Minn.WorkForce Centers say more funding needed

Heather Coulter
Heather Coulter, 34, celebrated the conclusion of a successful job search at Anoka County WorkForce Center on Oct. 14, 2009 in Blaine, Minn. Coulter landed a job as a receptionist at a Minneapolis law firm.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Millions of dollars of federal stimulus money is helping the state provide services to job seekers, but state WorkForce Centers around Minnesota say they need more money to meet the dramatic increase in demand for their help.

The unemployment rate in Minnesota has been trending downward, but even so, more than 200,000 people around the state are out of work and looking for jobs.

An impromptu celebration took place at the Anoka County WorkForce Center in Blaine. One of the center's clients just returned with some big news that's cause for a general announcement.

"I am very happy to announce that Heather has landed a job," a WorkForce Center worker announced. "Her new job starts on Monday as a receptionist. So everybody, a round of applause please."

Heather Coulter, 34, is headed off to a Minneapolis law firm. Per the WorkForce Center tradition, Coulter taped a paper star with her name on it to the wall. Coulter capped her victory over unemployment with a single strike to a gong the hangs prominently over the reception desk.

In addition to celebrating another successful job search, the brief ceremony is intended to give hope to the many still looking for work. The head of the center, Jerry Vitzthum, said jobseekers can use any encouragement they can get, but the gong has been sounding less and less often.

"It's just such an unusual recession, such an overwhelming recession," Vitzthum said.

Jerry Vitzthum
Anoka County WorkForce Center Director Jerry Vitzthum, pictured in his office in Blaine, Minn., on Oct. 14, 2009, says demand for services at his center is up more than 50 percent over last year.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Vitzthum said about eight people are in the market for every position that's available. He said visits to the Anoka WorkForce Center, which happens to be the state's largest facility, are up more than 50 percent over last year.

Even with a hefty $ 1.5 million of economic stimulus money, the Anoka County WorkForce Center is struggling to meet the needs. There are so many clients that even with additional stimulus-funded staff, there are not enough counselors to provide the usual level of one-on-one help.

There's often a waiting line to use computer work stations for job hunting and more people want to get specialized training than there's money to pay for it.

"We have a lot of people who can't find work and training is an option," Vitzthum said. "It's a good time if you can handle it to go to school, get your skills upgraded so when the recession turns around you've got a higher skill level, more able to find employment in areas where we have labor shortages -- will have labor shortages."

The story is the same at a WorkForce Center in the Midway area of St. Paul. Demand for help finding work is up dramatically and even with stimulus money, all of the people are straining resources.

"Oh yes, very busy," said Luis Brown-Pena, runs that center. "We actually have seen an average of about 5,000 people a month."

Pena said for many of those people, job searches are taking twice as long as they once did.

All over the state WorkForce Centers are seeing a huge spike in demand for help.

"We track how many people walk into the WorkForce Centers and what services they use and overall, we're up 40 percent from last year, statewide," said Bonnie Elsey, director of the workforce development division of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Elsey said, even with a lot of stimulus money and all kinds of efforts to stretch those dollars, the WorkForce Centers will need several million more to make it through the fiscal year ending in June of 2010. Elsey said she plans to look for help from a special state workforce development fund in a couple of months.

"Our locals have asked for a total of about an additional $8 million that they feel that they can spend between now and the end of the year," Elsey said. "That would be mainly on dislocated workers to pay for tuition and books and related expenses."

Elsey said today's tough job market reminds her of bad times in the 1980s. She said what is even more challenging now is trying figure out what types of job skills will be in high demand when employers start hiring.

The celebration recognizing Heather Coulter's successful job search ended as quickly as it started. After the applause, the place quickly quiets.

Cheers gave way to muted, library-appropriate conversation. A couple dozen job seekers work the phones and plucked away on computers in tiny cubicles, perhaps hoping they too will soon be striking the gong to celebrate their new job.

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