One Monday in March, Toni Young walks into the modest computer lab at the community center in the Gilpin Court public-housing complex.
She almost talked herself out of coming. When Young got a flyer advertising a new job-skills class for public housing residents, she says, "I held onto that flyer all day, staring at it." The class was probably full already, she told herself: "And these things don't usually pan out, at least for me."
Young was once a woman in charge of her career. She was an assistant retail manager, overseeing a team of 10, and then worked as a head teller who trained other tellers at banks in Virginia, Maryland and Washington.
Then she left the work force to stay home and care for her son and daughter — now a college senior and a high-school junior, respectively — and her elderly mother. She felt like she was existing, she says — not living.
She isn't the only one. Nine other people come to the computer lab Monday, most of them discouraged after years of job hunting.
"I've got a 40-year work history," says Gerald Fleming, who's 61. "The last 10 years —" he starts to laugh.
"Weren't good?" asks instructor Myra Griffin.
"'Cause half of it is unemployed," Fleming says. He worked as a computer operator for Wonder Bread for about 25 years, but elected to stay in Richmond when the company moved to North Carolina in 2001. He should have followed, he says mournfully. "But I was in love."
No one's required to be here — the only incentives that participants receive are free bus passes and a flash drive to save their résumés. The lab is modest, a collection of chunky old Hewlett-Packard Compaqs.
During the next four weeks, Griffin and other volunteer instructors cover topics such as finance, customer service and how to market yourself to employers. One day they talk about interviewing. The students know the hazards: Freezing up. Going silent. "Bubble guts," one pipes up.
Another day, the class learns the basics of writing a résumé. The very basics.
"All right. Let's format our names," instructor Donald Teasley says. It takes Teasley more than 15 minutes to guide the whole class through the formatting: center, bold, font style and size. "Remember, guys, it's about putting a suit on your document," Teasley says.
Those who are comfortable with computers help those whose mice waver. Keisha McCloud reaches over to guide a classmate.
"In the font area," McCloud explains.
"In the who?" her classmate says.
And so it goes. After four weeks, only two of the original 10 drop out. To celebrate, Griffin organizes a small graduation ceremony in the community center gym with iced tea and homemade chocolate cupcakes.
The students file in wearing suits and skirts and shy smiles. "If I had a job, I'd give it to you today," says Thomas Victory, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Richmond, which is sponsoring the class.
Victory says he sees some optimism out there. "Last year, folk gave up hope," he says. "Now, there's a new sense of hope — in terms of not giving up."
But obstacles remain. "Transportation is a killer," Victory says. "There's always been jobs — hypothetically — at the end of the bus line."
He bestows a personal letter of reference on each participant. Armed with nicely formatted résumés and gold-bordered certificates of completion, can these eight people find their long-awaited jobs?
For Richmond job seekers who have strikes against them — criminal records, limited computer skills, years out of work — having a firm handshake just isn't enough.
Enter Myra Griffin. She isn't a trained job counselor. For a while, Griffin worked for ECPI University in collections, tracking down late tuition payments. But what she really loved, she says, was talking with students about their careers.
This spring she decided to try her hand at helping others find work. She approached the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and got permission to teach a jobs class, unpaid. She called it Success 360.
The housing authority already has job counselors such as Dionne Woody, work-force development coordinator for the housing authority. Woody helps individual public-housing residents prepare themselves for employment.
What Griffin's doing differently, Woody says, is bringing employers to the applicants. After the graduation ceremony, representatives from Dominion Resources, UPS and M&T Bank sit at folding tables, waiting to interview the job-class graduates. Griffin vows that she won't stop meeting with any of her eight students until they're employed.
She brings her bill collector's doggedness to the task of finding jobs. She calls local hiring managers and restaurant franchise owners to ask them to please, please give her students a shot. She submits online applications for those who struggle with the computer, and she sends in résumés on her students' behalf.
"What exactly are you looking for?" she asks Gerald Fleming, the 61-year-old former Wonder Bread worker, while they sit together in the computer lab.
"It don't matter," he says. Fleming's just looking for part-time work, because he's a few semesters away from earning career certificates in electronics and information technology at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
"But would you do Taco Bell?" Griffin asks. Cashiers can get promoted quickly, she tells him.
Fleming stares at the photos of smiling young team members on the Taco Bell recruiting site. "Live Más," it says. He doesn't seem enthusiastic — especially after he fills out the online application and the site crashes.
"Oh goodness," Griffin says. Come to next Friday's class, she tells Fleming, and she'll help him tweak his résumé.
Last week, Griffin finds out that the housing authority has no money to pay her to continue teaching classes. Instead, she gets a grant from UPS to bring her hands-on job-training approach to the homeless through local group Caritas and to nearby prisons.
It doesn't matter where she works, Griffin says. "Every time you find somebody a job, you're changing somebody's life."
The state's unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent in March, well below the national rate of 8.2 percent. "Virginia is growing strong again," Gov. Bob McDonnell declares April 20.
But the most recent numbers from the Virginia Employment Commission tell a different story for Richmond. In February the city had an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, ranking 100th out of 134 Virginia localities. That means 8,817 people were actively seeking work in Richmond; the number of workers who have given up likely is much higher. The surrounding counties all have unemployment rates of less than 6 percent.
