily News — one every couple of minutes for a time — seeking more information, all because a reporter's phone number was listed at the end of the July 9 article. Several callers agreed to share their own horror stories in a labor market that has improved little four years after the economic crisis of 2008.

"I hope this will save me," said Lateka Pressley, 22, also of Southwest Philadelphia, a single mom of two sons — ages 7 and 5 — who lost her job at a local Staples in 2011 and whose frustrating job search has made her realize that she'll need additional skills for employers to consider her in such a tough job market.

The flood of desperate, unemployed callers is a powerful reminder of why people remain so gloomy about the American economy even though the recession technically ended in 2009 and more than 4 million jobs have been added nationally since the low point of the downturn that summer. But that's still well below the high-water mark of employment five years ago, and recent reports show that the number of Americans coping with long-term joblessness of more than 27 weeks is still a whopping 5.4 million, nearly double the pre-2008 record.

The latest unemployment rate for Philadelphia was 10.3 percent, more than two percentage points ahead of the national average. That's not surprising, considering that the city ranks worse in just about every measure — high-school dropouts, lack of a college diploma, teen births, criminal records and poverty — that experts correlate with hard-core unemployment.

"It's just sad," said Stephen J. Rose, a senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, who looks at the desperate, long-term unemployed people like the CCP callers and sees a perfect storm. He explained that the long-term unemployed are often unfairly passed over by would-be employers, which causes a loss of confidence, which causes them to do poorly in future interviews. In the meantime, Rose added, the workplace begins to seek new skills that these workers just don't have.

That's where CCP is hoping to break the cycle, especially for the fortunate ones admitted to the free short-term job-training programs that it announced this month. The school is receiving $1.5 million from a two-year $20 million federal grant to 14 Pennsylvania community colleges; the money is targeted to high-growth jobs areas — advanced construction, energy conservation and health care.

"Every day, the college receives phone calls from Philadelphians who desperately want work but lack the necessary skills," said Stephen M. Curtis, CCP's president. CCP officials noted that the school offers other short-term programs, such as for nurse aide, pharmacy technician and professional coaching, that are also geared toward higher-demand jobs.

CCP officials acknowledged that many of the callers won't qualify for the 200 or so slots in the recently promoted free job training. It requires a high-school diploma, and some of the courses — like advanced construction — also require prior experience, the same catch that trips up many young Philadelphia job-seekers.

Pressley, the 22-year-old single mom, seems to epitomize many of the problems of Philadelphia's long-term unemployed. She said she hasn't worked at a steady job for about 16 months since she was fired from the Staples where she'd worked for more than two years. One of the problems there, she noted, was that she was often late because of issues involving getting her kids to and from child care.

"I know I need to finish school," she said, "but I need to take care of my kids right now."

Lack of experience isn't the problem for Steven Underwood, 45, of Brewerytown, who was a security guard for more than two decades, worked for a time at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and called the Daily News about the job-training program. The problem, he said, is the year he spent in prison on an unspecified felony conviction.

"There are maybe 50 jobs I've applied for," said Underwood, who said he studied to be an electrical technician at Orleans Technical Institute after his release. "I want to get my foot in any door I can get it in — you need that nowadays."

Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter: @Will_Bunch. Read his blog, Attytood.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|