At local career conference, job struggle still evident

Local middle school teacher Brandon Lee attended last week’s career conference at the John Paul Jones Arena. Photo: Elli Williams Local middle school teacher Brandon Lee attended last week’s career conference at the John Paul Jones Arena. Photo: Elli Williams

“I’ve never had a hard time looking for a job,” Susan Anthony said. “At first I think I didn’t realize what was hitting me, but it’s frightening.”

Anthony, who attended a recruiting event at the John Paul Jones Arena last Wednesday, lost her job more than a year ago. She worked as an administrative assistant at a residential treatment center in Louisa, and has been hunting for full-time work since the company cut her position. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington who’s been in the workforce for over 20 years, she still can’t believe she’s out of work at this stage in her life.

The number of Americans looking for work fell to 7.8 percent in September, a rare bright spot in what has been a painfully slow bounce back from record-high joblessness caused by the recent recession. But unemployment has hardly vanished, and Americans need look no further than the presidential debate for a reminder.

President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney spent a solid 30 minutes discussing the nation’s unemployment status. The President argued that the situation his improved since he took office when 23 million were jobless, and Romney countered that Obama’s re-election would result in chronic unemployment. Last Friday, the Labor Department revealed that the rate dropped to under 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office.

The most recent local numbers reveal that Charlottesville’s unemployment rate is considerably lower than elsewhere in Virginia—it’s now below 6 percent.

“Charlottesville is blessed with a large recession proof employer—UVA,” said UVA Economics Professor William Johnson.

Johnson expects Charlottesville will “continue to enjoy a favorable labor market and low unemployment rate” for the foreseeable future.

But thousands of local residents are still desperately searching for jobs. Last week, the city’s Office of Economic Development, in partnership with about 10 local sponsors, offered the city’s first Community Career Conference at the John Paul Jones Arena.

The city has held semi-annual job fairs for the past five years, but last Wednesday’s event was the first of its type, with a focus on industry education. Dozens of local employers who are looking for applicants with specific education and training set up booths in traditional fair format to meet with job hunters one-on-
one. The conference also featured panel discussions on local employment trends in regards to industries like health care, government, and hospitality and tourism.

Director of Economic Development Hollie Lee has taken the city’s recruiting events under her wing, and said she hoped the inaugural conference would attract local folks who want to enter a new industry or learn how to further a career with new skills and certifications.

“Sometimes people don’t know how to get their foot in the door,” she said.

Anthony, the out-of-work administrative assistant, was one of about 400 local job hunters who attended the career conference. Charlottesville is about an hour’s drive for her, but after exhausting the options around Louisa, she said she’s willing to make the trek, and she went home with a stack of packets and applications.

Brandon Lee graduated from UVA in 2006 and is a middle school teacher in Albemarle County. Though currently employed and enjoying his job, Lee is looking for more opportunities in the education industry. He’s spent years working with kids of all ages and student athletes, and aspires to go into educational consulting and stamp out the “dumb football player” mentality.

“As an African-American male, the education field really sucked me in,” he said.

Lee checked out last week’s conference because, despite years of experience in his chosen field, he said he wasn’t sure how to move forward. He’s looking into administrative level jobs, particularly in education services, and chatted with a number of employers about how to move up.

Not everybody had the forethought to begin the search before leaving an old job. A local 50-year-old man, who wanted to remain anonymous, spent 25 years working in banking and finance before voluntarily leaving his company five months ago.

He has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and a minor in business from Purdue University, but said he feels behind the times in terms of his education and experience.

“When I was putting together my resume, I realized I don’t have the skills I thought I had,” he said.

Competing against younger generations who are more comfortable with advanced technology is making his search challenging. He said he’s recently come across Microsoft Office programs he’s never even heard of.

The UVA School of Continuing and Professional Studies had a booth at the conference, and the middle-aged banker said he plans to look into its programs in order to update his resume and compete with the 20-somethings.

Employers who led the panels and shook hands with job seekers said they were impressed with the caliber of the event’s attendees.

Takeya John, a clinical services representative with Interim HealthCare, said she had expected to meet young people looking for certified nursing assistant positions.

“I was surprised that a lot of them were older and more mature,” she said.

Lee was pleased with the conference’s turnout, and is optimistic about Charlottesville’s unemployment trend. The number of job seekers attending job fairs has decreased since 2010, and more employers are signing up to recruit at events.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t people here that can’t find jobs,” she said. “But we have seen the numbers fluctuate.”

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