Inside job: Charlottesville’s rosy employment outlook

Job fairs, like this one hosted by the Downtown Job Center, are a great way to see a lot of opportunities at once. Job fairs, like this one hosted by the Downtown Job Center, are a great way to see a lot of opportunities at once.

2020 will be a prosperous time for area job-seekers, says Juandiego Wade, coordinator of Albemarle County’s Career Center, thanks to a low 2.5 percent unemployment rate propelled by strong local business growth. “If you’re looking for a job and you have skills, you have buying power right now.”

But where to start? A job search can be a bewildering exercise—whether looking for a first job, a better job, or employment to make ends meet. Luckily, knowledgeable counselors in career resource centers abound in both the city and county, and they’re ready to help. “I might see someone here that just got out of prison after 12 years, or I might see a nurse who is completely stressed out from her job and needs a career change,” says Wade. “I encourage everyone to think about their transferable skills, and to learn to decode fancy job titles into what that job truly entails. People are often surprised by the range of options they have.”

The Career Center, Charlottesville’s Downtown Job Center, and Virginia Career Works all have dedicated staff who can help job seekers create and update resumes, draft cover letters, and participate in mock interviews. Wade walks candidates through several online search engines such as Monticello Avenue and Indeed to jumpstart the process, and advises them on how to self-promote. “You’ve got to develop good social skills and eye contact, and you should assess how your social media presence reflects on you, because employers will look at that.”

Local career counselors predict there will be plenty of opportunities for prospective employees, many at increased wage rates. “We are seeing a strong demand for health care workers, particularly certified nursing assistants, patient care assistants, and other critical positions,” says Tom Gillette, Virginia Career Works center manager, “as well as many openings in hotels, restaurants, and the catering business.” Prior expertise can come in handy as well. “Commercial drivers are in high demand, as are workers in skilled trades— electricians, pipe-fitters, HVAC technicians, and welders,” he says.

UVA, the area’s largest employer, increased its base hourly wage for all full-time and contract employees to $15 per hour in 2019, generating an uptick in pay rates county-wide as other employers vie for workers. Free or reduced-cost training courses such as Fast Forward at PVCC, Goodwill youth and adult programs, Job Corps, and the city’s Growing Opportunities program can set job seekers on a path to earn even higher wages.

“Over the last five years we’ve trained over 200 people into high-demand, mid-level jobs that pay a self-sufficient wage,” says Holli Lee, chief of workforce development strategies in Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development. “Our flagship program is GO Driver, where we partner with Charlottesville Area Transit to train people to become bus drivers. We incorporate workplace readiness training into these programs as well, to teach soft skills like showing up to work on time and dealing with conflicts in a professional situation.”

The OED pushes available job notices out to anyone who has registered at the Job Center by posting on social media sites such as Facebook, and by handing out fliers in local neighborhoods. Lee says job fairs are a great way to see a lot of opportunities at once.

“We recently held a targeted hiring event for Aramark, who will be staffing six new restaurants in 5th Street Station over the next few months,” she says. “We had 100 people come through and fill out applications and do interviews, and 32 people were offered employment on the spot at wages starting at $11.40 per hour.”

In this job-rich environment, employers must up their game to compete. “We are inundated with companies offering retail and food service jobs right now and they just can’t find enough people,” says Lee. “I tell them, if you’re trying to pay someone only $9 per hour in this environment, good luck to you.” Lee notes that Tiger Fuel recently increased wages and added to their benefits package to try to stay competitive.

“My advice to employers is—adjust your old-school approach to getting new people,” says Gillette. “Be friendly (and maybe a little aggressive) in talking to potential candidates. And, once you have them, do everything you can to help them survive and succeed. For dissatisfied employees, there are plenty of other options.”

Senior-level employees are in demand as well, and networking is the key to finding those positions. Elizabeth Cromwell, CEO of Charlottesville’s Chamber of Commerce, says she’s noticed “a lot of fairly senior-level positions such as CFO and COO opening up lately, perhaps as more people are retiring or moving on into consulting gigs or more flexible options.” The Chamber enables connections through its website jobs board and social media. “Many sole proprietorships or small companies are able to leverage the networking opportunities at the Chamber to reach a larger audience.”

Carolyn Kalantari and Heather Newton, who coordinate UVA’s Dual Career program for accompanying partners of UVA new hires, recently launched Embark, a community resource that showcases highly skilled jobs and job-related events in Charlottesville. “It’s a shared platform that everybody can access, particularly those highly educated, mid-career professionals that local businesses are trying to find,” says Kalantari.

Newton notes that smaller firms, like startups moving to the next phase, are often growing quickly and need managers before they know it, and points to Embark’s collaboration with Suntribe Solar as a recent example. “We have a newsletter and Twitter feed on our website, and job boards with postings and information for both employees and employers,” says Newton. The pair encourage job seekers to think of networking in the broadest sense, where neighbors, friends, or fellow parents can provide informal connections.

Charlottesville’s OED also coordinates GO Connect, a modern networking conduit that organizes speakers and meet-ups for professionals in casual settings. “Even if you’re not looking right now, you should still be putting yourself out there,” says Lee. “The person you met a month ago might have some job leads for you.” Lee’s advice for both employers and employees: “Don’t be your own island—reach out and find what’s out there and how we can work together.”

Source: Virginia Employment Commission Charlottesville Community Profile, Dec. 2019.

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