If you are unemployed and looking for a job, the best way to get government-funded training and help finding a job is to prove you are “unemployable.” Far from providing workers with the means to move up and out of low-wage jobs, One-Stop Job Centers are complicit in both creating and supplying low-wage employers with a ready stream of docile available workers. These centers facilitate unemployed workers’ downward or lateral mobility.
These are some of the observations by Brian W. Halpin, a sociology lecturer at the University of California-Davis. He will present the study, “The Perversity of Unemployment Narrative: Low-Wage Workers Navigating the Workforce Development System,” at the 112th American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.
Halpin embedded himself at One-Stop Job Centers in the greater Sacramento area where – identifying himself as a UC Davis researcher – he attended employment seminars and interviewed job coaches and 32 unemployed, or underemployed, workers between fall 2013 and fall 2015. One-Stop Job Centers – where unemployed can access employment assistance activities such as resume writing, interview skills, labor market research and job training placement programs – are administered through the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).
“The master narrative of the One-Stop Job Center, which was reinforced time and time again in workshops and in interviews with job coaches, is contradictory,” Halpin said. “Job coaches emphasized a perseverance and hard work – if you just learn the “right” way to job search, the proper way to format a transferable skills resume, how to interview successfully, and how to dress for success, you’ll do great – opportunity is just the next application away.”
Yet in practice it was a different story. Halpin said he attended dozens of support groups, seminars and other group and individual coaching sessions where attendees were told by coaches that, essentially, it was the job seekers’ fault that he or she couldn’t find a job. Staff were also disrespectful and even demeaning at times, he added.
“The message was clear,” said Halpin. “The unemployed are lazy, unproductive, and take advantage of the social support systems available to them.”
Of the 32 people he interviewed who sought job search assistance, only four were eligible for federally funded training. Further, Halpin found that criteria for being eligible for training, or being found “unemployable,” varied among the six centers he researched.
“Many interviewees were baffled by the idea that they had to prove they were unemployable in order to be considered for WIA funding,” Halpin said.
Still, he found that some of the coaches and other employees at the centers showed compassion for unemployed people they served and wanted to help, but the structure of the One-Stop Job Center limited their ability to do so.
“This analysis illustrates a fundamental flaw in treating human beings as fictitious commodities, who without a sufficient demand for their services sit idly by unused and unwanted,” Halpin said. Instead of manipulating human capital to match the labor market, he added, a different approach that assesses and develops individual skills is needed.
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