by Casey Quinlan

More than twelve million unemployed people now depend on local unemployment offices to help them retrain and get back to work, but these offices are often overwhelmed and ill-equipped to address the challenges the jobless face.

There is clear emphasis on low-skill work inside the 250 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, unemployment and training office. Jobless clients are directed to sit in a corner of the office where they wait in silence until someone comes to address their problem. They have the opportunity to read a few fliers as they wait, two of them advertising for security training and one advertising for a veterans job fair on Wall Street.

Inside the office, none of the 30 plus job seekers look distracted. The silence is rarely broken. Though a few unemployed people said they have used the job training services, many people say they have used only resume building, the work stations and consultation as they apply for work online.

Most of the unemployed men and women use the office to search for jobs online. These job seekers have internet access at home but choose the centers’ office environment, which provides encouragement and better concentration.

“I’ve got an iPhone, iPad, iPod, and laptop, but I can’t stay at home or I’ll be distracted and watch television or sleep,” said Johnny Reif, 58, of Brooklyn.

Every day, Reif comes in for two to three hours. In one day he applied to 10 jobs at Columbia University and 10 jobs at Mount Sinai in Information Technology. Reif has also taken a resume-building workshop.

The contrast between U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis’ ambitious plans to confront structural unemployment and the actual practice of local unemployment offices couldn’t be starker.

Solis said the Department of Labor is focusing on developing summer youth employment programs, revamping workforce employment and training programs and improving their ties to community colleges.

Solis said the DOL is also focusing more attention on developing skills in math and medicine. Though structural unemployment demands a more skilled workforce, many unemployed people are still looking for the work in the same low-skill field as before or a variation of low-skill jobs, instead of receiving training for skilled work.

Security, cashier, maintenance and administrative work are still popular jobs to apply for. Despite Solis’ increased education and training agenda, most job seekers said they were looking for the same job title and skill level as their previous low-skill job.

Some former security workers, such as Derrick Trotman, 60, continue to search for security work after more than a year of unemployment.

Job seekers said they received suggestions from DOL employees to rewrite their resume or train for low-skill work but no one said DOL employees recommended community college education, despite Solis’ focus on community college education. Some job seekers have been encouraged to seek training or certification for health care jobs and food service, like Chaquasai Stepheny, 20, of Fort Greene.

“I went hard into paperwork for job training, said Stepheny. Stepheny may train to become a Patient Care Assistant despite the stigma that sometimes comes with nursing home care.

“People tend to have to change diapers and some people just won’t do that,” Stepheny said. She said she is willing to accept any job that will put food on the table for her and her two year-old daughter.

“Right now I’m worrying about my daughter. We have welfare but that’s not enough when we have $132 every week for both me and my daughter,” Stepheny said.

She is also willing to get a food handler certificate, or food protection certificate, a qualification that is commonly requested in advertisements on Craig’s List. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene charges $105 for the 15 hour-long food safety course.

Though some job seekers are satisfied with their experience at the job training center in Brooklyn, Rosalyn Seabrook, 42, said DOL employees were difficult to work with when she requested help.

“People have helped me work on my resume but I’m often calling people to help and no one is available,” Seabrook said. “I’ll apply for a job and only certain people, maybe two people, know how to do it. They show it to you quickly and if you don’t get it or you struggle to do it they just leave and that’s it.”

After six months of looking for work at call centers, Seabrook has decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia, where the cost of living is cheaper.

The DOL’s 2011 Annual Performance Report identifies problems within job training and career centers and acknowledged staff may be strained to serve a large number of clients.

The report stated that one stop career centers would benefit from more resource room staffing to ensure “customers get more out of self-services.” Career centers should also make efforts to enhance the computer literacy of customers to enable customers to easily access the services without help, the DOL recommended.

“The high volume of self-service customers can sometimes strain the capacity of the system to provide quality services,” read the summary.

The Department of Labor may be strained, in part, because it needs to retrain younger workers to find the skilled work employers demand and serve older displaced workers at the same time.

Manhattan Institute Scholar Russell Sykes said Department of Labor offices fail to serve the younger population because employees tend to focus on the needs of older workers, a mentality that may hold Solis’ ambitions back.

“Another $8.3 million will flow to the Labor Department for training programs to help jobless youth ‘transition to the workplace,’” wrote Sykes in the Times Union. “But the department, with its focus on displaced adult workers, is not accustomed to dealing with the complicated problems, including substance abuse, criminal records and child care issues as well as welfare dependency often found with young people who have yet to connect with the job market.”

Here are all of the Workforce 1 and Department of Labor offices throughout the Greater New York City area:

CommunityWalk Map – Unemployment and Training Offices in New York City