MinnPost Asks: Donna Johnson
Johnson is a job counselor with Ramsey County Workforce Solutions and has worked in human services for 25 years helping the unemployed. From offices in a North St. Paul strip mall, she and a dozen other counselors each handle a caseload of up to 100 clients. Funding dictates how many clients their office can handle. Federal stimulus dollars recently ran out, and there are already several hundred people on a waiting list for services.
MinnPost: How does the current employment picture compare with past downturns?
Donna Johnson: This is the worst I’ve ever seen. Even five years ago, there just wasn’t the demand for our services that there is now, and we were able to get people in and out more quickly. They weren’t out of work for long. The hardest part for me is that the economy is so bad, and I can’t control that.
MP: What are some of the particular challenges the unemployed face now in the process of finding work?
DJ: Maintaining hope. I think hope is real important. Clients are seeing more rejections, and they are more discouraged. A lot of times, they are required to apply online, which they see as very impersonal. If someone gets an interview, they see their hope go up, but then if they don’t get the job, it is natural to say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ But you might have done 99 percent right. There is so much competition out there, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You really need to stick with it but pace yourself,
MP: What conclusions have you reached to explain the current situation?
DJ: Basically, it has to do with the number of jobs that aren’t out there. That’s the big one. I do see people getting jobs, from low to high paid, every week, but they are the exception. From what we can see, there just aren’t enough permanent, full-time, well-paying jobs.
MP: Many job experts now say that most of us can expect to change job fields and employers several times during our working lives. Are your clients looking at employment from that perspective?
DJ: Yes. Clients will come to us and say they need computer classes, training in something else, or they want to go back to school. And when people do what it takes to prepare for something new, they want to know they will be guaranteed a job afterward. And there are no guarantees. There are a lot of question marks about where we are going.…We are all crossing a bridge. But as we are crossing, the bridge is moving.
MP: Which clients find it toughest to find work in the current job market?
DJ: In general, people ages 50 and up. It’s not impossible – I’ve seen people who are 60 getting back into good jobs. But there are lots of issues with being an older worker. If your salary was high, then it’s often harder. But you need to try to control the controllables. You might need to acquire computer skills. And you can’t make yourself younger, but you need to look up to date.
MP: How would you describe the circumstances of that age group?
DJ: These are baby boomers with pretty good salary levels when they lost their jobs.They’ve lost money in their 401Ks. Many were trying to take care of themselves, their parents and their children. Now they have a gap. How are they going to make it through the next six years – or 10? That’s a big challenge with the boomers.
MP: What is the emotional toll for those who are unemployed?
DJ: Grief, mainly grief for life as it used to be, for the job that wasn’t supposed to end. It’s isolating.
MP: Do you feel secure in your job?
DJ: Yes. But, of course, nobody is secure in their job. Anything can happen, and I am aware of that.
MP: If you were not an employment counselor, what other job would you seek?
DJ: It would be something in human services. Perhaps, hospice and grief counseling. I already have work experience with grief.
Ellen Tomson is a St. Paul freelance writer.