By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"I'm not here for me," the man in the waiting room says. "I'm here with my friend. He needs a job. He's talking to someone about a job in one of those offices. Maybe I should be in there," he says nervously, twisting a little in his chair. Recently laid off, maybe he needs a job, too.
The Mayor's Office of Workforce Development could help him, if he ever decides what he wants to do. The resource room right next door contains a handout addressing his very condition, as well as the current hard times:
ATTENTION DOWNSIZED WORKERS!
·Have you been terminated, or recently laid off from a job?
·Were you self-employed and lost your business?
·Are you closing your business due to economic conditions?
"I should go in there," he says. "But I don't know. Ain't no work, anyway."
Ain't as much as there used to be, anyway, and everyone's looking.
The downtown Workforce office off of Speer Boulevard has been crowded for most of the day, mostly with men. In the resource room, they're checking job Web sites, reading want ads, faxing resumes. Most are seeking jobs in "customer service" -- a vague term for work that involves people, as opposed to heavy lifting. A few wear suits, a lot wear whatever they put on this morning. A handful come from the imploded high-tech industry, many more from companies that laid off their least-skilled workers first.
In December 2000, the Workforce department helped about 5,000 people find jobs or get job training. Less than two years later, the number of people coming through the doors each month is close to 10,000. In the meantime, the department's budget was cut by 15 percent. The people who have jobs here are busy.
The business of unemployment -- unlike so many others -- is booming.
"We could see this coming, " says Shepard Nevel, head of the Workforce department and its 130 employees. "We're the front lines. People with job trouble come here first."
A mayoral appointee since 2000, Nevel has plenty of statistics to back this up; some of them are handily displayed on posterboard charts and maps in his office. Like many of the Workforce employees here and at the department's six satellite offices, he works from a cubicle decorated with a portrait of Mayor Wellington Webb and not much else. Wearing a crisp white shirt and dark suit, he looks exactly like what he calls himself: a policy wonk.
Not that the description really covers his responsibilities. He manages an overworked staff that walks a fine line between helping people face-to-face and "feeding the regulatory monster"; he attends meetings; he talks to whomever calls him on the phone; he thins e-mail, and he concocts exciting solutions for such arguably hopeless conditions as chronic poverty. And he finds it bracing -- up to and including the endless details.
"I run a government agency," he says happily. "Each pot of funding we have comes with a breathtaking amount of paperwork. We have to deal with it, because we want the money. Look at this," he says, riffling through his bookcase, "seventeen notebooks full of rules and regs! I kid you not!"
Nevel is a master of bureaucrat-speak, from "funding streams" to "recruitment, retention and retraining." Nevertheless, he becomes downright gleeful when cutting through the crap. Simply put, he says, it should be easy to look for work. If you merely want a job, you shouldn't be sent from one government agency to another, buried under "impenetrable forms" or lectured about self-esteem.
"We've assumed that we have to get into people's personal lives and manage them," he says, showing off a drawerful of notebooks. "See my notes? I go around talking to the people we serve, and not one of them ever says, 'I'm broke, please fix me.' There's this discrepancy between what we think 'they' want and what they do want, which is a job."
Nevel's had several. A lawyer by training, he's also worked as a lifeguard, a cafeteria busboy, a seller of baked goods and a secretary. He's always hated being micromanaged and was once disciplined for being "mouthy." The task of training and employing people, he thinks, should be approached as a small-business venture, even if it's the government that's doing it.
"My model is a Kinko's copy place," he explains. "With the stuff you help yourself to or teach yourself to do, the knowledgeable employees if you need assistance, and all the really great signs. We're not open 24/7 like they are, but we're thinking it might work. Evening and Saturday hours, at least."
In the waiting room, Sevante Green -- his ear plugged into a cell-phone headset, his beeper vibrating, his Filofax jammed with business cards, his ear resplendent with a large diamond -- states his case.
"I need work," he says. "Now. I had my own company -- music production and entertainment. It went under."
Thirty-one years old with two kids to support, Green is riding himself unmercifully, but he takes time to discuss economic theory. It doesn't take long: He talks twice as fast as anyone else in the room.