It All Starts with a Good Job
How agencies are helping women find employment
BY KARA SCHWEISS
The employment picture for Omaha-area women is a little better than the national average in many ways. According to the American Community Survey, part of the U.S. Census, the female work force participation rate is about two-thirds, compared to 60 percent nationally. The unemployment rate for women is typically two or three percentage points lower. We even have a slightly higher concentration of women in many professional fields, such as health care and legal community services.
But try telling this to the woman who is re-entering the workforce unexpectedly after two decades of raising children and a divorce. Or to the woman with a college degree who barely makes rent and utilities every month and can’t find more lucrative work better suited to her job history and education. Or to the young mother who left high school when she became pregnant and is trapped in a complicated unemployment cycle of transportation and child care challenges, coupled with lack of job skills and experience. Or to the once-promising employee who stagnates in an entry-level position because she needs flexibility to be available for her family. Or to the part-timer whose hours have been cut by an employer who can’t afford to offer health care benefits.
On an individual level, unemployment or intermittent employment and underemployment remain the most significant obstacles to economic self-sufficiency for area women. The Omaha Economic Partnership’s 2006 Omaha Labor Conditions Survey conducted by the Center for Public Affairs Research of the University of Nebraska at Omaha found that nearly a quarter of the respondents felt they were underemployed in terms of either limited hours available to them, or that they were settling for a position for which they were overqualified. The survey also showed that unemployed people, in general, aren’t unemployed because they’re unwilling to work. In fact, nearly two-thirds of them had been employed within the previous 12 months.
Urban League Vice President of Programs Marilyn Sims says that most people are fundamentally motivated to find work because they want to reach a point of relative prosperity. “If you don’t have income you can’t begin to take care of basic needs,” she points out.
Additionally, work needs to be lasting to foster individual economic stability, says Jami Anders-Kemp, project manager with Heartland Workforce Solutions.
“We really are interested in putting people into jobs that are going to provide family-sustaining wages and have a future. Our goal is to help people get over the hump and then actually be able to support their families in some type of career pathway,” she says.
Women in particular face special challenges in finding good employment.
“In today’s society, 80 percent of single-parent households are headed by women and women are more likely to be unemployed during a recession. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what the studies show,” Sims says.
Because women are still more likely than men to leave the workplace to raise children, they may find that when they return, their past training and sometimes even education may no longer be relevant in the current market.
“They may find they have to go back to work with out-of-date skills,” Shirley Carlson, interim executive director for Heartland Workforce Solutions, says. “They struggle to come back into the workforce and to explain choices that many employers look on as a negative.”
Sims agrees. “A lot of the women we’ve seen recently have been in their current field for decades, making a transition to a new career field difficult,” she says. “They have to learn how to transfer their knowledge and skills to a new industry.”
Other women facing re-entry into employment, whether by choice or circumstance such as widowhood or divorce, find that their limited education is more of an obstacle than in past decades. And even younger women just starting out sometimes come to the realization that a high school education may not qualify them to enter their desired career field, or that opportunities for advancement are limited.
“We know education is key to obtaining good employment, self-sufficiency and everything else,” Sims says. “Typically, if you need to support a family you need more than a GED.”
Sometimes it’s a matter of lacking the resources to take care of basic needs that holds women back. Alyssa Smith is the director of the Hope Employment and Learning Academy, which is part of the Hope Center for Kids, located near 20th and Burdette Streets in North Omaha. She says that young women in particular find barriers to gainful employment because of their personal circumstances, which sets a bad precedent for the future.
“Employment is gained through connections, but many of our youth have limited mobility and stay in the community, and there are fewer jobs in the community,” Smith says.
“For younger women, especially those who have children, transportation and child care are a challenge. It does depend on their family living situation. If they have resources in their extended family who can help with transportation and child care, they can find successful employment. But if they are doing it on their own, those items turn out to be barriers. Balancing both school and the employment that’s needed to support themselves and their children—that’s challenging.”
