Working through hope and despair at Long Beach job center

Out There
Carlos Saenz, of San Pedro, holds his head as he listens to an instructor at the Pacific Gateway Career Transition Center in Long Beach.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

On the second floor of a dated office building in Long Beach, class is underway. Fourteen people expect to emerge after three weeks, with safety training and “life skills” that could lead to construction jobs. They are men and women, black and white, Latino and Asian, young and “mature,” as they say in the business of finding jobs for the jobless.

An instructor offers advice: Wear decent clothes to job interviews. Be careful about taking medication before a drug test. Leave a voicemail message on your cellphone that makes you sound like a professional, not a buffoon.

A student, Sharon Weitzel, dutifully takes notes but keeps one hand on top of her worn copy of the telephone directory for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 12, as if a paycheck might try to sneak past her.

Weitzel is a trained surveyor, out of work since she was laid off in September. Since then, she’s called every union shop in the lower half of the state, adding her name to the list of workers they maintain in case a job pops up. In the margins of the directory, next to the address of each union office, she keeps a running tab of her place in line: Redlands: #53. Bakersfield: #155.

Weitzel is 43, a mother, with freckles and a Winnie the Pooh sweat shirt. She has a 401(k). She made $40 an hour before she got laid off and worked high-profile gigs -- USC’s Galen Center, the Nokia Theatre -- where she situated bolt plates that supported the steel frame.

All of this might seem beneath her, but these days it feels as if nothing is beneath anybody. Here at the Pacific Gateway Career Transition Center, a government-funded, one-stop center for people trying to find work, the rotten economy echoes through the building each day, the same sad chorus mounting at scores of job centers, shelters, food banks and the like.

Weitzel’s savings are dwindling. She’s subletting half of her apartment to help with the rent. She’s sent out 43 resumes. Four people have responded; three said they’d keep her details on file, one said he expected to start hiring again in 2010. Every day, the news gets worse: unemployment inching toward 10%, new government figures showing that hers was one of 2.6 million jobs that vanished nationwide in 2008.

So she, and others like her, will suck it up. She’ll learn the art of traffic control at a job site, because maybe that will be her foot in the door. She’ll learn CPR, again. She’ll study a sheet of “action words” designed to spruce up her resume: Achieved. Coordinated. Eliminated. She’ll be in class again this morning, 7:30 sharp. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t.

It’s not as if they haven’t weathered storms here before. After all, the Career Transition Center was created largely in response to a slowdown that threatened to cripple the Long Beach area -- permanently, some figured.

That was in the early 1990s, when the area lost more than 50,000 jobs, at an annual cost of $1.75 billion. Many positions vanished when the Long Beach Naval Station shut down. More disappeared when McDonnell Douglas shrank; indeed, some programs at the training center began as dislocated-worker programs on the McDonnell Douglas campus.

Those were grim days. “But we have never seen anything like this,” said Allison Martinson, a veteran employment specialist. “Never.”

In the past, even during economic lulls, jobs would come in by the dozen. Today, counselors fill what they call “onesies and twosies” -- one position here, two more there.

Posters advertising some jobs are out of date as soon as they go up. “Want a career in construction?” says one, printed to drum up interest in infrastructure programs that are being canceled because of California’s budget crisis.

These days, some of those walking through the door are recent immigrants who lost their jobs as carwasheros, but just as often, they are professionals who were pulling in $150,000 a year. Some of them are looking at food stamps too. “They don’t know how to think about themselves anymore,” said Kathy Parsons, the center’s communications officer.

At one class on transferring skills from an old career to a new one, the instructor asked whether students had ever received performance reviews from a supervisor. “I was the supervisor,” grumbled student Ralph McCurdy, 72, who is preparing to reenter the workforce, two years after retiring.

As work disappears, the hunger for new jobs only grows.

In November, the center held a job fair for the goods-movement industry. As the date neared, employers started pulling out, one after another. Center staff members worked, all told, for 500 hours to ensure that 76 employers still showed up, even if most offered few positions. The line of applicants stretched down the block.

A couple of weeks ago, an 85-year-old woman walked into the center, looking for part-time work. She lived with her son and daughter-in-law; both had been laid off and the household was in dire straits.

The job counselors say they now spend almost as much energy arranging social services for their clients -- a bed in a homeless shelter, a welfare check -- as they do looking for available positions.

They’ve been forced to call suicide hotlines and the police to cope with clients who became violent or despondent. Most situations aren’t so dramatic, although many clients sit in the counselors’ little cubicles and weep, finding it easier to talk about their troubles with a stranger than at home.

Each client has his or her own tipping point. For one woman, it was the ignominy of a job application process conducted entirely online, with no human to make an impression on, no one to write a thank-you note to after an interview. For one man, it was the moment he finally scored an interview, then realized that his gas tank was empty and he had no money to fill it.

Most of the counselors now keep a box of tissues on their desks and dispense tips on stress-relief exercise techniques -- often the only solace they can offer.

“We’re therapists now,” said Marsene Scott-Brown, an employment specialist who has worked at the center for 10 years. “It’s a grieving process. It really is.”

Somehow, the center remains a place of hope, even inspiration.

Downstairs from Weitzel’s class, Alejandra Huerta, 25, a tireless job counselor, settled in for another day. She found her first client in the lobby.

Merlita Felipe, 41, a mother of three, works two jobs, one at the port and the other at a hotel where she is a “runner,” bringing toothpaste and the like up to the rooms. She can’t make ends meet; she’s trying to find another job with higher wages. She’s had a few interviews, she told Huerta.

“But nothing,” she said quietly.

Aura Cruz, 27, hoped her temporary secretarial position at a hospital would become permanent. The job was eliminated. She has applied for waitress positions but restaurants keep telling her she’s overqualified.

“I just need a job,” she protested.

Marius Spada, 45, is a union bridge painter who has hung in a harness from the highest points of the Golden Gate Bridge. Work, which once earned him $68 an hour, has dried up. Huerta asked him: “So you are open to . . . ?”

“Anything,” he said with a taut smile. “Anywhere.”

The parade continued throughout the morning. Huerta offered each what she could -- a tip for a resume, a referral to a free skills class, a reminder that looking for a job is, in itself, a full-time job.

Then, seven hours after she began her day, a data-entry company sent word that it would be calling Aura Cruz for an interview.

Huerta had heard that the company was opening up eight positions, and she’d found a way to get Cruz’s resume into the right hands.

When she heard the news, Huerta straightened her shoulders and exhaled deeply. “There you go,” she said with a grin. She left to retrieve another client from the lobby, this time with a little more bounce in her step.

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