The situation's bleaker for the lowest-income Richmonders. Housing authority numbers show that in 2010, only 23 percent of households in public housing reported employment as being their major source of income. The average annual income — from all sources — was $9,500 per household.
But in March 2012, the employment commission reports a total of 23,100 advertised job openings in Richmond. So what's the problem?
You can glimpse it in a huge, noisy warehouse on Jefferson Davis Highway. Twenty stamping machines, each as big and green as a Dumpster, suck broad ribbons of paper from spinning spools. With a thunderous cha-chunk, cha-chunk sound, the machines spit out fat stacks of fluted paper plates.
A worker gathers up the plates, rolls the stack to even the edges, yanks a clear plastic bag over them, twists and seals the bag, then tips the package over onto a conveyor belt. She does this again and again, wearing ear plugs against the freight-train roar, for an eight-hour shift.
"It's not sexy. But it needs to be done," says Shannon Walls, plant manager for paper-plate manufacturer Aspen Products. The 4-year-old factory produces 2.4 billion plates a year — all from domestic materials, Walls is proud to point out.
"We are constantly hiring," Walls says. Yet his efforts to find committed workers, he says, have "been very, very, unsuccessful."
Aspen jobs seem like good jobs. The factory's on the bus line. You don't need a degree or any special expertise. The work is repetitive, but not hazardous or difficult. New hires make between $9 and $9.50 an hour, with a raise after 90 days. The average wage is $11, Walls says; supervisors can earn $18.
Yet Walls can't get the help he needs. "If I could hire 30 people tomorrow, I would," he says. "And we just can't. I hire six and lose four to drugs. Or because they don't show up. Or because they have a bad attitude, or whatever." Others are just lazy, he says. "You know, people don't want to work. It's become too easy to not have to work."
Griffin approached Walls a month ago and asked him what he was looking for. The main problem, he told her, was that applicants lacked basic job skills, such as how to conduct themselves in interviews and show up on time.
In the past, Walls wasn't impressed with the caliber of job-seekers from city-funded programs. "I don't know what it is about Myra's program that is different," Walls says. But he agreed to give her graduates a shot.
Will her students prove any better than the rest? "I'm optimistic," Walls says. The proof will only come with time.
The city knows it has a worker problem.
"The skill gap is very, very large," says Jamison J. Manion, the administrator of the city's work-force-development program. He isn't talking about job-specific training, he says; what many applicants lack are that customer-focused mindset and the motivation to keep working hard. "What happens too often," he says, "is the individuals are thinking about their job search in terms of their needs: 'I need a job, I need a job, I need a job.'"
Begun in October 2010, the Richmond Workforce Pipeline program teaches applicants to think about what an employer needs and to stay focused on the customer. Then the city works with companies to match them with ready applicants.
Manion, who combines the relentless optimism of a motivational speaker with a background in operations improvement, likens himself to a boxing promoter. "I can't guarantee you'll win the title fight," he says to job seekers. "But I can guarantee you'll get in the ring." Of the 281 participants in the program to date, 160 have found employment.
The city also has realized that people still need help after they get hired. For low-income Richmonders, getting a job can create a raft of new problems: day-care expenses; finding care for older parents; meeting an employer's demands.
Worst of all, getting a job often means that "all your creditors in the world start coming out of the woodwork," Manion says. The city's looking at offering consumer credit counseling, he says, so the newly employed get some help fending off bill collectors.
For decades, public-sector jobs were the pathway to prosperity for many black families. The government offered opportunities "where there were no opportunities," Manion says. "And lifted them like no other program could."
But that also means many families relied on those jobs. Nationwide, about 20 percent of black workers are employed by the government. During the recession, sagging tax revenues hit the public sector hard. The city of Richmond avoided layoffs by freezing hiring for the past five years or so, and in general is hiring employees only to replace those who leave.
From the employment peak in June 2007 to the trough in December 2010, about 33,000 jobs vanished from the Richmond metro region, Manion says. But things may be looking up. The area has regained about 15,000 jobs since then. And during the next five years, 67,000 job openings (both retirements and new jobs) will be created in the region, with a net gain of 47,000 jobs, according to a report by Chmura Economics and Analytics. The city alone will see 7,000 net new jobs, Manion says.
Many of these will be health-care jobs, he says, because of continued demand for registered nurses and home-health aides. Fast-growing local company Health Diagnostic Laboratories has announced its intention to nearly double its work force to 900 people during the next two years.
Manion also says he believes Richmond will see more jobs in retail, tourism and manufacturing. "We're optimistic about where the city's going to go."
A month after the Success 360 graduation ceremony, four of Griffin's eight graduates have jobs.
Harry Huggins is working as a paint-truck operator at Traffic Systems. Huggins landed the job because he was motivated, he says. "I'm a go-getter, because I have to make sure I stay above water," he says.
Three get hired at Aspen Products. One is Pamela Bland, 43, who'd been out of work since July. She kept sending out her résumé, and she kept getting calls — but, she says, "I kept getting real nervous at the interview. My words wouldn't come out like I wanted it to."
She took the job class and practiced interviewing. Griffin sent Bland's résumé to Aspen. "The interview wasn't hard at all," Bland says. The very next day, Aspen called. Come April 23 at 7 a.m., ready to work, they said. Bland did.
The rest are still searching. S