Getting a job is the first step toward financial independence. Yet despite Oregon's improving unemployment figures, thousands of people can't find work.
Black jobseekers, immigrants and young people trying to get a foot on the career ladder are having an especially hard time. And if you have a felony in your past, or have been out of work for more than six months, it could feel like you need a miracle as well as a resume.
"How are you going to explain, 'I've been in jail for 10 years?'" says Holly Whittleton, executive director of SE Works in Southeast Portland. "There is a lot of need out there."
Anyone looking for work is welcome at the SE Works center. Part of the Oregon WorkSource network, the nonprofit is dedicated to helping people find jobs.
"We are trying to break the cycle of poverty through getting people into decent, good jobs which pay decent wages," Whittleton says. "That's how you break the cycle of poverty."
Last year SE Works served about 16,000 people, who together made 32,000 visits. Customers, as center staff call them, are offered access to computers, job listings and resume help, as well as classes and workshops in everything from interviewing skills and resumes to English in the workplace. All the services are free.
Many employers, Kraft Foods, for example, are looking for workers who have a National Career Readiness Certificate. You can get several levels of that certificate at the center. And SE Works has partnered with the addiction nonprofit CODA, to offer classes in how to keep your job through recovery.
The City of Portland helps fund a re-entry program open to anyone with a felony background. A class called "Discover Your Road to Success" runs 16 times a month. People attend and get support in their job search until they land work. Last year in one three month period, 954 people attended the class.
People fresh out of jail or prison, or within six months of release get special help through two programs partly funded through the Department of Community Justice. Together these programs serve 280 people, with job clubs, skills development and one-to-one support. Center staffers work closely with probation and parole officers, employers and DHS to remove barriers to employment, and to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"We're looking for long-term impact," says Norelle Harper, who manages the re-entry employment center. "This program is not one-size fits all. But the people who come and participate get a lot out of it."
The Civic Justice program is exclusively for youth aged 18-24 who have been involved with the juvenile justice system in the last year. Most youth don't come in with GEDs. So tutors and counselors help them study and pass their GED exam. In the program they also gain work experience, and explore plans for college or a career. Last year 44 of 45 youth who completed the GED program went on to college.
Youth can earn up to $75 week in the program, Harper says.
"If you're absent, your pay is docked. If you're tardy by more than 15 minutes, there's a consequence. If you're there but you're just a warm body, you will lose pay. We try to make this very much like a job."
At Habitat for Humanity, for example, students work in a warehouse and in a resale store. Some get forklift certificates, along with customer service experience.
At any one time the GED program serves around 120 youth. That's 40 recent graduates, who can come back for support any time; 40 youth studying for their GED; and as many as 40 waiting to start classes. The program puts students into the classroom two – three days a week and on a worksite two days a week to do community service.
"These are things they can put on their resume," Harper says. "We're really focusing on marketability, and that's not going to happen without some kind of credential, degree or certificate."
Portland Public Schools funds 15 places on the alternative education program.
"I want to say Portland Public Schools are great to work with," Whittleton says. "If Carole Smith came in that door right now, I would give her a big hug."
But Whittleton has to find the money to serve the other students. Currently she's looking for funds to cover a $168,000 shortfall.
"I am not closing these doors," she vows. "These are the lost kids. There isn't a lot out there for them. And without this program these juveniles are going to end up back in the system."
SE Works is funded by grants from Oregon Department of Labor, and a long list of private donors, including: Dave's Killer Bread, which gave more than $80,000 last year; Fred Meyer, which gave $5,000; and the center building landlord D.J. Guild, who also serves on the resource development committee.
Board members spend countless hours championing the center, Whittleton says. "We do about four tours a week. One person came through and after talking to the kids for half an hour donated $25,000."
The support is always needed, Whittleton says, because the center continually seeks to serve as many people as possible.
"I will take any nickel because I am keeping these doors open," she says, then revises her words to say. "I accept any penny."