One of the milder adjectives Michael Riley could use to describe his nearly two years without a job would be "difficult."
In December 2008, Riley, like so many other Americans, was laid off in what has now been deemed the Great Recession. Riley had worked in radio sales at Clear Channel Media, but in what seemed like a blink of an eye, the 42-year-old college graduate and father of three no longer had a job.
Looking for a means to support his family, Riley dived into the marketplace ready to find something that fit his business-savvy background. One month passed, two months passed and then three months. To no avail. He was still unemployed, and his qualifications no longer matched the positions he saw posted.
“The most difficult part for me was coming from marketing and sales. Those jobs were totally declining in the marketplace with the housing crash,” Riley tells BET.com. He thought of switching to project management, with no better luck. “Not having the experience or any type of training or knowledge under my belt, it was hard to just jump into that field,” he says.
Riley was not alone. Chicago has an overall unemployment rate of 10.4 percent. Among African-American males, the jobless rate is 29 percent, nearly triple the overall rate. Having made over $80,000 a year, Riley was suddenly limited to unemployment checks and odd jobs such as mowing someone’s lawn.
Knowing he had more potential, a friend of Riley’s told him about a new six-month program at Chicago Career Tech, a career-training nonprofit started a year and a half ago by then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. The program was created to cater to the “forgotten middle,” or, essentially, a whole population created as a result of the recession.
Riley applied, and today, seven months after completing the program, he now has a six-figure job in project management at a Chicago-based technology company. He calls his participation in the program one of the best decisions he could have made.
The career program has helped over 700 people between the ages of 23 and 69. Fifty-three percent of participants have been African-American, 21 percent Caucasian and seven percent Latino. “These people are hardworking. They are dedicated. They just want a chance. They are willing to reinvent themselves, but they need someone willing to take a risk on them,” said Chicago Career Tech president Marie Lynch.
For those whose unemployment checks had stopped coming — some 40 percent of the participants — the program offered stipends equaling what would have been received in jobless benefits. Funding for the program comes from both private and state sources.
The program begins with a few weeks of training in specific career tracks; these include health information technology; project management; web design and development. After that, time is split between classroom study and hands-on experience at a business, non-profit or government organization, with one day a week working with a career services outplacement firm developing — or just refreshing — such skills as résumé writing.
“It’s amazing listening to people in their 40s and their 50s asking questions about how to build a résumé,” says Lynch.
For many, the going from stable careers to unemployment is a drastic shock. Many middle class workers had earned too much to qualify for government low-income job training programs, but too little to qualify for the outplacement corporations engaged for laid-off employees. “They are just literally just lost in the middle,” Lynch says.
Finding good job matches is a major undertaking for the career program, which tries to tailor its training to available opportunities. In Chicago there are over 100,000 unemployed, yet there are over 100,000 quarterly job postings. Many of the jobless do not have the training needed for those positions.
“I think a challenge for people is that they sometimes are trying to recapture that exact job they had before, instead of taking the risk of trying to network to talk about how their skills are applicable to something else,” Lynch says.
Riley understands the predicament completely.
“It’s almost like you have to start all over and ask, ‘When I grow up what do I want to do?’” he says. “Anyone unemployed needs to have a goal.”
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(Photo: Chicago Career Tech)