In East Garfield Park, the city workforce center on Kedzie Street was bustling with people; folks searching for jobs in a small computer resource room, sending in resumes, and checking out postings on a large notice board.
“Just gotta keep pushing,” said Melvin Valentine, a 53-year-old Garfield Park resident who’s been out of work for a few months.
Valentine lives a few blocks away in this neighborhood where the number of people living in poverty is 43.7 percent, according to the Chicago Jobs Council, and the unemployment figure is 21.8 percent.
In his State of the Union address to the nation last month, President Obama made tackling the country’s unemployment a central focus of his speech. In Chicago, the city continues to wrestle with unemployment that is densely concentrated in neighborhoods on the south and west sides.
East Garfield Park is one of the city’s poorest areas, and unemployment there is chronic.
Valentine shares a room with three other men in a transitional housing facility run by nonprofit group Safe Haven. He said he wants to get his own place so he can spend more time with his three grandchildren.
“I want to be able to support myself and better myself. I want something of my own,” Valentine said.
But he has little patience for people who complain they’re not able to find work.
“You’ve got to do the footwork,” he said, rapping on the table in front of him for emphasis.
People come to the employment office thinking a job’s just going to show up at the door, said Valentine, dressed in a suit and tie while at the workforce center.
Ahmad Sanders, an industry staffing specialist at the center, agreed.
He works on building relationships with employers and connecting people looking for work. Sanders has worked in the field for 16 years, and believes finding a job is more about mindset than opportunity.
“The jobs have been there,” he said. “There’s a certain percentage of people expecting to walk in here and be placed in a job without being open to the development process.”
Sanders added: “The job seeker needs to develop the skills to become marketable,” such as building resumes and learning to sell themselves in interviews — “97 percent die in the interview,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sanders tells Valentine he has a job interview lined up for him.
But while Sanders placed the bulk of responsibility for finding work on individual job seekers, he insists other factors can influence the job market. President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 — which is supported by Gov. Pat Quinn, who wants to raise it in Illinois to $10 — would help, according to Sander.
“Everything goes up — taxes, gas — but wages don’t go up,” he said.
Stacie Staton, 27, agreed that raising the minimum wage would help her make ends meet.
Staton got a job with the TSA three months ago. But before she got the call, she’d been unemployed for eight months. “It was hard,” she said, adding that she never gave up. “I was here every day, hassling people. I’m a motivated person,” she said.
Though working only part time, Staton said she makes more than the minimum wage. Still, she’s looking for a full-time job, but those she’s come across either don’t pay enough or are way out of her league.
“Looking for a job is a full-time job,” Staton said.