Some women find their opportunities thwarted or stifled because of a lack of awareness due to limited experience or having no positive role models to teach “soft skills,” such as managing office politics, dealing with conflict in the workplace, projecting a professional demeanor and even dressing appropriately for the workplace.
“We make assumptions that if you’re at a certain stage of life, you should just know. But everyone’s experience is different and if you haven’t been in an environment where you’ve had the appropriate mentoring or training, you don’t know,” Sims says.
“Sometimes some of our students have that perspective that ‘nobody should judge me’ and ‘I should be able to be myself,’ and we teach them that they have to make a great impression, and it’s not because of the neighborhood you come from or the color of your skin,” Smith says. “It’s hard to get jobs and you really need to show who you are and show yourself in a good way.”
Underemployed women may feel forced to choose between their obligations to their families and opportunities for career advancement that would require longer working hours, rigid schedules, travel, round-the-clock availability or other commitments. This in turn limits income potential and sometimes means a lack of benefits like paid time off, health and dental coverage, which can put a family in a precarious position.
“I do know women who are willing to take lesser jobs and do what they have to do to make sure that there’s not a disruption in that household, so they’re there for their children and they can still be Mom,” Sims says. “And they’re not willing to sacrifice. Children are a precious and valuable asset that they don’t want to take time from if they don’t have to.”
Fortunately, there are resources in the community where women can turn to for help. Heartland Workforce Solutions, for instance, coordinates efforts from multiple agencies, including Nebraska Department of Labor, Goodwill Industries and many others. Although some programs are targeted toward specific populations—such as persons with disabilities, veterans or the long-term unemployed—most are open to everyone. Many don’t even require individuals to be unemployed. Rather, they are open to employed people seeking a more lucrative or fulfilling career path.
“Heartland was started as a nonprofit to bring employers and job-seekers together. A big part of that was operation of the one-stop center, which is now an American Job Center, and through that we do have quite a few partnerships that are actually co-located on-site; individual agencies that all work together looking at employment training and education,” Carlson says.
She also points out that they try to take job-seekers all the way through to placement. “We also work with just about anybody and everybody in town who has clients looking for employment education and training. We act as a liaison to try to tie all those together to get a good positive outcome, with a goal of streamlining some of the services and eliminating some of the duplication that occurs.”
Urban League of Nebraska offers community projects, job empowerment, work experience and other similar programs to help individuals find economic self-sufficiency. Their services are designed for a financially disadvantaged population but are open to anyone in the community, Sims says.
“The Urban League is very dedicated to ensuring that individuals obtain employment—not only jobs, but sustaining jobs where individuals can pay their bills and pay their mortgage and have a living wage with benefits,” Sims says. “We try to help that individual be as prepared as possible so they can have successful employment.”
She adds that resources are comprehensive. “I am a big proponent of making sure that individuals have that support system in place, whether it’s an organization like the Urban League, or finding those mentors, or getting some additional training, or going back to school,” Sims says. “Do everything you possibly can to be marketable.”
The Hope Employment and Learning Academy supports students academically and provides training in work-related skills—from resume writing and interviewing to personal skills such as financial literacy and healthy lifestyle choices. It targets youth who are just reaching the age where they can enter the job market for the first time, with a goal of teaching employability skills that are useful in the long term and offering services that help young people find current employment.
“I feel it’s a very holistic program,” Smith says. “I think those first jobs are so important in teaching those employment skills that are so necessary for success in life.”
The program is still in its first year and evolving, but Smith says she already sees signs that it’s working. “I’ve seen tremendous change from the inside out in some individuals, in some of the behavior and attitude and receptiveness to feedback from adults and supervisors. It’s very hard for them to receive that corrective feedback when they’re young and not performing as expected,” she says. “It’s been a learning experience for all of us, as well as all of them, and it’s been a learning experience to teach employment training in a way that gives them room to grow.”
