When Donna Henry lost her job last December, the 38-year-old single mother's first concern was to feed her two kids. "I went in to apply for food stamps," she recalls of her visit to the Brevard Workforce Career Center in Cocoa, a small city on Florida's central east coast. "I ended up with the blessing of a new job."
That was more than a happy coincidence. Henry's quick re-entry into the work force is a result of Florida's new strategy for the unemployed. Central to the plan, called Florida Back to Work, is a legislative mandate that unemployed workers in the state register for work before they register for unemployment compensation.
"We're really shifting the focus from unemployment compensation to re-employment as the first priority," says Cynthia Lorenzo, director of Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation. She says the goal is "bridging workers to high-wage jobs in high-growth industries … and getting them back to work as quickly as possible."
There is a lot of bridging to do. Since the end of 2006, the state unemployment rate rose from 3.3 to 12.3 percent at the recession's depth. It has since moderated down to 11.4 percent, but Lorenzo's agency is still left with a three-fold increase in the number of people looking for work or assistance -- or both -- in the last three years.
The spike in demand, coupled with unprecedented levels of long-term unemployment, drove the state's unemployment trust fund into deficit for the first time, leaving a $1.6 billion shortfall. An agency analysis of the 680,000 jobless workers indicated the average unemployment claim lasted 17 weeks, but some stretched out to as long as 99 weeks. Lorenzo says the math was compelling. "If you reduce the average job search by just one week per year," she says, "it would produce a weekly savings of $164 million to the trust fund."
Henry's experience illustrates how Florida's Back to Work program works. She was out of work for only three weeks -- thanks to a process that, on her first visit, created a profile of her skills, work history and family circumstances. She took a typing test, drug screening and a check of eligibility for aid to needy families, and then left with an appointment for a job interview the next day. That next day, Henry says, "They told me then and there that I had a job."
But her first boss at the new job was a harder case. With a business degree in hand, Cameron Humes spent a frustrating two years unemployed after a string of mostly temp jobs and stints in debt collections and IT. "I was coming from a place of desperation," he remembers.
Last January, Henry and Humes -- and 150 other new hires -- started work at TSC Solutions, a call center located in Rockledge, Fla. All new employees were pre-screened through Brevard Workforce, one of 24 state and federally funded work force boards in Florida that match unemployed workers with employers. The program even placed a career coach on site to ease the transition and help ensure the new recruits' success.
Like Henry, Humes also benefited from the state's re-employment strategy. "I went strolling into a Job Link center [now the Brevard Workforce Career Center] to update my profile when I caught wind of this new opportunity," he says. "It was hearsay, but then I got a call from a woman at [the center] who had seen my profile. She thought TSC would be a good opportunity for me." Humes was hired as a team leader within the week.
Only months later, the new model's scalability got an unexpected real-life test. Workers displaced by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster are in line for emergency assistance, and the same services that helped Henry and Humes get back on their feet. "We're getting immediate assistance to people and businesses who need it," Lorenzo says, "but, long term, we will need to help people transition to new occupations."
Even with the Gulf oil disaster wild card and the recession's lingering effects, there is evidence of green sprouts. The TSC grew its initial cadre of 150 employees in January to 500 by Labor Day, with the Brevard Workforce Career Center acting as recruiter for the new hires from the ranks of unemployed parents with needy families. And with stable jobs, two of its charter employees are looking forward for the first time in a long time. Henry is studying after work to become an occupational therapist while Humes and his wife are expecting their second child in December.