"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.
"I don't buy that lack-of-consumer-confidence thing," he says. "I think people and corporations are hiding money. I know I could do Joe Nacchio's job better than he could. Bush and Owens are a pair, those two. One wants to go to war, the other wants to get rid of education. I don't buy it."
On his first visit here, Green met with a counselor, procured a list of job openings and went after all of them, though he has yet to hear back from any. "I'd do customer service -- a high-priced way of saying 'clerk,'" he says. "I'd be an administrative assistant. I'm proficient on computers. I need to get a job."
A few minutes later, he's sitting in Alison Kennell's office, going through her computer database. Over the past week, Kennell has worked with several ex-cons -- "not the first on people's hiring list," she admits; a handful of the mentally disabled who didn't see themselves that way and another handful who did; a 71-year-old man ready to hurl himself back into the workplace; a woman with a master's in education who was burned out on academia; a smart nineteen-year-old girl with multiple earrings sprouting from her face; and many, many more job seekers.
"I have a master's in counseling," Kennell says, "but working here has been something of an economic decision, and I don't have time to sit and help people with their barriers."
So she uses shorthand. For applicants who don't really know what they want yet -- the would-be actor, for instance -- she suggests a Workforce-endorsed class at the Community College of Denver. For those who have some idea of what they want to do, she offers more concrete suggestions.
"For the less skilled, I might search using a word like labor," she explains. Today, that word produces a job at an Exempla hospital and another at KinderCare, a daycare center. With warehouse, she uncovers a position at WH Smith, a DIA concessionaire that offers $5.15 per hour to a delivery person able to lift fifty pounds. Frito-Lay will nearly triple that salary -- for a job known as Sanitor.
"No skin conditions," Kennell reads, "and not afraid of heights. It seems to involve some kind of pest control. And can this be right -- they're accepting 999 applications for one job opening? Boy, whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of jobs like that."
Lucky for Sevante Green, he's overqualified for the Sanitor position.
"Here's a company headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama," Kennell offers, clicking down the list. "Looks like it's in the Federal Center."
"Nothing personal, but I can't work there," he says. "I'd go crazy in that Federal Center."
"That's valid. Okay, graveyard-shift position. Provide structure for at-risk youth. Five hundred a month plus expenses. Looks like you have to live in."
"I have my own apartment!" Green says, a bit indignantly.
"Colorado Doorways. Customer service. Inside sales. Twelve dollars per hour."
"Yeah. I can do that."
"Bus operator. Transport disabled residents. Thirteen an hour."
"Fine. I can do that."
"Let's try youth," Kennell suggests. "Clerk -- Abercrombie & Fitch? I guess that counts as selling to youth. Here. Urban Peak youth drop-in center."
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While Kennell retrieves job applications and referrals, Green answers a phone call, checks his schedule and stares for a moment at his collection of business cards.
"All that work for nothing," he observes. "I guess I have a lot to do."
In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.