Lowell leads the way in job search

Just as this oldest American industrial town helped navigate new courses in economic recovery, Lowell is now piloting an innovative program to assist welfare recipients find jobs.

Using federal money under CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), this city of 95,000 has placed 600 former recipients in private jobs, cutting more than $2.5 million from its welfare bill during the past 14 months. Because of its success, the program will be tried in 10 other Massachusetts cities.

The assumption behind the so-called "Job Club" is that people on welfare can get jobs if they know how. The intensive and highly structured five-week program aims to teach participants the basic skills of job hunting, resume writing, and interviewing.

"We teach them the techniques," says Bill Linnehan, a counselor, "but they do everything on their own."

Rather than look at the want ads to see what jobs are available, clients determine what they want to do first, then try to find the job that fits their needs. They find leads in newspapers, telephone books, or the center's microfilm files. No one is required to accept a job he doesn't like.

Job Club is mandatory for most welfare recipients, who lose their benefits if they refuse to participate. A few are exempted from the program if they have a compelling reason to stay at home. Over 70 percent of the clients are mothers receiving Aid for Families With Dependent Children, and almost a third are high school dropouts. Sixteen percent of the clients are Hispanic and 3 percent black.

"I'd been on welfare for about a year," says Janice, a Job Club alumna. "It was a demeaning experience. I'd gotten an exemption [from the program] at first because my ex-husband had attempted to kidnap my three kids and I said that I needed to stay at home. But later they told me that I had to find a job or they'd stop sending my checks.

"But my counselor told me, 'I don't want you to find a job just to get out of here. Find a job you like.' It was his kind encouragement that got me going. It was just what I needed at the time."

Janice has worked as a hostess in a restaurant since her stint with Job Club last September. She intends to look for a job that pays more than the $160 she now earns each week. She feels that Job Club has "gotten her feet wet," giving her the confidence to swim toward new shores.

When clients are not out interviewing for jobs, they meet in a spacious modern office that overlooks one of the old canals that winds through the city center. The carpeting, ample desks, phones, word processors, and other office equipment lend the Job Club center an air of sophistication that the directors have sought to achieve.

"Job Club is operated like a professional job placement service," Mike Farley , the program's director, says. "We want our clients to get into the habit of working in an office environment."

But as its title suggests, Job Club combines the formal with the informal. Much of its success, according to Mr. Farley, is due to peer encouragement.

Clients work in a "buddy system." While one person is talking to a potential employer on the phone, another listens in on an extension. Afterward they evaluate each other's conversations.

An atmosphere of competitive camaraderie prevails. Bulletin boards list those who have succeeded in getting jobs and interviews. Clients, in groups of 10 to 12, both congratulate and console other members of their group.

"Peer influence makes a big difference," Mr. Farley says. "There's a sense of 'Well, if he can do it, so can I.'"

What distinguishes Jobs Club from other CETA programs, according to Neil Hurley, the original Job Club director in Lowell, is that employers don't find out that the people they hire are participating in a government program.

"By presenting themselves directly to the employer," Mr. Hurley says, "our clients don't go in with the stigma of the social agency."

Part of the reason Job Club has succeeded in Lowell, Mr. Farley surmises, is that the city's jobless rate remains about 2 percent below the national average.

In a stable local economy, the retention rate of Job Club graduates is high. After a year of work, two-thirds remain in the jobs they found during their Job Club internship.

Whether Lowell happens to be an ideal Job Club site will be judged by the new programs begun two months ago in Boston, Springfield, and five other cities in the Bay State.

Mr. Hurley, now the statewide program director, says that it is "too early to tell," but he is confident that the program will work as well in inner-city locations as it did in Lowell.

"I've been working in government programs for 10 years," Mr. Hurley says, "and this is the best I've seen so far."

Both Mr. Farley and Mr. Hurley feel that the program will survive the proposed budget cuts of the Reagan administration.

"We feel we could sell this program to either a conservative or a liberal administration," says Mr. Farley. "It appeals to the liberal's desire for programs with the aim of self- improvement of the participants. It appeals to conservatives, in that we are getting people off the welfare rolls and into private-sector jobs."

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