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Helping others find work helps job counselor find solace

TAMPA — Lesla Higginbotham sits in a small cubicle, flanked by a dozen others just like hers, all of them mini-outposts in the war against unemployment.

Here at the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, it's her job to find jobs. Fifteen, perhaps 20, people a day visit Higginbotham seeking referrals and training, looking for someone to listen to their story.

On this day, it's a 43-year-old man recently in prison on a drug charge with experience as a forklift operator and carpenter who has struggled to even get a job interview. He's willing to flip burgers — anything. "I need this so bad, so bad," he tells Higginbotham.

Higginbotham nods her head. She tweaks his resume to note he is "certified" as a forklift operator. She scans a few warehouse jobs online for a possible match. She tells him to be up-front about his "unfavorable background," so as not to waste time on interviews that won't pan out.

Most importantly, don't give up hope during tough times, she tells him. "Keep on looking," she says. "Don't lose faith."

The part of her advice about endurance through suffering comes naturally.

Higginbotham has lived it.

Lesla and Lou. Like many a workplace romance, it began as a friendship. Lesla Higginbotham, petite and outgoing, was drawn to Lou Vecchione, a good-natured Italian man with dark, curly hair. Lou was a natural storyteller. They would talk at the office; he would come to her house for dinner. Lou loved her beef stroganoff. The romance blossomed into an eight-year marriage. But after a fight with cancer, Lou died in 2006 when he was 57. Lesla was left to carry on.

The business card Higginbotham hands out to virtually every visitor says she is a customer service specialist. Alliance executives prefer the term "career manager." Neither title sums up her daily duties: coach, psychologist, social worker, cheerleader, confidante and, most simply, friend.

A native Californian, Higginbotham moved to Florida in late 1980. She worked at data entry for the University of South Florida for a couple of years before starting with the state's unemployment agency in 1983.

In her early years, the government staffed unemployment offices across Florida where laid-off workers could walk in to file a claim and ask questions. Higginbotham recalls unemployment lines stretching around the block when the jobless rate in Florida peaked in the early '80s at about 9 percent.

She transferred from the unemployment office to Workforce Alliance to work directly in steering people into new jobs. She likes the face-to-face customer service. To help someone find a new career, short-term and long-term, takes personal contact and repeat visits. It takes time.

"You can't ascertain someone's needs in five minutes," she says. "The human aspect is really important."

Every day, Lesla draws from Lou's example. The way he lived. They way he handled suffering. They way he died. Call them life lessons from Lou. He was assigned to a specialized program to find work for those recently out of prison. He got to know his candidates well, even accompanying some to their first jobs. Gov. Lawton Chiles gave him an award for placing more offenders through the program than anyone else in the state. "I learned a lot from him about listening," Lesla says "That's one of the best skills we can have."

A couple of years ago, the alliance helped Angel Morte find a job. Now he's back, sitting in front of Higginbotham.

After working for a collections agency, Morte was laid off about a month ago. He had filled out an online resume the last time at the center but doesn't know how to push it to possible employers.

Higginbotham clicks away at her keyboard. She finds Morte's outdated resume in the state's database. Old e-mail address; his phone number has changed; his objective needs work.

She guides him through a checklist, examining his flexibility. "Are you willing to travel for a job? If so, how much of the time? 25 percent? 50 percent?

He'll go anywhere, anytime.

She types in 100 percent. "Whatever it takes, huh?"

"That's the reason I came here," Morte responds.

Others stop by the center in a mood to vent.

Like one man who came dressed professionally in a suit, yet was itching to displace his anger. "I rode my bicycle across Dale Mabry Highway yesterday and didn't get killed," he told Higginbotham. "Now it's your job to find me a job."

Higginbotham defused the situation, saying she was glad he wasn't hurt and his family didn't have to suffer. He was fortunate to be in good health, she told him, even though he faced a temporary bump in his career.

