Counselor's goal is to give job seekers more than hope

Nancy Cohen and Marcus Cook
Nancy Cohen, an employment support consultant for at the Minneapolis Workforce Center run by Goodwill-Easter Seals, helps Marcus Cook, Sept. 5, 2012, at the Hennepin County Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. Cook, 47, is a recent transplant from Chicago. He came here looking for work in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
MPR photo/Brandt Williams

The latest jobless numbers from the state found 170,000 Minnesotans were unemployed at the end of July. Every week, Hennepin County libraries offer free job counseling to many of those unemployed Minnesotans.

And on Wednesday afternoons, Nancy Cohen can be found helping job seekers at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis.

Marcus Cook writes his name under two others on a sign-up sheet outside a library conference room. Cook recently moved here from Chicago, and said he has already learned how to navigate public transportation so he can get to agencies that will help him find housing and work.

"I'm using every avenue that I can possibly use. I want to be employed," Cook said. "I'm really not used to not working."

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Cook is 47 and has three children. He said he has a degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia College in Chicago and once ran a small telecommunications company. But now Cook is trying to pursue a passion he developed in the Navy 20 years ago. While serving on an aircraft carrier, Cook primarily worked in the kitchen preparing meals for thousands of sailors every day. Eventually, he'd like to open his own restaurant, he said.

"I'm an artist. And food is my canvas," Cook said. "Some people love to cook. I love to create."

Cook said he was told the Twin Cities are full of opportunities for people who love to create art on a plate. However, he's having trouble finding a good fit, so now he is looking for help.

"I'm using every avenue that I can possibly use. I want to be employed. "I'm really not used to not working."

Consultations at the library are on a first-come, first-served basis. The library outreach is part of Cohen's work as a job counselor with Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. Her regular office is located inside the Minneapolis Workforce Center on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. But since job seekers routinely use public libraries, Cohen said it makes sense to make counseling available here too.

Cook came prepared for his visit. He has an electronic copy of his resume on a thumb drive attached to his keychain. Cook plugs it into Cohen's computer and looks over her shoulder as they edit his resume.

Cohen adjusts Cook's resume by shifting his work experience toward the top and putting his education further down. A resume isn't a list, she said, it's a brochure that advertises the job seeker's best features.

Cohen's next visitor is a recent college graduate trying to break into the publishing business. She tells the young woman how to get an informational interview and even suggests a script for her to use when she makes phone calls.

"I'm very interested in learning more about your company. Would you have 20 minutes for an informational interview?" Cohen said. "It's different from, 'do you have any openings?' Right? Do you have any openings? Nope. The conversation's over."

By the end of the afternoon, Cohen has met with eight people, all with very different backgrounds. They include vulnerable adults accompanied by a guardian, a 17-year-old looking for his first part-time job, and one woman who is reluctant to talk about her personal situation.

Cohen can empathize with the people she helps. Four years ago, she went through what she calls a mid-life career transition after spending decades in marketing and technical communications. Even though Cohen had an IT background, she said navigating online resources was a daunting task.


"There are many people whose work does not involve using computers every day. And yet the sad reality is that — it's not sad, it's just a reality — that everyone has to become a computer user now in order to look for work," Cohen said.

The state's jobless rate has been falling. However, Cohen said she sees a steady stream of clients both at the Workforce Center and at the library. But she sees signs of progress.

Cohen recalls one woman who was not only jobless, but also homeless, who came to the library for a consultation and eventually became one of Cohen's clients at the Workforce Center. After a month of searching, Cohen said the woman wound up with a good part-time job.

"She's not where she wants to be yet, or where she needs to be in terms of really stable housing, stable job," Cohen said. "But she's really... she's inspiring to me."

Cohen said she can tell numerous more similar stories of people getting back into the workforce. But as with the state and the nation, progress is slow.