a vision: Careerlinks director Marsha Lazarus.
Is My Year”
photos By teri currie
puts a long-term, goal-oriented face on the welfare-to-work
atmosphere in the Albany Public Library’s Conference Room
One last Friday morning was bubbly. About a dozen women, plus
five case managers from Careerlinks, filed into the room,
chattering loudly. One woman had just received her certified
nursing assistant certificate, and was beaming with quiet
pleasure as her case manager whooped it up. Another woman’s
daughter had just been on TV through the Make a Wish Foundation,
and she delightedly answered questions about how it had all
More quietly, in one corner, a case manager checked in on
the details of plans with a client, who pulled a folded resume
out of her purse. “Maybe you should move references down a
little and you can add a section on skills,” the case manager
suggested, “to show more of what sort of things you learned
This week’s “workshop” gathering of Careerlinks clients was
devoted to six-month-goal planning. Halfway through an explanation
of Smart goals—that would be goals that are “specific, measurable,
attainable, realistic, and timely”—a small rebellion erupts.
Elizabeth Depp, who is leading the discussion on what each
item on the list means (i.e., “specific” means “I need $10.50
an hour,” not “I need more money”), has just cautioned against
“just taking any job” as a goal.
but how realistic is that, given our situations?” pipes up
one woman. Freed by her boldness, a few others pipe up in
an agreement. Christmas is coming, presents need to be bought,
and seasonal retail outlets are hiring, they said. Would taking
a job like that for a few months really get in the way of
long-term career goals?
The case managers bounce the topic among each other—it’s a
familiar one—explaining in turn how a 40-hour-a-week-or-more
job, plus caring for their kids and everything else they are
doing, doesn’t leave much time for the focused work, planning,
education, preparation that Careerlinks is trying to guide
them through. Later, they slip in that they’ve hooked up with
Toys for Tots and a few other services that can help provide
Christmas presents for the kids, taking the pressure off a
It’s not entirely clear that the dissenters are convinced,
but at least they haven’t tuned out. When it comes time for
the day’s exercise—drawing out a “six-month-goal plan” (a
picture of where you want to be in six months), they launch
in with gusto, and none of the pictures include a series of
When they’re done, the women present and describe their picture
to the room. They are full of hope and urgency. One woman
draws herself at a job as a teacher’s assistant. Another just
draws herself on a chair behind a desk saying “I love this
job.” Another carefully details the steps—from testing, to
praying for test results, to interview—that she plans to take
to get a job with the postal service. Several include new
places to live and getting their driver’s licenses and new
cars as part of their goals. Some are modest—get driver’s
license, open bank account as the sum total of the goals—others
are elaborate, full of dollar signs and specific makes of
car. “2006 is my year!” proclaims one.
Most drawings have several children in one corner, often described
as “proud of me” or “happy that I’ve got some money now” or
just “saying ‘I love you, Mom.’ ”
Careerlinks, a five-year-old agency headquartered at the Women’s
Building on Central Avenue in Albany whose slogan is “Creating
Opportunities That Last,” put the word “career” in its name
intentionally. “It’s so clear to me that the issue wasn’t
finding jobs, it was keeping jobs, and successfully moving
on,” explains founder and director Marsha Lazarus, who had
worked in the job-placement and training field for 15 years
before she started Careerlinks.
Clients receiving assistance from social services for longer
than the federal limit of five years (Albany County does not
cut people off at five) are referred to Careerlinks for mandatory
programming. The vast majority of them have had plenty of
jobs before, says Lazarus, but they have usually been temporary
or part-time jobs with no opportunities for advancement.
Most of Careerlinks’ clients are also single parents, often
with more than three children, so a basic entry-level $8-an-hour
job is not going to be enough to make them self-sufficient.
“Eight dollars an hour is not going to feed a family of five.
It’s just not,” points out Colleen Sheehan, program coordinator.
And so, says Lazarus, Careerlinks takes clients facing multiple
challenges, and rather than lowering the expectations, helps
them set their sights higher than many of them have ever set
them before. They work on developing careers.
Unlike many job-placement programs that focus on getting people
receiving assistance into a job—any job—as quickly as possible,
this program is focused on long-term goals, and takes the
time to identify and resolve the myriad things that may be
standing in the way of successful long-term employment.
try to go more slowly than the individuals [usually] want
to go,” Lazarus says. “People come with a real urgency to
work. People are sick of being on social services.” She explains
that they will often encourage people to set educational or
other personal goals, from learning to drive to leaving an
abusive relationship, and stick to them through obstacles
and setbacks, rather than jumping at the first offer of a
when you say, ‘What do you want to do?’ people are shocked
by that because no one has ever asked what they want to do,”
says Depp of the agency’s focus on goal-setting. “They’ve
been told ‘You’re going to do this, you’re going to do that,
comply with this, comply with that or it’s sanctions, sanctions,
sanctions.’ It’s never ‘What are your goals? What is something
you’ve always wanted to do?’ A lot of time it’s just a process
for them to swallow that and think about themselves and their
Careerlinks case managers are in agreement that figuring out
child care is often the first major hurdle they need to help
their clients overcome. Case manager Carmen Correa recalls
one client who said she wouldn’t let anyone else watch her
kid. “I told her, ‘Look for somebody that you trust,’ ” she
says. “After a while she got a family member to watch her
daughter. I said, ‘Now you’re ready to look for a job.’
