Harlem Job Fair Attracts Diverse Mix of Seekers

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“It’s a nightmare,” Rangel said of the constituents in his community. “People say they’re doing fine, but you know damn well they’re in terrible, terrible pain.

[The Economy]

A mother and her husband in Harlem have been sleeping on a mattress in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment every night for the past few years.

They don’t want their two children to struggle just because their parents are having a hard time financially.

“A brother and sister shouldn’t have to share a bedroom, so they each get their own room,” explained Sylvia Mitchell, 32, one of 2,000 unemployed people who attended a recent career fair at The City College of New York hosted by Congressman Charles Rangel (D-Harlem).

Rangel had in attendance nearly 100 companies, from the U.S. Secret Service to Macy’s to Toys ‘R’ Us and all of them are currently hiring, albeit mostly for entry-level jobs. He understands that these are the worst of times for many Americans, and especially for those in the Harlem community.

“It’s a nightmare,” Rangel said of the constituents in his community. “People say they’re doing fine, but you know damn well they’re in terrible, terrible pain. I am amazed and surprised at the people in the spiritual area where the commitment is a love in Jesus, in God and in taking care of the poor and the aging. Their silence is frightening.”

Rangel said that people come to him thinking that “winning is not their cards.” They’ve played by the rules with the hopes of “doing better than mom” but have lost their job and savings and are buried under student loans. What’s worse, he said, they’re drinking more and more and their kids are angry.

After three years as a receptionist at the New York State Department of Health, Mitchell was laid-off in 2010 because she failed the second part of a Civil Service Exam given to all state and federal employees to re-asses their aptitude.

Now, she’s barely making ends meet with the $300 per week she receives in unemployment benefits, along with the amount of money her husband gets from his welfare assistance. He has been unemployed for over a year but won’t tell her how much he gets from the state.

“It seems like I’m always in court battling credit card issues,” she said, adding that she also has student loans because of the Social Sciences degree that she hopes to receive from The College of New Rochelle in 2013. On top of that, there are the little things, like basketball sneakers for her 11-year-old son.

“They need to be cheap, but not so cheap that he’ll get made fun of,” she said. “So I need to save up a few dollars every day.” The basketball coach worked with her to devise a lay-away plan for the annual $100 league fee. Ultimately, he waived it for her.

Mitchell is the face of unemployment in America: burdened with debt and losing a grip on keeping it together amid a constant pressure to support a family. She is the nine-percent employment rate. And there were countless people at the fair just like her.

Lewis Ortiz, 35, has been living in Brooklyn with his parents for the past two years. He last worked as an animal care technician for the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C. and has since gotten certified with various computer skills to better position himself for employment. “It’s been rough and tough,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t have money to spend on food.”

But not everyone will settle for the first job they’re offered.

“I don’t want any job,” said Andy Clark, 21, from the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. Clark was laid off two months ago from his job at a shipping and receiving plant and attended the fair to find “any salaried job.”

And then there’s another group of people looking to go back to work: the elder generations. The New York City Department of Aging was on-site to help those 55 years and older who are seeking employment again. “Some of them are widows, some from households who suddenly need a second income but one spouse never went to college, and some just want to keep busy again,” said Nikki Cheng from the Public Affairs Office for the department.

But perhaps the industry experiencing more business than anyone during the recession is the career-coaching sector.

The businesses and individuals who are best at executing and innovating are getting better at what they do and it’s been great for coaches, said Meredith Haberfeld, 37, who has been running a coaching agency in New York City for the past 10 years. She knows that some people are frustrated because resumes submitted online sometimes get moved to the bottom of the pile in favor of those from people who are well-connected, but she doesn’t believe it should be an excuse.

“It’s not about who you know,” Haberfeld said. “It’s about how you network. People hide behind their computer and think they’re working really hard on a job search. Kind of like squats are an ingredient to a workout, but you’re not going to get fit just by doing squats. If you can only do one activity, go jogging, network.”

But many coaches hear those frustrations and know that their role is to keep the clients encouraged despite unfavorable circumstances.

Andrew Lewis runs a Chelsea-based Neighborhood Improvement Project through Fedcap, the Manhattan-based not-for-profit organization that provides vocational and employment resources to underserved communities. He teaches classes of 100 participants at a time. To be eligible, one must receive cash assistance and have custody of a child. Many of the participants come from Harlem, according to Lewis.

“What I found surprising is that many of our participants have a lot of work experience,” he said.  “We just had a woman get her Masters in Nursing and she feels like she just doesn’t have the connections to get a job.”

But getting the job may be the easiest part. Keeping it is what some people find to be hardest. 

“People think they can get a job, but can they keep the job?” asked Margaret McDermott, employment specialist at Harlem-based Strive International, a career services provider with the motto, “Where Attitude Counts.” She focuses on everything from teaching people to accept constructive criticism to how to dress for the job. “A lot of our clients have a history of addiction, abuse or domestic violence,” she added. “Sometimes we have people call us from jail because they’re getting out soon and want a job.”

She estimates that 70 percent of her clients are ex-offenders. But the Harlem office graduates 350 people annually from its four-week programs, according to Larry Jackson, director of programs. He said that 60 percent of those graduates are placed into jobs and another five percent go back to school.

To help them realize the kind of self-image they’ve been portraying, each client has to record a private five-minute video of himself talking about anything other than sex, religion or politics. “It’s not shown to anybody,” said McDermott. “It’s simply there as a sort of confessional, that they are not their past but they are their future.”

In fact, the founder of the company is living proof that things can get better. Incarcerated for armed robbery for much of his teens until he was 24 years old, Robert Carmona went on to receive his masters in social work from Columbia University. He now serves as president of the international career services firm he once started in the basement of a community center 25 years ago. “Robert is on a different level,” added McDermott. “There are not many people like him.”

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