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AmeriCorps hopes to help job seekers become computer savvy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2009 - How can legislation working its way through Washington that would vastly expand national service potentially benefit job hunters in St. Louis? Here's a hint: helping hands that know their way around a computer.

Those hands would have been useful on Tuesday afternoon at the St. Louis Central Career Center at 4811 Delmar Blvd. In a scene straight out of a Department of Motor Vehicles waiting room, people packed into rows of chairs and sat patiently until their names were called by a state employee sitting behind the front desk.

"On a typical day, the line is outside the door," said Donny J. Carroll, a site manager for this branch of the Missouri Career Center, which is run by the state's Department of Economic Development. "We just don't have enough resources."

Each of the center's 38 computers is being used by a job hunter. While typical nowadays, that wouldn't have been the case just months ago. Carroll said since early fall, when the economy took a dramatic turn for the worse, the number of people using the center has tripled. Roughly 8,000 people now visit the branch each month.

There's no natural rhythm to the wait times for the people gathered at the center. Those waiting are at the mercy of those who have already been called. That's because there's no time limit to use the computers. Many people who don't have one at home or who don't have access to the Internet take their time here searching job databases, typing cover letters and filling out applications.

At times, the wait becomes even longer because many job hunters, especially those who are middle aged or older, have trouble using computers efficiently, including navigating online, Carroll said.

"If people request help, they can visit the front desk," he said. "But those customers could use people with polished technology skills."

That's where those helping hands come in.

Carroll has met with Kathleen Becherer, program director of AmeriCorps St. Louis, about recruiting young people to help job-center visitors with their computer questions. The idea, Becherer said, would be to have 10 AmeriCorps members stationed at job centers in both St. Louis and Kansas City, and 12 people in centers in outstate locations. Among other responsibilities, they would hold workshops for the unemployed on how to make the most out of Internet searches.

"It's pretty exciting to be part of something that's meeting a critical unmet need," Becherer said. "Right now, the unemployment rate is high. When we heard that a stumbling block is that so much of what happens is online and people need help there, it was clear this could be a place for us to get involved."

St. Louis AmeriCorps, a non-profit group that supports programs in tutoring and mentoring, as well as emergency response and conservation, has 87 current members. Assigning people to the job centers wouldn't take away AmeriCorps members from existing projects.

That's where the legislation comes in.

Congress this week passed the largest expansion of national service programs in a generation. The legislation, named for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who co-wrote the initial version, would bolster programs that fall under the auspices of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

Among the programs that would benefit from this expansion is AmeriCorps, which began under President Bill Clinton in 1993. AmeriCorps would triple in size, from its current 75,000 slots to 250,000 by 2017. The legislation also increases incentives to expand service opportunities in health care, education, energy efficiency, veterans and the economy.

AmeriCorps St. Louis has seen a dramatic spike in interest during this year of economic turmoil. About twice as many people have applied to the program compared to this time last spring.

Instead of adding slots to the existing projects, Becherer said, AmeriCorps St. Louis is proposing to launch the job-center program. She is hoping to send members to the sites as early as September. But first, the proposal has to get the approval of the Missouri Community Service Commission, which should render its decision this month.

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