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Guest Writer

Your tax dollars at work
Unemployment School
by Joe Follansbee

he instructor pokes into the room, embarrassed by his tardiness. It's 9:10 a.m. He's 10 minutes late. Five of us have been waiting for him.

The state required our attendance at a two-hour job-hunt orientation at 9 a.m., March 22, 2004, at the unemployment office in Seattle. "Failure to attend may result in denial of your benefits," the letter said.

Our instructor droops over a table as he connects a cable from his laptop to a projector. He writes his name on the white board in a teacher's cursive: Ardis.

"Are you here for the job log workshop?" Ardis asks. "No," says a redheaded white man. "We're here for the orientation."

"Wait a minute," Ardis says. "Wait a minute." He leaves the room, puzzled.

Orientation and Assessment is the first of a seven-module course for people on unemployment. "Research shows claimants with education, work experience and other factors similar to yours need reemployment services to make a successful transition to new employment," the invitation said. We'd study résumés, applications and cover letters. We'd analyze our skills, abilities and the job market. And we'd learn "who you are" and "gain information about yourself."

What could the state teach me about job hunting? I've worked in high-tech and journalism for 20 years. Two degrees. Freelancing. Ran a small business. Seven or eight jobs. Laid off a couple of weeks ago. I've written résumés, bugged friends about "hidden" jobs, filled out "career assessments."

And now I have to put up with a government stiff who can't start a workshop on time. He's unprepared. He doesn't even know what workshop he's in! I just want my checks. Maybe the young Latino to my left will learn something, if today's class ever gets going. His wife, sister, girlfriend, I can't tell, sits beside him.

Mountain climbers, eagles and ocean surf on wall posters inspire us to choose goals, seek opportunity, cultivate vision and persist.

A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman in a wheelchair rolls in about 9:15. "Are you my group?" she asks us. "We're here for the orientation," we respond. "Let me go check ..." she mumbles, rolling out.

"Your tax dollars at work," I whisper to the redheaded man. The students snicker. Ardis pops in, followed by a middle-aged Asian woman. "We got to make some changes here!" he declares. His Deep South accent is out of place. The woman packs the projector in its box. Ardis unhooks the cables. He's black, 50ish, round-faced. He's wearing dress shoes, gray dress pants, a dark polo shirt and a matching suit jacket.

Another black man comes in. His keycard says "Lee." He's huge, like a defensive lineman, also well dressed, but without the jacket, and he says something to Ardis. "It was supposed to be E-I-R, but E-R-I was scheduled," Ardis says to Lee. "I don't know what happened. I can't explain it." They exit, leaving the students alone again. It's now 9:30 a.m.

Late students take seats. One of the papers at our places on long tables is a workshop evaluation. Among the topics to rate:

· A clear overview of the workshop was presented
· Instructor was well-organized
· Time spent in the workshop was productive

"Rate these items from Very Good to Very Poor."

Here's a chance to poke the state for wasting my time. I've paid unemployment insurance premiums for 30 years. I don't have to put up with this. Where's my pencil ...

Ardis carries a sheaf of copies when he returns. "They made a mistake," he says. "And I got to correct it, because you all looking at me! I don't want" (he counts the students) "16 people looking for me!"

The fellow next to me wears a black, white and yellow Pittsburgh Steelers cap. He catches my eye as he takes one of Ardis' papers and hands the pile to me. A young woman two rows up watches Ardis expectantly. It's 9:41 a.m. "Now, to make this orientation, I'll have to rush," he says. "But we'll make it." The young woman nods.

Ardis gets through the orientation. He hits the high points, skips less important parts, ends with his phone number. He finishes 10 minutes early, "because I know you all want outta here." Ardis shakes my hand as I leave and he apologizes for the mix up.

My evaluation form sits on the table, blank.

Read more from Joe in our archives.

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