Whether clients are teens seeking that first after-school job, or seasoned professionals looking for more fulfilling options to help foster long-term success, all three agencies help clients find career pathways that are not only attainable, but in demand.
“We have everywhere from women who have GEDs to women who have master’s degrees having problems finding employment,” Sims says.
“On the business side, we know we can train folks here at Heartland through some of our service providers, but if they don’t have a job to go to or opportunity or a career pathway, then we’re kind of doing it for naught, so we have to juggle those two pieces at the same time,” Anders-Kemp says. “We set up partnerships with these businesses and talk about how we can better train some of these folks so we are addressing the talent needs these businesses will have into the future.”
Through technology updates and coordination of resources, agencies are able to serve clients and employers alike more efficiently and effectively than ever, Carlson says. The days of filling out long application forms by hand and waiting for documents to be mailed back and forth are long gone, and individual clients can explore far more opportunities than in the past.
“We’ve tried to make it user-friendly for both job seekers and businesses, and we’re proud of the fact that businesses come directly here to recruit,” Carlson says.
More practical experiences are also integrated into the process. The Hope Employment and Learning Academy brings in real-world professionals to talk to students about a wide spectrum of career fields. Heartland Workforce Solutions offers intensive job search and resume-writing support. Urban League gives job-seekers access to corporate decision-makers to practice interviewing skills.
“It’s not like you sit down with an Urban League staff member and do a mock interview,” Sims says. “It’s a whole other ballgame when you actually have HR people critiquing you.”
They also teach candidates how to follow up on leads and create valuable connections. “You know how they say, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know?’ I think mentors can be invaluable in helping women navigate through some of those obstacles—not just women but people in general,” Sims says. “We have to be more proactive in helping and supporting and developing other women.”
Sometimes clients may have adequate education and marketable skills but need a better awareness of how to navigate the system of office politics, corporate behavior and social expectations of the professional workplace. This could mean explaining guidelines on Internet and cell phone usage at work, expectations relating to attendance and punctuality, dress code standards or even accepting criticism.
“I guess I was really surprised by the social skill deficit in terms of employability skills,” Smith says of her program’s first-year participants. “We had to back up from the job readiness skills and step back into the social skills that are necessary for the workplace. Kids will complain, ‘Well, I don’t need to do this at school,’ but then you don’t get paid to go to school. It’s how you need to act in a job situation. You’re not entitled to a paycheck when you don’t do the things you’re expected to do.”
Sims agrees. “Unfortunately, you may have the best worker, but if they’re not packaged right, they won’t get past point A. Just get your foot in the door and then you can wow them with your personality.”
Potential workers may also be hindered by personal circumstances—from lack of child care to abusive relationships to transportation challenges. Agencies recognize these need to be addressed before employability can even begin to be possible.
“This is where those partnerships really pay a key role because we’ve made it a practice to bring in representatives from a variety of community resources so we and the staff can become as knowledgeable as possible,” Carlson says.
Sims likens this to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “Until they get the basic needs taken care of they’re not going to worry about self-actualization and career peak and that sort of thing. If she has children to take care of, making sure her wardrobe is Ann Taylor-like isn’t her highest priority.”
Even employers could use some coaching and re-education at times. “We also have an advocacy piece of HWS. When we’re working with these businesses and going out and talking, we’re really looking at system change as well,” Anders-Kemp says. “Because we understand that we may need to change the mindset of job-seekers, but there are also a lot of things in the hiring process where we see we can help make changes.”
“I think the majority of employers are realizing that they have to go above and beyond just because of what’s going on in the workforce in general,” Sims says.
Anders-Kemp says, “We understand they have real business needs and return on investment, and that productivity is important, but are there new and inventive ways of doing things they need to do?”
So, while Omaha remains ahead of the curve in terms of employment, for the individual woman it may take some extra training and support to help her find the best job—and career—for her.
“You have a greater chance of success if you’re doing what you want to do,” Carlson says.
Sims agrees. “Being able to be in a position that you love, I think that would be every woman’s dream.”