By Nicole Hennessy
Organizing stacks of handouts after a cover and query letter writing lecture she just gave at Westlake Porter Public Library, Cynthia Wilt said, “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, in one way or another.”
A few remaining job seekers stood in small groups, talking, carrying notebooks or brief cases, some dressed like they had finally landed an interview.
Still gathering lecture materials, Wilt explained that after losing her job with the Employment Connection, which links Cuyahoga County residents with potential jobs, in 2010, she recognized a need in the community that was no longer being filled and began meeting at coffee shops with her colleagues, Bonnie Dick and Ann Hunter, to see what they could do to help.
After several discussions, the three women decided to start their own nonprofit, the Career Transition Center (CTC).
Without an effective way to reach out to the public, Wilt, Hunter and Dick began soliciting libraries to see if they could hold meetings in their conference rooms.
Early on, the Westlake Porter and Shaker Heights public libraries enthusiastically offered them the use of their facilities. More libraries are currently considering adding free CTC programs, which offer job seekers information on topics ranging from making positive first impressions and networking to resumé writing and time management, as well as services associated with a small fee, like resume writing and practice interviews.
“Our target population is what we call the mature worker, which is people over 40,” Wilt said, “because those are the ones having the hardest time, along with the young kids coming out of college that can’t get anything and are now sitting on their parents’ couch.”
The Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OACAA), reports that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people living below the poverty line in suburban counties, which includes Cuyahoga, increased by 69.9 percent. Also highlighted was the fact that Ohio’s state poverty rate – 16.4 percent – exceeds the national rate of 15.9 percent.
The latest findings, compiled in the 2013 Self-Sufficiency Standard Report, which was researched by the University of Washington Center for Women’s Welfare and commissioned by the OACAA, measure a further widening gap between the cost of living in Ohio and median wages.
For example, “an Ohio family consisting of one adult and one preschooler needs anywhere from 184 to 270 percent of the Federal Poverty Level just to meet basic needs,” the report found.
Colleen Stoker, communications director for OACAA, said these findings were sent to Gov. John Kasich’s office, but it hadn’t received a response in terms of what legislative measures could be taken to improve Ohioans’ standard of living.
“As Ohio recovers from the Great Recession, longterm economic prosperity will require responsible action at the state and community level that puts all Ohioans on the path to self-sufficiency,” the report concluded. “A strong economy means good jobs that pay Self-Sufficiency Standard wages and a work force with the skills necessary to fill those jobs.”
A few days after the CTC letter writing course, an attendee who preferred not to be identified continued her almost six-month-long job search.
Having worked for her previous employer for 30 years, her job and those of her superiors were sent to Singapore and China, leaving her sifting through old resumes in a more competitive atmosphere than she’d ever experienced.
“I find the whole process to be very, very confusing,” she said of finding work. “It seems to be overly complicated, the whole resumes, cover letters, interviews, trying to hide age to get your foot in the door.”
Officially listed as self-employed, she gets part-time work here and there. But the jobs aren’t dependable, and the pay is much lower than what she’s used to.
Plus, in her field – electrical design – she’s experienced a stigma in terms of hiring because she is a woman. Since she has a gender-neutral name, most employers she meets assume she’s a man, as evidenced by the looks on their faces when she walks into their office.
“The reality is, companies just don’t see women in this industry,” she said.
Meanwhile, her son is “drowning in student loans” and her daughter is in graduate school, both of whom could use a little help from her and her ex-husband.
Unlike many unemployed, this particular CTC client is able to get by on a severance package and unemployment. She also has a pension she can dip into.
“But I have skills, and I have the desire to work,” she said, continuing, “We say we’re not shipping jobs overseas, (but) we sure the heck are.”
Busy applying for grants to support CTC, Wilt, more than most people, understands how dire the unemployment and underemployment situation is.
While the estimated workweek to afford cost of living in Ohio is 70 hours per week, she said, “You can’t get a 70-a-week job; you can’t get a 40-a-week job,” adding that people have to accept that they’ll be working at least a few part-time jobs.
“Look younger, act younger, cut stuff off your resume, dye your hair,” she advises older job seekers.
Despite these measures and the tactics offered through CTC, realistically, Wilt said, a lot of people will just “go from one low-level job to another, “or they’ll never retire.”
The 2007-2008 financial crisis, she concluded, “just messed up everyone’s lives.”