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What it’s like to work at a career center during mass unemployment

The coronavirus pandemic has put millions of people out of work. Career center workers are trying to help.

Businesses across the country have shuttered, putting workers out of their jobs.
Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

It is difficult to fully contextualize the labor crisis that has stricken the United States in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 26 million Americans have lost their jobs since the start of the outbreak. Experts believe the current jobless rate may be 15 percent or higher.

It remains unknown how much longer stringent social distancing measures will be in place, but if nonessential businesses remain closed and consumer demand continues to spiral, the Trump administration has estimated that as many as one-fifth of the American workforce could soon be out of a job. Nicole Sherard-Freeman, the executive director of workforce development for the city of Detroit, has seen all of those dire projections. It’s her duty, she says, to stem the tide.

Like so many others in the public sector, Sherard-Freeman’s responsibilities — managing recruitment fairs, training programs, and job placement — were turned upside-down by coronavirus in a matter of days.

On March 23, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a state-wide stay-at-home order, restricting residents to vital travel only. The state was quickly flooded with layoffs — about one in 10 Michiganders have filed for unemployment since the beginning of March — as movie theaters, bowling alleys, and gyms were forced to close their doors. This is the outcome for any state that’s prioritized public health over the local economy; the same fate has found New York, California, and Washington. Now, Sherard-Freeman and her team have been tasked with connecting Detroiters with work in the middle of a pandemic.

Some businesses are still hiring. Grocery stores and medical centers are operating beyond their usual capacity and need to staff up, and there are work-from-home positions available for Detroit At Work’s older and immunocompromised clients. But matching people up with the right jobs is more complicated in the era of social distancing: Career centers, like the Detroit At Work offices around the city she oversees, have traditionally relied on person-to-person contact. It’s a challenge to get people placed, interviewed, and hired remotely. We talked about all of that, and what it feels like to be on the ground during one of the most seismic work stoppages in American history.

When did the threat of the pandemic hit your department? When did you start to notice a massive influx of layoffs? Was there a moment where that hit home?

We’re operating in some sort of time warp. It was probably [early March,] but it feels like six months ago. It occurred to me that we were approaching this time when I did a whirlwind tour of our Detroit At Work career centers. It occurred to me that I needed to thank the folks on the frontlines of service, but also that we were going to need to ask them to work from home, because of the conditions that they could be nervous about. I went to seven of the nine of our offices, [because] two of them had already closed. That’s when it hit me that we’ve just turned a corner.

How much has demand increased for your offices, compared to two or three months ago?

When things were really starting to hit, and small businesses started to get nervous, the traffic at the career centers was almost exclusively related to unemployment insurance. Employers were sending workers directly to us. It’s one example of how confusing this situation can be. Sometimes those workers weren’t feeling healthy, and the employer said, “Go file for unemployment.”

It was a mishmash of traffic in the first couple days. It’s leveled off. I think we’ve done a fairly decent job of getting the word out that you don’t have to come into the office. You can file online, or call the number.

Last week we stood up an initiative at Detroit At Work called Ready To Hire. This was for essential businesses that need to hire right now. One of the dynamics we forget at this time is a lot of businesses are hiring. Their businesses are expanding, they need to replace workers that need time off. We’ve got more than 1,000 jobs available. So we’ve seen an uptick in traffic on the web and in the call center — some folks are just curious and want to see what’s out there, and others are just ready for opportunity.

That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you. Who is hiring right now? Obviously with nonessential businesses shuttering, that causes a huge windfall of job loss. But with grocery stores operating beyond their usual capacity, I would imagine that there are some employment options still out there.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. We’ve got 35 employers so far as part of Ready To Hire. We’ve got health care systems — things like patient transfer workers, environmental services, certified nurses — they’re interviewing this week. We’ve got delivery driver positions. Companies hiring for restaurant delivery. We’ve also got some really small businesses, like Mike’s Fresh Market on the eastside of Detroit. They’ve said, “Look, if you can help us with staff, we’ll open up special hours for senior citizens only.”

I think that’s one of the things about Detroit. We have drive and determination, but we do it in a way that’s built around taking care of each other. No matter how we expand our businesses, we want to take care of the community.

Traditionally, career center appointments are handled in person; someone comes into the office and speaks to a representative. That’s untenable right now. So how has social distancing impacted the pure nuts and bolts of your outreach?

The state of Michigan has taken some creative measures. Things like, “If your last name starts with J, call between these hours.” Or if you’re going online, try to do it in the middle of the night, because the system is less likely to crash.

But as far as delivering services, thankfully we were already about a year into figuring out how to deliver the majority of what we do — working on your résumé, polishing up your interview skills, digital literacy skills — online. That wasn’t because of Covid-19, that was how the mayor wanted to deliver our services. So we were able to get our services up and running in a week. I remember that milestone. A week in, we were able to say to Detroiters that if you got time on your hands, go to DetroitAtWork.com. We’re telling our residents that this is your time. When the restart happens, we want you to be ready.

Let’s say someone loses their job and they’re in their 60s, or they have health issues, and they’re tentative about going back to work at a job that might elevate their risk of exposure. What are some of the solutions you have for people in that demographic?

A very real example is that I just had a conversation with the head of talent acquisition at Flagstar Bank. Their call center has moved [to be totally virtual]. People are setting up at home with the right equipment. They’re going to use us for call center support and bilingual call center support; it’s the perfect situation for immunocompromised folks.

Have you guys had to cancel any in-person events like job fairs? Or were you able to move those to digital as well?

Yeah, that’s exactly what we did. We moved it online. But we know there are people out there who don’t have a data plan that’s large enough to accommodate video streaming — even though most carriers have been good about taking the caps off their data usage. We’re working on a 100 percent paper-only solution. So we just moved to a different service delivery method.

I’m curious to hear more about that. For the people who aren’t quite as tech literate, this is an especially weird time. How do you address that issue?

If you don’t even have a cellphone. If you have a landline. If you don’t have a tablet, or don’t have friends that do. If you call us, we will figure out a way to work with you. Will it be slower than what you can do online? [But] we need to figure out a solution for everyone.

For you personally, when you see some of these unprecedented projections of what our unemployment rate might be in this country, and the sheer number of businesses going under right now, do you have an emotional reaction at all? This is a trying time for anyone who works in the labor sector, does it ever get to you?

I’m just going to give you my honest answer: I don’t process things that way. I think it has to do with the way I’m wired. I don’t have time to sit and look at the numbers and say, “Oh my gosh, what does that mean for us? What does that mean for Detroit?” It’s my calling to be on the ground, figuring out a way to fix it. I have to distill those numbers into problems that I can solve. Otherwise, it’s just not useful.