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Following a vision: Careerlinks director Marsha Lazarus.

“2006 Is My Year”
By Miriam Axel-Lute
photos By teri currie

Careerlinks puts a long-term, goal-oriented face on the welfare-to-work transition


The 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 gone.

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 to do.”

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.

“Yeah, 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 little.

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 seasonal jobs.

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.

“We 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 paycheck.

“Oftentimes 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 choices.”

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.

I’m here for you: case manager Elizabeth Depp (l) with a client.

“I 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 keep.

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.

“[At 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 this program.”

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