Carrie Scheffler, director of the nonprofit Employment Action Center, works at the intersection of business and social services. She oversees 18 locations and 125 employees who work with business partners on behalf of the state to help laid-off workers find new jobs and skills training.
Her staff also works with low-income youths, veterans and immigrants. We caught up with Scheffler recently in Minneapolis to find out her forecast for 2012 after the 2011 state shutdown, state and federal budget cuts and the abrupt end of the state's extended unemployment-insurance program.
QYour nonprofit provides services on behalf of the state to low-income and laid-off workers. How have your services been affected by budget cuts?
AWe have experienced state and federal funding cuts and that has decreased the number of clients we are able to serve. We don't have the funding, so we had to cut back on our staff last year.
QHow many clients do you serve?
AAbout 15,000 through 30 programs.
QYour agency helps laid-off workers, right?
AWe have roughly 4,000 in our dislocated-worker services program. They are nurses to engineers to receptionists. If employers are looking for workers, they should call us. We have a huge range. These are people who are hungry for work. [The center can be reached at 612-752-8400].
QAs 2011 drew to a close, what were the center's key issues?
AWe are funded in two ways, and one of them was cut. We help people who just come [in] off the street and need our help [after being displaced from companies that have laid off fewer than 50 workers]. This service is getting a 19 percent funding cut. When we have a reduction in funds, these types of services are not available for everyone.
QWill your second set of funding be cut?
ANo. We will still provide dislocated-worker services to employees displaced by mass layoffs [meaning more than 50 job cuts]. We do this through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
QMinnesota's unemployment rate recently fell below a critical 6.5 percent threshold, so the state was forced by law to stop a program that paid a final 13 weeks of unemployment benefits. Some 6,000 Minnesotans were affected. Did this affect any of your clients?
AAbout 30 people call us [a] week. These are generally people who are desperate [and] calling for more help. We really anticipate that there will be a gradual increase in these calls from people who are in this situation. Our staff has a lot of long-term unemployed folks who are getting discouraged.
They don't have any money to buy gas to get to job interviews or training workshops. We have clients who have lost their homes. Others have used up their 401(k), downsized their housing. They first joined the Dislocated Worker Program very optimistic that they wouldn't be unemployed for long. But our counselors are seeing that optimism fade. These are hardworking people with job skills who want to work. But the longer they are unemployed, the harder it has been for them to find new employment. People who were recently laid off are finding an easier time getting rehired.
QWhat do your counselors tell those who have been laid off and can't find jobs right away.?
AThey say, 'Keep trying. Let employers know you are energetic; that you may be overqualified but you are more than willing to work for what is offered.'
Our counselors learn their story and provide some career counseling. They help them get into job training programs, workshops, revitalize their résumé and help them identify skill sets that [may lead to a job]. They also arrange job interviews with our business partners who need workers.
QCongress extended Federal Emergency Unemployment until the end of February. Some in Congress argue that the country can't afford to extend it through the end of the year. What impact would that have?
AIt [would be] devastating for those clients who are going to lose their benefits. It has been devastating for so many already. Even with unemployment, there are folks whose lives have drastically changed. We work with a lot of community social service organizations that specialize in housing and family services and health services, and we will make referrals and help folks connect with some additional types of resources that might help with bus cards, food and utilities.
QWhat are your expectations for 2012?
AThe impression of our counselors is that things were starting to improve ever so gradually. At first they were optimistic about their ability to get clients placed in jobs faster. But there are some concerns. My counselors hunt for job leads all the time for clients. They were seeing 300 or 500 openings about two months ago. But lately they are seeing half that.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725