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Finding work is tough job for unemployed in WNY

When recruiters from U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrived at the Walden Galleria to set up for their career day last Saturday morning, 30 people with resumes in hand already were waiting inside the mall and 300 people stopped by within three hours.

Teletech in Niagara Falls held a job fair Wednesday to hire up to 300 people for temporary jobs and about 500 people showed up eager to find work.

The Buffalo Employment and Training Center has seen a 22 percent increase in the number of job seekers coming through its doors since last year.

While the Buffalo region has been called "recession-proof," it's becoming painfully clear that we're not in the least bit immune to the economic woes gripping the nation.

A report released Friday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that nearly 600,000 people lost their jobs in January. Economists are predicting another two to three million jobs could be lost over the next year.

Western New Yorkers, who hadn't felt the worst of the recession until just a couple of months ago, are now seeing jobs disappear and discovering it isn't easy finding new ones.

Statewide, 49,300 jobs were lost in December, marking the largest loss since the month following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

And locally, the area's unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December 2008, compared with 6.2 in November and 5.2 in December 2007. Among those who recently lost his job is Jerry Kersten, 47, of Hamburg. He was laid off in January from HSBC Bank, where he worked in credit.

Married with four children, ranging in age from 2 to 13, Kersten was among the hundreds of people who came to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection job fair to see if there might be an opening suitable for him. The federal agency is getting ready to hire 11,000 people across the nation in the coming year, and about 100 positions are anticipated in the Buffalo area.

Kersten believes he'll find work, even considering the current economic climate.

"I feel confident," he said. "It'll work out. But you never know."

Joseph Gern, 40, of Springville also came to the Customs event.

For 15 years, he has held what he believed was a stable, union job as a dockman and driver that paid $23 an hour with "beautiful benefits," he said.

But then he learned that by next month, he'll be out of his job at Binghamton Green.

"I wanted to get another 15 years [at Binghamton Green], and I'd be bringing home $6,000 a month with my pension," he said. "I thought my life was set."

Gern came to the job fair thinking he could put to use the criminal justice degree he had earned before he went into the trucking industry. But he was crestfallen when he learned that the cutoff for officer jobs with the federal law enforcement agency is 39.

At the Buffalo Employment and Training Center on Goodell Street, job seekers stream in through the doors every day in the hopes of finding employment.

More and more people are looking for work these days -- and there are fewer opportunities, said Colleen Cummings, the executive director of the federally funded agency.

The best advice she has for the unemployed is to get training and learn new skills so that when the market does loosen up, they'll be better positioned to get a job.

The center offers an array of services. Some people use it as a place to search the Internet, freshen up their resumes and make use of a photocopier. The services are all free.

It also provides one-on-one career counseling and classes. There are also "job clubs" -- part workshop, part support group -- where about a dozen people meet once a week to learn new skills and share their stories.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a job club made up of a diverse group of job seekers met in one of the center's computer labs. They were busy trolling Internet job banks for possible employment.

Among those in attendance was Yvonne Hairston of Buffalo, who has been looking for work for a year now.

"I was keeping track of all the employers I've applied to, had interviews with," she said. "But I lost count."

Her last job was at Erie Community College. She held the position as she was getting her social work degree at Buffalo State College. She had to give up the ECC job because her hours were changed and she felt it was more important to get her degree.

She graduated, but then found there was no work in her field.

Hairston, who wouldn't give her age because she is worried it could hurt her chances of being hired, has given up on being a social worker and now wants to find work as a secretary, administrative assistant or office manager.

>Job hunting on Web

So far, Hairston has managed financially. Her husband is employed, and they've learned to make do on one income. Hairston doesn't go to the mall anymore. If she needs clothes, she goes to a thrift shop. She makes dinners that stretch the dollar and fill up the stomach, like spaghetti and soup.

"The hardest part was [giving up] traveling," she said. "Like going to visit my granddaughter or my daughter in Georgia."

Also in the club were Michael S. Gallisdorfer, 27, of Buffalo, and Sandra Walker, 61, of the Town of Tonawanda. Seated next to each other in the computer lab, they struck up a conversation during the club meeting when Walker asked Gallisdorfer's opinion about a work-at-home offer she saw on the Internet. She had a funny feeling it was a scam, and Gallisdorfer agreed that she should steer clear of it.

Gallisdorfer, with degrees in philosophy and environmental studies, has been out of work since his internship at the Reinstein Woods center ended in November. Passionate about saving the environment, Gallisdorfer is eager to find work with a local nonprofit to "create a truly coordinated and integrated regional approach to environmental concerns."

There are lots of jobs in his field out west, but Gallisdorfer, a lifelong Buffalo resident, is adamant about staying here to help his community.

Gallisdorfer believes in living frugally, which has helped him through his unemployment. He lives cooperatively, which means he shares a home and living expenses with several people. He doesn't drive and usually walks or uses public transportation to get around.

"I have a certain ethical imperative that I operate on that's higher than any salary, any compensative or benefits package," he said.

But Gallisdorfer acknowledged he may have to put his ideals aside temporarily because he's going to be a father soon.

"If it really comes down to it, and I can't find work in my field, I can work at a restaurant or bar," he said. "Drinking is recession-proof, especially in Buffalo."

Walker found herself unemployed in April 2008 after her store, Rita's Water Ice, an Italian ice and custard shop, closed. The corporation terminated her franchise.

A widow, Walker is getting by on her late husband's benefits. But she is eager to work again. She had opened up the Italian ice store, in part, to give her more financial flexibility but also to have enough to start up a ministry to help abused children. She also dreams of becoming a professional actress.

Walker has found looking for work in the age of the Internet is nothing like the way she had hunted for jobs as a younger woman.

"This is my first time doing this, job searching on the Internet," she said. "I took the e-mail class, but I've yet to do it at home. My computer crashed."

Karen Anderson, 50, of the Town of Tonawanda, is another member of the job club.

She is out of work after a series of downsizings. Over 22 years, she had worked her way up the ladder with Goodwill Industries. She was laid off in 2004.

>Not panicking yet

That was a difficult time, but she decided to make the best of the situation and figure out something else she could do. She ended up in insurance, and felt like she was doing well in the field when, late last year, she was let go after her company experienced one of its worst-ever quarters.

Anderson said she tries not to think too much about the recession.

"What this has taught me is to stay away from the national news," she said. "There's nothing wrong with CNN, but when you're listening to news on the economy -- I'm sure what they're telling us is truthful -- but that doesn't necessarily apply to what's going on in the Buffalo area nor does it apply to you personally."

Anderson, who is receiving unemployment benefits and whose husband is employed, said she isn't panicking. At least not yet.

"I've got three more months and then I'm really going to have to scramble," she said.

Anderson deals with her situation by working out almost every day at a gym and coming to the employment and training center, where there are other people in the same boat as she is. And she also continues to do community service through her church in Buffalo.

"At least in my life, I'm blessed enough to be able to say it's an inconvenience," she said. She paused, then added: "As long as I can find another job."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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