Career counselors having busy days

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Six people sit in swivel chairs around a cluster of computers, their eyes fixed on screens while they tinker with resumes and surf job sites under the glow of fluorescent lights.

Others, clutching papers, trickle out of the building. A workshop called "Show Me the Jobs" has just ended.

Not much earlier, a group of 25 unemployed people filed into this austere office in a Forest Hills strip mall for a nuts-and-bolts lesson on how to get help on their job hunt.

And Jim Hann, behind his tidy desk, hangs up the phone.

"It's a busy day," he says. "It's always a busy day."

Busier, though, since the flagging economy began shedding jobs, a bloodletting that has left millions without work, sparing no class or race or gender. Mr. Hann has had a front-row seat to the recession's human drama from his post as the administrator of Pennsylvania CareerLink Allegheny East, whose job it is to help the jobless.

This gloomy February morning offers a glimpse into a day in the life of CareerLink, a one-stop shop for the jobless during a time when local unemployment is the highest it has been since 1995. There are four such offices in Allegheny County.

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Lately, Mr. Hann says, job seekers are being joined by the employed who flock here to spruce up their resumes. Inside, they can attend workshops and get one-on-one help with interviewing skills and job-hunting tactics. Mr. Hann's goal is to unite job seeker with job offer.

That task has become more difficult and more necessary as the recession moves into what Mr. Hann calls the "trickle-down" phase, where everyone from industry titan to waitress feels the squeeze.

"It's scary," he says. "It's into that stage where we start to see the people who have the mortgages and the summer homes and the two kids in college who one day walk into work, and it's 'boom, clear off your desk.' "

Mr. Hann, 48, who started work at CareerLink in 2001, is used to the economy's ebb and flow. In the past, there would be an influx in job-seekers during the traditional ups and downs of the job cycle. Layoffs were seasonal.

But sometime around September, Mr. Hann said, the season stopped changing. Business after business sent out notifications of layoffs. The traffic jumped at CareerLink Allegheny East.

"It's sad to see people in this state of affairs," says Mr. Hann, one of 30 people who work at the CareerLink office in Forest Hills.

In September, 1,448 job seekers walked through the center's doors, up from 993 during the same month last year. In October, there were 1,380, up from 1,075 the previous year; in November, there were 992, up from 913 the year before; and December saw the biggest jump, with 1,135 job seekers, up from just 774 the year before. The first two months of this year appear to be following the same trend.

And it could get worse..

"Did you ever study the Great Depression in school?"

Mr. Hann started work in career services in 1982, after he, too, found himself unemployed. Living in Glassport in the '80s, he had a similar front-row seat to the fallout of the steel collapse.

"Unemployed people are unemployed people," he says. "Displaced workers are the same as they were in '82. It was just their fathers. Now it's them."

Some clients seen here are blindsided by unemployment. Others foresaw but still grapple with the loss of work, which, for many, is tightly tethered to identity and self-worth.

"It becomes more personal," says Larry Puhalla, CareerLink's core services director, who interviews clients about their experience, interest and needs. "People search for something they did, but it's nothing they did. It's the economy."

Seated in swivel chairs around partitioned computers are Michelle Durbin, 34, a single mom from North Versailles who recently lost her job as a receptionist for a plumbing company. Next to her is Andrea Nogal, 55, who worked at Linens 'n Things until Christmastime, when the company shuttered its box stores. And nearby is Joyce Manion, 62, who was laid off at UPMC. Some people have planted themselves here day after day since they received their pink slips.

This has been Ms. Manion's refuge while she seeks computer skills to augment her 40 years of job experience.

"I still have a house, a mortgage payment. I have bills. At this point, I am planning on working until I am 70," she says. "I have skills to offer. It's just tough. I just have to wait and see."

Sadie Gurman can be reached at or 412-263-1878.


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