Job seekers persist

Published 8:28 am Saturday, March 7, 2009

FRANKLIN—Jarvis Hunter, a 42-year-old Holland resident, spends almost every day at the Paul D. Camp Community College Workforce Development Center scouring the job boards.

“I’m a good mechanic, I know I am, but I can’t find anything,” Hunter said. “I’m out here trying to look for work every day and it’s tough. I’m struggling to make ends meet.”

When he’s not looking for work, Hunter performs odd jobs such as painting or rounding up loose horses to make up the income gap between his previous $45,000-a-year paycheck and his current two-day-a-week post at a local hardware store.

Hunter has been unemployed since last April when Lee Tractor Co. closed its doors in both Courtland and Ahoskie, N.C., leaving him to start all over again after working for the same employer nearly 20 years.

Hunter had also received news of his layoff a day before he was scheduled for surgery to have a cancerous tumor removed from his colon.

Because of radiation treatments and other complications, Hunter was unable to even start his search for work until late August, all the while amassing more than $100,000 in medical expenses and falling behind on his mortgage.

“I had to cash in all of my retirement to pay my $800-a-month COBRA insurance and my bills,” he said.

Hunter said he used supplemental insurance, but when that ran out, he was forced to ask for assistance just to help with basic necessities.

“It got so bad, I went an entire month without medicine,” he said. “I was able to get temporary food stamps, but I couldn’t get any other type of social service help because of the amount of money I had sitting in the bank from my retirement. I couldn’t just use that money because I needed it to cover the insurance.”

By the time Hunter was healthy enough to start looking for employment, the number of others competing for the same jobs had swelled.

“It’s bad out here; sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get another job,” he said. “Last week, I applied for a job with the city of Suffolk, then I found out they are now in a hiring freeze.”

The local headlines have been filled with talks of layoffs and closings lately, evidence that the area is not immune to the effects of the current recession.

The Department of Labor announced on Friday that 651,000 U.S. jobs were lost last month, bringing the total number of jobs lost since the recession started to 4.4 million.

In January, Virginia employment statistics revealed that the state is currently averaging about a 5.4 percent unemployment rate, while in Franklin the unemployment rate is at 8.7 percent, making it one of the highest in the state and above the current national average of 8.1 percent. In Southampton County, the unemployment rate is 7.1.

In January, Southampton County residents received $160,068 in unemployment benefits while Franklin residents collected $209,541.

Don Lilleywhite, a Labor Market Information specialist with the state of Virginia, said that the numbers are still likely to get worse.

“Because unemployment statistics are retroactive, we likely haven’t seen the peak in the numbers,” he said.

But, Lilleywhite said there is a bright spot in all the gloomy reports.

“Because of the makeup of its industries, which depends a lot on the government and military, Virginia, as a whole, will likely not take as much of a hit as other states from all this,” he said.

Local business leaders also say there is reason to persevere through this difficult period.

Teresa Beale, executive director of the Franklin/Southampton County Chamber of Commerce, said she remembers other times when business looked bleak, but the area was able to bounce back.

“In 1999, when we had the big flood, 182 businesses were under water. People thought recovery was near impossible,” Beale said. “It seemed overwhelming at the time, but we bounced back, so we know we can do it. We need to just keep pushing ahead; that’s all we can do.”

John Smolak of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. said his organization is working hard to position Western Tidewater for a rebound.

“We are continuing to work with our existing businesses to help them through this difficult economy, and we are making sure Franklin and Southampton County are positioned to be ready to take advantage of any new opportunities that may come our way,” Smolak said.

The U.S. Labor Department announced Friday it was making more than $3.5 billion available to states for education, training and re-employment services.

Lisha Wolfe, the career developer for Opportunity Inc., located inside the Workforce Development Center, is hoping that people take advantage of those free services.

Opportunity Inc. provides one-on-one career counseling, education and training assistance, computer literacy, resume writing and other job search-related services.

Wolfe said that her office is seeing about 40 to 50 people walk through its doors daily to either take advantage of her services or to inquire about unemployment benefits and search for jobs.

“I see all sorts of people in here right now, people that may have worked the same job for the past 20 years who don’t know how to do anything else” she said.

Wolfe said that there are jobs still out there. People have to figure out which industries are hiring and learn those trades,” she said.

Wolfe said her office is active in helping people access grants and tuition assistance for people looking to make a change.

Wolfe said the education and medical fields are two very viable industries in this economy.

“The best advice I could give anyone who has just been laid off is to go back to school and get training on one of those hot fields,” she said.