The jobs lady
Suzanne Coleman-Tolbert on the main floor of the JOBLeaders Center. Photo by Tim Johnson.
Suzanne Coleman-Tolbert had no idea what to expect as she made her way to work. This snowy February morning in 2007 already had shut down much of Columbus. It was also the day the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corporation (COWIC) was set to open its new JOBLeaders Center—a one-stop resource for the unemployed—at 1111 E. Broad St.
“It was a Level 2 snow emergency day,” says Coleman-Tolbert, president and chief executive of the nonprofit. “We didn’t think anybody would be there. We’d advertised that we were opening, so at least we had to get there and open the doors and turn the lights on—even if nobody showed up.”
When Coleman-Tolbert arrived, she was shocked by what she saw. “There were people lined up outside the door, there were dozens of people already there,” she says. “We said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on?’ ”
What was going on were the early stages of what turned out to be a devastating recession that eventually would result in a surge of unemployment that neared 11 percent in Ohio. (The rate for Central Ohio in February was 9.7 percent.)
“It’s been nonstop ever since we opened up here,” says Coleman-Tolbert. In the midst of all this human misery, the woman whom Mayor Mike Coleman (no relation) calls “the jobs lady” finds herself at Ground Zero in this often frustrating, sometimes rewarding struggle to find jobs for the thousands of unemployed workers in Columbus and Franklin County.
At times, Coleman-Tolbert echoes the sentiments of chief Brody in Jaws. “We need a bigger boat,” she says during COWIC’s Project Hire job fair in October when 4,500 people show up and the line of unemployed workers waiting to get in stretches all the way around Veterans Memorial.
Sometimes she sounds like Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, wishing that if only she had more resources, more money, more anything and everything, she and her staff could help even more people.
“I feel like my life is now an open book,” Coleman-Tolbert says. “Everybody seems to have my cellphone number. I’m like everyone’s new best friend. My name gets passed around: ‘She can get you a job.’ But it’s not that easy. This has changed my life. It’s made me very humble, in terms of what I’m doing with my life and not taking anything for granted. But I love it when people call me and say, ‘Guess what? I got a job.’ That makes it worthwhile and inspires [my staff and me to] never give up.”
One of the unemployed in need of help is Michele Musick, who was laid off from her job in the healthcare field several months ago. “It’s scary, I’ve always worked, ever since I was 14,” says the 46-year-old. “One job led to another and I never had to worry about résumés and interviews.”
Now she does—and spends a couple of days a week at JOBLeaders, even though the bus ride requires two transfers and takes more than an hour. Musick doesn’t own a computer, but uses one of the 30-plus terminals at JOBLeaders to perfect her résumé and write cover letters. Clients also can make copies, use the fax machine, send job-related e-mails, search COWIC’s computerized job log and participate in a wide range of seminars and training programs.
Coleman-Tolbert says she can understand the lives of Musick and the other people who show up at COWIC eager—and often desperate—for help.
She was once in their well-worn shoes.
Coleman-Tolbert dropped out of Ohio State to get married and have a child. “Then my husband and I went our separate ways and I was floundering,” she says. “I eventually decided there’s more to life than just being out there by yourself and feeling sorry for yourself.”
She went back to school, got her undergraduate degree at Wilberforce University and then a master’s in human services management from Franklin University. Over the years, Coleman-Tolbert has worked with the unemployed, drug addicts, the mentally challenged and men and women just out of prison trying to rebuild their lives. She also taught at Wilberforce, which is the nation’s oldest private African-American university.
Her message to clients and students is simple: “I tell them, if I can do it, you can do it; I want to show people who are struggling that it can be done.”
And education, she says, remains the best route to a successful career. “So many of the folks I meet here, when I start talking to them about college, they say that nobody has ever said that to them before,” Coleman-Tolbert says. “When they were in high school, nobody was focused on their futures, nobody pushed college on them. My life changed in ways I couldn’t even have imagined because I went back to school.”
Coleman-Tolbert was an administrator with the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County before being tapped to lead COWIC soon after it was created in 2004. “I wanted her for the job,” Mayor Coleman says. “She had the ability, the capacity and the skill to maneuver through the complexity of federal rules and regulations.”
Building partnerships is a key to creating jobs. “And Suzanne’s leadership style is one of being a partner, of working cooperatively, finding solutions and always trying to overcome the next [negative newspaper] article,” Coleman says. “And that’s what’s needed because there are a lot of obstacles when it comes to creating jobs.”
COWIC’s roots date to the federal government’s Workforce Investment Act of 1998—and subsequent state legislation that created 20 Ohio investment corporations. Other states created similar investment corporations; the goal is to teach workers the skills they need to land and retain jobs and provide employers the skilled workers they need to compete locally and globally.
These investment corporations receive the bulk of their funding from the federal government, through the U.S. Department of Labor, with some additional assistance from nonprofits and local governments. Most are run by county agencies, but in Central Ohio it was set up as a separate nonprofit.
COWIC’s 2010 budget is $7.2 million. This does not include the nearly $7.1 million it received in May 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the federal stimulus plan.
Investment corporations across the country received funds through ARRA, based on a formula that factors in local unemployment rates and the number of low-income people in an area. Ohio’s 20 investment corporations received $102.7 million.
“This unique partnership among our state agencies and our local workforce investment boards will ensure that we are effectively utilizing this infusion of funds to serve those who are most in need,” Gov. Ted Strickland said when the award was announced.
This extra money, Coleman-Tolbert says, was desperately needed and allowed her to expand existing programs, create new ones and help more people.
“The goal is to get the money out there, as quickly as possible—and we have to meet certain milestones in terms of spending the stimulus money,” she says. “But you don’t want to waste even a dollar of it, you want to be planfull about it and provide needed services.”
The biggest chunk of the $7.1 million in ARRA money, about $3.4 million, went toward the total $5.3 million cost of a summer youth job program that found work for about 2,300 Columbus adolescents in 2009. The goal for this summer is 2,500. About $3.1 million of the ARRA funds will be spent on adult and dislocated worker programs, and the remaining $558,000 for administrative costs.
COWIC services for adults include work-readiness training and multiple programs that provide financial incentives for local companies that partner with JOBLeaders to hire unemployed workers and teach them specific and marketable skills. New programs have been developed for professionals who have lost their jobs, a growing trend the past two years.
It’s hard to say exactly how many people JOBLeaders has helped find employment, Coleman-Tolbert says, because not all of the organization’s clients call to say they’ve landed a job. But she says there are records of a total of about 3,000 placements in 2008 and 2009.
JOBLeaders is working on a way to better track the number of jobs it helps clients find through the wage and income report the state generates. “We can match up Social Security numbers and see if our people are employed,” she says.
Unfortunately, Coleman-Tolbert believes that while the worst may be over, the best is still a long way off. “It’s kind of like the door will crack open and let a few people through—and then it closes again,” she says of the economy, adding it is vital that Congress send additional stimulus dollars to the nation’s investment corporations.
However, predicting what unpredic-table, partisan and running-for-reelection legislators will do is all but impossible. But that hasn’t stopped Coleman-Tolbert from planning how to spend additional federal dollars.
“We can’t not plan; we have to be prepared,” she says. “And my philosophy is, if you believe it, you will achieve it. So, if there is a need out there, we plan to meet that need—and then find a way to get the funding.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.