The WorkSource Center, situated in downtown Bellingham, might not look like much from the outside but it is a veritable hive of activity. As a member of the recently unemployed, I decided to check out this often overlooked resource.
The WorkSource Center
As soon as I enter the office, I am greeted by the receptionist who outlines the wide array of services available. As a current job seeker, I am directed to the banks of computers where I enter my Social Security number and some basic information. Before I know it, a giant list of available jobs scrolls before my eyes. Some I can apply for directly, while others require that I sit down for a screening interview with WorkSource staff first. There are public phone lines, printers, fax machines and more computers available–free as long as you are using them to find work.
Inside the busy office . . .
The WorkSource Center also provides trainings, classes, and support groups. Perusing the calendar the receptionist handed me, I see I just missed the “Job Club”, a networking and support group for those looking for jobs. Later that day, the center conducted a handful of basic computer classes, a class on resume writing and “navigating a conviction history.” The receptionist, Pam, described that class as “tips on presenting your history honestly without shooting yourself in the foot.”
It was a Monday afternoon, and already the place was relatively full, with most stations occupied. Job seekers ranged from young men dutifully scrolling through listings, to women in their fifties marking up applications on clipboards, to an unemployed blogger wandering around looking lost. (Hmmm) We may have had different backgrounds but we all shared the same desire to find work. I was just wrapping up my notes when a burly man in his 40s clad in leather chaps sauntered up to the receptionist while I was there, took off his sunglasses and politely asked, “I haven’t done this in a long time, where do I start?”
Gary Smith, Regional Manager of the Northwest Workforce Council, and top dog at this WorkSource Center, has a few ideas where to begin.
“Manufacturing is a bright spot right now, especially for those coming from construction.” He pulled up numbers from the last quarterly report. “Since the economic crash, our area (Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan Counties) has lost just shy of 18,000 jobs, while only gaining 5,600.” The downtown has been most brutal in construction, with 5,300 jobs lost and only 500 gained in the last three years. For the last year in Whatcom County, the unemployment rate has hovered around 8.4 percent.
So what does the WorkSource Center do in the face of these numbers?
Gary Smith, at work
“We want to be a one-stop shop,” Smith declared, citing the wide range of services the center provides. “When someone files for unemployment, they are required to come in to the nearest WorkSource Center. While they are here, we show them what we can do for them.”
Aside from pointing them toward job openings, the WorkSource Center is instrumental in retraining potential employees. “A lot of what we do is help people see their skills in a different way, helping repackage themselves so that they can take those transferable skills to a new industry.”
Are there many jobs sitting vacant because employers can’t find employees with the right skills?
That depends on what “many” means, responded Smith. “There are several employers that need more engineers and computer programmers, and it is difficult to find applicants with that skill set, but often workers just need an update,” Smith paused looking up at me.
“An update?” I ask.
“Say that you have a worker whose last job on the construction site used software from 1995. We take them, give them some training on the new software, and help them stay competitive.”
So how do the colleges figure into this?
“We consider ourselves a system. We work very closely with Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College to set goals and fill needs.” He highlighted a recent collaboration with Bellingham Technical College where they trained unemployed workers to be x-ray technicians, a high demand job.
"All that is required is understanding and compassion"
With the ending of the Iraq war and anticipated draw-down in Afghanistan coming soon, I asked Smith about the influx of returning veterans. His eyes lit up.
“We have specific employees here that just work on veterans issues, but we feel we are all here to serve our veterans.” He described the “Gold Card” program that helps integrate WorkSource with other veterans services.
Another key focus of Smith’s is youth unemployment. “A whole generation of kids are not getting the basic job skills they need from that first job.”
What sort of skills, I ask.
“We call them the Workforce Skill Standards, and they represent the basic expectations from any business of an employee. Showing up on time, taking the ear buds out, that sort of thing.” He continued that the economic crash has increased the number of youth who have missed out on gaining early work experience, which will likely affect their wage earning potential for years to come.
So what does WorkSource need from the community and state to be successful? At this Smith reflected, and grinned. “You can tackle those one at a time,” I offered.
“From the state, I hope that they continue to recognize and support local WorkForce Councils (the governing body of the WorkSource center). The strength of a business majority leadership filled with local business leaders, allows us to be attuned to what our individual communities need,” said Smith.
“From the community, I just need people to understand that WorkSource is serving many people. Everyone knows someone who is looking for a job. There should be no stigma. We have highly skilled, highly motivated people here, and all that is required is understanding and compassion.”