Health crises, transportation issues, special-needs children,
anger management, addictions: Careerlinks staff help their
clients learn how to wend their way through all of these things,
because they know that they are related to being able to succeed
on a job. Sometimes it may be a month or more before they
even get to start talking about employment.
But it still seems to be the intangible benefits of steady
support and recognition that really stand out for many clients.
When Rushel Skeine came to Careerlinks a year ago, she had
already managed to get herself her certified nursing assistant
certificate, but she was still having trouble getting off
social-service assistance. Between child-care costs for her
two children, low-paying jobs, lack of a car, and most importantly
lack of external support, she felt trapped. Careerlinks, especially
its weekly life-skills workshops where she learned to think
positively, and also to meet other clients and see “My life
ain’t so bad,” helped her turn things around.
here for you: case manager Elizabeth Depp (l) with a client.
didn’t have any support. I get a lot of support from here.
A lot of support,” she says. “It’s good have somebody
on the outside saying ‘Don’t give up,’ that actually has faith
in you. That makes you want to do more, get out there and
achieve your goals.”
Case manager Amanda Trance recalls one client who came to
her after she was referred to the agency a fourth time. “She
had never held a job for more than a month,” she says. “She
was usually fired for threatening physical harm. She was straight
from the hip.”
It took a while to get her to open up, says Trance, but the
turning point was dramatic. “She had gotten a bad cold, she
was going through a down time. I sent her a get-well card,
saying ‘Keep your head up, you’re doing well.’ She was ecstatic,
she called me up, she kept the card on the fridge. It was
a huge change in our relationship.”
Imagine the life of someone for whom such a simple gesture
of caring made such a big difference, notes Lazarus.
That client was enrolled in anger- management classes, and
all the staff agree they saw her demeanor change dramatically.
She had successfully held an internship for four months when
she had to take some time off for health reasons.
As part of the long-term ca- reer focus, Careerlinks takes
a page from the college-student model of dealing with the
dilemma of “need experience to get experience”: The agency
sets up unpaid internships with local businesses for its clients.
These internships provide work experience for the clients,
and a chance for employers to get to know them beyond what
might be a spotty resume. They often lead to a full-time job.
In fact, St. Peter’s Addiction and Recovery Center actually
created a counselor position for an intern they wanted to
Albany Medical Center is one of Careerlinks’ biggest employer
partners, with a dedicated internship program and a special
arrangement whereby new employees who came through the Careerlinks
program can have their weekly follow-up meetings on-site,
during work hours. The retention rate for employees coming
through their program is 50 percent after one year, very high
for the jobs in question.
Continuing to meet with their clients after they begin jobs
is an important part of Careerlinks’ model. That transition
time is crucial, say staff, because their clients are adjusting
to a new routine as well as new work demands, and facing the
first round of questions like “What do I do when my kids are
sick?” or “How do I handle the buses coming late?” They continue
to meet weekly with their case managers for the first few
months, and then as things become more settled, Careerlinks
starts paring back the meetings to be less frequent, while
working with clients on setting next-step goals: perhaps more
education, or getting a car.
Careerlinks’ contract with the Department of Social Services
has the case managers working with clients for up to year.
But when it comes down to it, the door basically stays open
to employed clients. Over the past year or two they have held
a couple of retreats, one at a camp in the Adirondacks, for
clients past and present to get a break from their lives,
step back, and celebrate their successes.
The numbers say Careerlinks’ focus on goals rather than punitive
measures is worth a look. In 2004, out of 104 clients who
got jobs, 76 percent were still on the job in three months,
50 percent were still on the job in six months, 32 percent
were still on the job in nine months, and 23 percent after
one year. According to a 2004 study by the Mathematica Policy
Research Institute, these numbers are about equivalent to
turnover rates for the population at large, most of whom were
not facing the multiple challenges of Careerlinks’ clients.
Even more impressively, their intensive programs with on-site
support, like the one at Albany Med, have a 45- to 50-percent
retention rate after one year. (Given her druthers, Lazarus
says she’d love to be able to provide that kind of intensive
support at all job sites.)
Today Skeine is working at Albany County Nursing Home with
better pay and good benefits. She describes trying to support
her two children on the $8 an hour jobs she had before as
“just awful,” even with the help of food stamps. But she still
wanted to get off assistance badly, especially because of
the discouragement she encountered every time she went to
the DSS office.
Skeine enjoys the work at Albany County Nursing Home, though
she doesn’t particularly enjoy the two hours on two buses
each way, or the 11 PM-to-7 AM shift. Still, the 11-7 shift
is better than the 3-11 shift for getting to see her kids,
so she’s hanging in there until there’s an opening for a 7-3
shift. Careerlinks has also helped her apply to Wheels for
Work for a car, which would bring her commute down to 15 minutes
(“I don’t even have the car and I’m doing the calculations,”
she grins sheepishly), and she’s considering going back to
school to become a licensed nurse. She’s cheerful and upbeat
about her prospects.
Careerlinks] you’re never going to hear, ‘Oh you can’t do
that’ and ‘I don’t think this is good for you,’ ” Skeine says
enthusiastically. “Most of these programs, as soon as you’re
finished doing what you’re doing, they’re done with you. .
. . I think everyone should have a chance to be involved in