With several large employers and a highly educated workforce, you might think Ithaca would be shielded from the worst ravages of the economic malaise that continues to grip the country. But workers in the area are not immune, said Diane Bradac, director of Employment and Training for Tompkins Workforce New York.
Bradac, who oversees the One-Stop Career Center located on the upper floors of Center Ithaca, said she's seeing record numbers of people come in to use the center's services. According to a report prepared by the One-Stop Center, customers at the center have increased 42 percent in the last nine months. In her twenty-year career, it's the worst she's ever seen it, Bradac said.
"I'm seeing for the first time people who have been unemployed for a long time," said Bradac, explaining that the economic downturn has brought about a paradigm shift in the nation's workforce. "Before the recession, people would find work again in a reasonable amount of time. They would come into the center, and we would get them connected fairly quickly. Now I've seen a lot of people crash and burn, people who are just barely surviving. They are getting more and more frustrated that there are not enough jobs, and what makes it worse is that it's an extremely competitive market."
While many people associate the One-Stop Center with the unemployment office, it's actually more of an "employment" office, said Bradac. Individuals in New York who file unemployment claims are required by law to pay a visit to a center, of which there are 86 located across New York State, but the customers served at the center are not only people in crisis because they've lost their jobs, but people who may be unhappy with their current situation and are looking to make a transition. The center offers a wide range of services, including access to computers, career counseling, resume development, adult education classes, job placement assistance, vocational training, and workshops that focus on networking, managing stress, interviewing skills and more. The center had a 65.5-percent placement rate in 2009, which is good, Bradac said, but the tough times continue to be a trial.
"We hear devastating stories everyday from people who are just desperate," said Bradac. "These are people who have gone four, five, six months without work, and they are making very hard choices about how they are living. Right now it's getting colder, and it's getting into the holidays, and it's just heart-wrenching to see."
Bradac said that while the official unemployment rate in Tompkins County is at 6.2 percent, when you factor in the underemployed and those who aren't actively searching for work, the real number is actually around 12 percent. Individuals who might not be counted in the official unemployment rate may include a person who just had an accident, for instance, or a retiree who works part-time.
The recession that began in 2008 is unique, said Bradac, because it has hit every industry in the economy except for healthcare, which has been relatively stable. However, while job hiring continues to lag across the country, Bradac said she sees signs that the economy is improving.
"The economy is definitely improving," said Bradac. "People are having a little better success in getting hired, a little faster than they used to. There are new companies moving to town, and a great amount of entrepreneurialism is happening, and there's a lot of support in Tompkins County for that kind of work."
Bradac said one area that's seen substantial growth is the field of green jobs. People might have been skeptical about the green economy at the outset, she admits, but the jobs are real and have been spurred along by a large national initiative surrounding green industries.
"Absolutely I've seen growth in green industry," she said, explaining that Tompkins Workforce New York sponsors green-collar job training that focus on such areas as weatherization, construction and the environment. "We've sponsored fifteen people in the last year for green jobs training, and people are getting good jobs out of that."
Still, the recovery is moving slowly, and the debate surrounding the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed is likely to prove controversial, said Bradac. For years before the recession, 26 weeks was considered a sufficient amount of time to find work, but Congress has extended the benefits to 99 weeks in light of the economic downturn. This is the third time that unemployment benefits have come up for renewal since the start of the recession, but Bradac said this is the first time she feels that they might not be extended.
"There's concern about spending, about fiscal responsibility," said Bradac. "The question is being asked with a lot more urgency, how long do you support someone who's on unemployment?"
In light of all the uncertainty out there, one of the career center's most important services, said Bradac, is to provide a support network for people who have lost their jobs.
"People who have become unemployed, they need a social network," said Bradac. "They need that affirmation that they are not alone in this. It really has been a godsend for people. You need to stay connected."