Job Fair Draws Hopeful Crowd in Hard-Hit Richmond

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RICHMOND, Calif.—Rosie Esparza has been out of work for over a year and a half. The 33-year-old mother was laid off from her job as a pharmacy tech and hasn’t been able to find another job in her field.

When she first lost her job, she collected unemployment benefits. She’s now on CalWORKs, the state financial assistance program that transitions recipients to work. “It’s basically welfare—it’s just a different name now,” she said. And the checks are a lot smaller.

“It’s been hard,” Esparza said. At this point, she’ll take anything she can get.

That’s a common sentiment in Richmond, where the unemployment rate tops 18 percent, compared with 12.5 percent for California as a whole. In hopes of improving her chances, Esparza was attending a job fair put on by RichmondWORKS, an agency that offers education and training services to city residents.

Some 150 other people turned up as well, “dressed to impress” in business attire and looking hopeful that their days of unemployment might soon come to an end.

The prospective employers included Morgan Stanley, Smith Barney, Michael’s Transportation Service, UC Berkeley, and the National Guard. Chevron was looking to fill severall positions and BART police was looking for recruits. Company representatives sat at their booths or tables hnding out pamphlets and answering questions.

“One of the greatest things about the day is employers aren’t just hiring for one position, they are hiring for many,” said Jaclyn Holly, an employment program specialist. In this tough economy, she said she saw a lot of different types of people looking for employment at the fair, the second one in Richmond this year.

“We have a wide variety of diverse educational backgrounds, financial situations as well as work experience,” Holly said. “So, not only are we getting the lower-level GED folks coming in, we’re also getting the master’s degree folks who are actively seeking work.”

The competitive job market, she added, means that a lot of people who are used to earning a certain amount of money will see their salaries dip. “Unfortunately companies aren’t able to pay as much as they had in the past,” she said.

Job seekers who have a felony on their record face particular challenges making it past initial screening interviews.

Jovan Woodley was recently paroled after eight years in prison in Georgia. He said he moved to Richmond to join his family, including a daughter.

He participates in a CalWORKs program that helps with job preparation, such as resume writing and interviewing skills.

The cost of living makes life in the Bay Area even more challenging. “When I got out [to California], the prices were just so high,” he said. “In Atlanta, everything was so cheap. He said his daughter works for the City of Richmond, but he still wants to get a job to help out.

“When you’re trying to get a job, they be asking, ‘What happened with the gap in your work history?’” He said that when he explains the reason for his incarceration, the interview is usually over. Woodley said his love for his daughter and the need to provide for her keeps him going.

Keith Judkins directs the Michael Transportation Service’s transit academy, which trains people to fill positions as charter and tour bus drivers. He said he’s looking to hire 15 to 20 drivers for the holiday season.

“Quite interestingly, this has been a good morning so far,” he said. “I’ve already seen eight or nine people who already have a commercial license, which is a rarity.”

He said MTS works closely with CalWORKs and has hired many people from their programs.

Judkins said he wouldn’t have a problem hiring guys like Woodley who have records or even past driving offenses. As long as applicants don’t have “excessive DUIs” or “excessive speeding tickets,” they have a shot at getting hired, he said. “We as a company realize people need a second chance.”

Judkins offers this advice for job hunters during a particularly tough season: develop skills in the field you want to work in.

“If you don’t have a skill, it doesn’t make a difference. If you don’t have a skill, you are unemployable, period. So the important thing is to get the skills and then continue to look for a company that’s willing to give you that opportunity.”

For pharmacy tech Esparza, coming to the job fair may have paid off.

“I think I have a job offer,” she said. “I met someone there that I knew from my son’s school.” Esparza said the personal connection gave her an edge. “It’s not in my field,” she said, “but it’s a job. “

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