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AmeriCorps to send tech-savvy members to career centers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 20, 2009 - As jobless numbers in Missouri continue to mount, so does the pressure on the state’s career centers to handle an increase in job hunters looking to use a limited number of on-site computers.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development, which runs the career centers, is hoping that a group of technologically savvy young people can help lessen this gridlock by, among other things, helping people who are looking for jobs complete their computer tasks more efficiently.

Starting in September, an expected 32 AmeriCorps members spread throughout the state will take on this new project. They will be placed in teams of three to six people and stationed at job centers in Arnold, Washington, Springfield, Branson, Kansas City, Fenton and in two St. Louis locations, including the increasingly busy St. Louis Central Career Center.

Donny J. Carroll, a site manager for this St. Louis branch of the Missouri Career Center, told me recently that he "just doesn't have enough resources" and that "on a typical day, the line is outside the door." He also pointed out that the wait becomes even longer because many job hunters, especially those middle aged or older, have trouble using computers.

That's where the AmeriCorps members come in. They will be helping computer users navigate the system, find job sites, fill out applications and put together a resume. They will also host workshops on technology and, if there’s interest, conduct mock interviews with job hunters. It’s also likely that the AmeriCorps members will bring employers and job seekers together for a job fair at various sites.

People working on the project, most of whom are recently out of school, won’t be paid but will get a living allowance and a $4,725 education award that can be used to pay off past or future tuition bills.

The yearlong project is made possible because of funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Kathleen Becherer, program director of AmeriCorps St. Louis, a non-profit group that also supports programs in tutoring and mentoring, as well as emergency response and conservation, said when the Missouri Department of Economic Development initially had the idea to use AmeriCorps members for this project, her response was that her resources were already stretched thin. As it turns out, her group doesn't have to come up with any matching funds, as is often the case with projects. AmeriCorps national is footing the bill.

“When I heard that the need in career centers is critical and I realized that for AmeriCorps members technology is an extension of their bodies, I said, ‘OK, we need to step up,’” Becherer said.

Susan Berger, who just finished her two years of AmeriCorps service, is staying for a third year as a fellow to oversee the AmeriCorps St. Louis Career Corps project. She said visits to career centers convinced her of the need to bring in outside help.

"People who work there say they are completely overwhelmed -- and you can't visualize it until you see the number of people sitting and waiting for computers," Berger said. "At this moment it's so important that people who come through these centers feel like they are being treated as people, not just being pushed through a system, and that they get the feeling that someone cares that they get a job."

Because of the funding arrangement, assigning people to the career centers doesn't mean that AmeriCorps St. Louis will have to take away slots from existing projects. AmeriCorps St. Louis will have more than 100 people entering in the fall class, a significant increase from past incoming groups. AmeriCorps programs should get used to these rising numbers -- as a result of recent legislation, the number of national slots is slated to rise from 75,000 to 250,000 over the next eight years.

While slots are filled for AmeriCorps St. Louis' education and emergency response projects this fall, recruitment continues for the Career Corps project.