- Associated Press - Saturday, October 4, 2014

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) - Elaine Stephens relocated last summer from Stamford to live with her daughter in Groton, thinking she had an administrative job all lined up. But the job, which she had expected to fill in July, never panned out, and she is now back out looking for a position, her unemployment benefits all used up.

She’s been out of work for about a year now, just another statistic to be added to that dreaded category: “long-term unemployed.”

And yet she always seems to be so close - just this close - to getting back in the game.

“Maybe it’s me,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s the way I’m interviewing. I’m just trying to get back in.”

Stephens was among 15 people who gathered Thursday at the Opportunities Industrialization Center building on Truman Street to see if a new statewide program called Platform to Employment can help them return to the workforce. The state legislature earmarked $3.6 million for the program this year to help put 500 people back to work in New London, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford and New Haven.

The program, tested in Fairfield County, claims a 90 percent success rate. By next spring, if all goes as planned, a total of 100 workers in eastern Connecticut will have graduated from the program, which runs again here in November while moving to Norwich in January and March.

Joseph M. Carbone, president and chief executive of Bridgeport-based The WorkPlace, said the program he developed, which was featured in a 2012 episode of the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes,” focuses on the mental aspect of long-term unemployment. Program administrators hand-select people long out of work, choosing those who seem most motivated and least angry, for a five-week intensive course to help turn around their mindset.

“Long-term unemployment saps you of your self-confidence,” said Carbone in an interview at OIC on the first day of the New London program. “The worst part of long-term unemployment is eventually people give up. … We’ve got to stop that.”

They do so with a multipronged approach that includes confronting fears and depression, practicing job interviews, exploring networking opportunities and developing confidence. After the initial five weeks of confidence building that run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. four days a week, the program offers employers an eight-week internship that is fully paid for the first four weeks at the pay scale of the job, with the expectation that the cost of the following four weeks will be split 50-50 between employers and Platform to Employment.

The idea is to make hiring the long-term unemployed a no-brainer, Carbone said. Since the program serves as the employer during the internship period, Platform to Employment allows businesses to test participants with no risks and little costs associated with full-time employment.

“We have broken the cycle of unemployment,” Carbone said.

“The process works,” said Mike Morgan, program director, to the assemblage of mostly middle-aged workers. “If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

“You’re here because we believe in you,” he continued. “At the root, it’s you. If you’re willing to get dirty, there’s light. I’ve seen it.”

Acceptance to the program starts with a lengthy application, attendees said. Each of them also had to go through an interview process.

Jennifer Jurkiewicz of Colchester, single with no children, said she has dealt with her 10-month unemployment by turning to martial arts. It’s a confidence builder and a stress reliever, she added, and she just received her brown belt.

“It helps with the anger,” she said.

Jurkiewicz said she is looking forward to learning more about networking and cold calling.

“It’s good to have the knowledge that it’s not us,” she said. “It really is a structural issue.”

Carbone agreed, saying that the most recent recession, unlike others after World War II, required many people to completely rethink their career paths. Even with the success of the program, he added, everyone who has found another job has had to take a pay downgrade - though many did not take much of a cut.

Elaine Stephens, well dressed and bright, a woman used to dealing with CEOs and executive vice presidents, said she is ready to do what it takes to move on.

“Today is a blessing,” she said. “I have learned how to pray more and have more faith.”

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