Linda Bevel rifled through her bag and pulled out a three-ring binder filled with certificates, resumes and training awards that were protected in glossy plastic sleeves. She took the book out for anyone who asked and told them about her training.
"I’m hoping to get a good job somewhere," Bevel explained.
Bevel was among nearly 330 job-seekers attending the Conway Adult Education Center’s first job fair. The event, held Wednesday, was for people who had either a high school or a general education diploma. People like Bevel.
By 11 a.m., more than 200 people had poured into the center on Lee Avenue. Outside, the state workforce services department set up a mobile unit to help people brush up resumes. At least 250 people stopped by the unit or the department’s inside booth between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., said department spokesman Kimberly Friedman, who did not attend the job fair.
People dressed in high heels or suits and ties crowded around booths, waiting to pass resumes to possible employers like McDonald’s and T.J. Maxx. Men in slacks and dress shoes sat at tables and filled out applications or lined the halls with clipboards in hand. The Conway Police Department had a stack of resumes, including one from Bevel, by mid-morning. About 30 people had stopped by the police department’s booth and signed the registry, spokesman LaTresha Woodruff said.
About 21 organizations, businesses and colleges were represented at the job fair, passing out brochures, pamphlets and talking to people about job openings. At the University of Central Arkansas’s Community Engagement and Outreach booth, workers manning the booth encouraged job-hunters to seek out education and passed out 150 items promoting learning.
Bevel said she was hoping for an office job, such as in a medical office. She stopped and picked up an application The Employers Choice, an employment agency out of Maumelle. She’s applied online for three jobs open at Conway Regional Medical Center, she said. She’s also applied for a part-time job with a different company in Maumelle.
"All they are offering is 20 hours right now," Bevel said. "It’s a foot in the door, though."
At 60, Bevel has a high school diploma and a stack of certificates showing she’d finished adult education programs to beef up her skills, including in Microsoft Office programs. But she has no college degree.
"Experience doesn’t count anymore," Bevel said. "It’s education that counts."
Bevel is entering a fiercely competitive job market, said Kathy Deck, director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. People with college education are taking jobs for which they are overqualified. Recent graduates are struggling to find jobs in their field of education. Older adults who lost investments, housing values and retirement in the recession must go back to work and fight to keep jobs. In manufacturing, Arkansas continues to lose jobs, Deck said.
"When we look at who has been affected by the recession, I think it’s fair to say everybody is getting slammed," she said.
The job market is an employer’s market currently, Deck said. That means people like Bevel — with no degree and above 55 years old — might get weeded out more quickly, economists said. Yet, the number of people in the 55 and older group who have decided to stay in the job market is at an all-time high, Deck said.
"There are so many folks, who previously we thought of as retirement age, who are in the workforce," Deck said. "That means there is a lot more competition."
Despite sending out between 25 and 50 applications, Bevel has only had a handful of calls for interviews since working her last day in April. In August, she signed up for training to try to give herself a leg up and stand out among a crowded field of people hunting for similar jobs. Her last day of her last class will be June 4.
Officials said Bevel was right to take as many training courses as she could.
"It’s a tough time for a lot of people even those who are more skilled," Friedman said. "The more credentials, certificates, education, the better chance you’ll have of finding something."
The unemployment rate drops consistently when workers gain more education, said Michael Casey, associate dean of the College of Business at the University of Central Arkansas.
Although Arkansas does not track demographic information for the state’s unemployed, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people with less than a high school diploma have an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent nationwide for April. That number drops to 7.9 percent for a high school diploma, 7.6 percent for an associates degree or some college and 4 percent for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The national unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in Arkansas for April. In Conway, the area unemployment is seasonally unadjusted at 6.6 percent for March, the most recent month available.
Casey said Conway has been insulated from some of the worst of the job losses. The city managed to bring in big companies like Hewlett-Packard Co., the Fayetteville Shale created jobs in natural gas and the city has colleges, which are major employers, he said. But while Arkansas hasn’t felt as big of losses as other states from the worst recession in decades, the state also hasn’t rebounded quickly in areas like manufacturing, Deck said.
"It is better out there, but it’s not good," she said.
Bevel was shocked when she was laid off.
"I’ve never been unemployed," she said. "I’ve never been without a job."
Bevel hadn’t planned on losing her job at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock last year. She’d spent about six years with UAMS and was a good worker who put together packages and applications for people needing Medicaid, she said. But when the university outsourced her job, the new company came in and required a college degree and let people with experience but no degrees go, Bevel said. Some knew at least one worker with 25 years of experience who was terminated.
"When you get unemployed, you feel like you’re nothing — especially for my age," Bevel said. "I get down, but I keep trucking."
Employers don’t realize older workers are willing to take pay cuts to stay on the job, she said.
"We’re old school — we’re dedicated, we’re committed," Bevel said. "We believe in work. I marry my job when I get a job."
Deck said the tight job market means employers get their pick of employees. Some winnow candidates by asking for college degrees for jobs that hadn’t required one before the recession. Some employers won’t hire people who are unemployed — a major problem because the longer people are unemployed, the harder it is to get a job, Deck said.
"Some employers, when faced with someone who currently has a job or who has freshly come out of training, they see that person as a better risk than someone who has been out of the job market for some time and whose skills might have atrophied," Deck said. At the job fair, state Rep. Jane English, R-District 42, watched the swirl of people at the center.
"People are looking for a job. They are looking everywhere and going through every avenue looking for a job," English said.
Bevel left three resumes at the job fair and said it was the best one she’d been to, but she didn’t leave employed. A lot of the businesses wanted people to know they were in the Conway area, but they weren’t hiring, she said.
But, Bevel said she felt optimistic.
English said the job fair wasn’t only for matching workers to jobs, it also encouraged them to seek training. Many people didn’t know the center offered free training that can improve chances of employment, she said.
About 300,000 people in Arkansas need to upgrade their skills, English said. Those new skills might be the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. As of April, the state had about 100,600 people unemployed, according to the state workforce services department. As of March, 4,000 people were unemployed in Faulkner County.
"There are a lot of people in the same boat that are looking for a job," she said.