"Sometimes they have that aspect when they walk through the door that we're that old government worker," she says later. "And I try to turn down those barriers, try to be more human. That's why I have nature all around me."

On the wall behind her are pictures of a moose in the wild and of a canoeist gliding on peaceful waters. On her desk: mementos from Yosemite National Park, where she and Lou were married.

She doesn't expect to solve problems for everyone who stops in. She tries to nudge the reluctant onto the next step, not always an easy task.

Tom Speakman is frustrated that he can't make it to job interviews without a car or bus money. Released from prison a few days earlier, he signed up for food stamps and was told that Workforce Alliance could get him a bus pass to use for interviews.

The bus pass program was discontinued years ago, Higginbotham tells him. She gives him contact information for various social services and suggests he check back with the food stamps program.

Speakman says he's shocked at how much tougher it is to find a job today than when he went to prison three years ago.

"I think we're coming out of it slowly," Higginbotham assures him. "It'll get better."

Lesla couldn't go back to work after Lou's death. Not for two months. When she returned, she had greater empathy for the anguish that laid-off workers were going through. The loss. The anger. The confusion. Different, for sure, but still hard. When a candidate cried, she could relate. When a candidate boiled over with rage, she knew the feeling. The loss of a spouse and the loss of a job are among the hardest losses one can endure in a lifetime, she says. "They both need to be grieved."

A pair of giant flat-screen televisions in the alliance lobby are tuned to CNN. An announcer is talking about the "jobs crisis," as if anyone sitting there needs reminding.

Traffic at Workforce Alliance has grown as unemployment in the bay area has climbed to 12.4 percent. Over the past six months, jobseekers have come to the center on Florida Avenue and Busch Boulevard at a pace of 4,200 a month.

Higginbotham worries that she may join them someday. She's 55. A single homeowner. She makes about $29,000 a year. There was no life insurance payout after her husband's death.

"It's very difficult to pay the bills now," she said. "I think I would be nuts if I lost my job. I don't have any family to fall back on. I don't have any kids. I'm it."

But her moment of anxiety passes quickly. Another of Lou's lessons was perseverance — how to work through pain. In and out of the hospital for cancer treatments, he was always eager to get back to work. People were waiting for him to find them a job.

She, too, is invigorated about the job she has to do, and how she can draw from her past to help others' futures. If anything, her sorrow has strengthened her resolve.

"I'm the person that's going to change how they feel because I'm that person that's been on the other side, so to speak."

It's been three years since Lou's death. Lesla thinks about him often. When he was sick. When he was healthy and strong and loved building fires in the fireplace of their Temple Terrace home. She finds comfort riding her bike, enjoying the company of her 8-year-old cats, Sassy and Molly. And she finds solace through the relentless stream of jobseekers stepping into her cubicle.

A soft-spoken, young woman named Kendra is next in line.

She's upset that she didn't do better taking her TABE, a basic education test given to job applicants without a higher education degree. Higginbotham tells her not to worry. She should feel good about passing the test and can always take it again if she wants to.

Higginbotham helps polish her resume, calling it "the most important tool in your toolbox." Instead of "to obtain," say that you're "seeking" a position, she advises. It's more decisive, more active.

She rattles off questions to explore Kendra's job history and educational training. What types of papers did you file? Were they documents? Were they confidential documents? You've been trained in medical disclosure issues? You're HIPAA-certified? Note that on the resume, especially since one of the two receptionist job openings is at a medical facility, Higginbotham advises.

Higginbotham smiles broadly as the woman walks out clutching two referral letters. "I love this job," she says. "I really do."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.

A workplace under the microscope

Lesla Higginbotham's employer, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, is under fire for alleged mismanagement and lavish spending on food for executives. Alliance director Renee Gilmore quit last week. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said that it has opened a preliminary investigation.

Helping others find work helps job counselor find solace 02/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 22, 2010 5:00pm]
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