With his background, Perry Joyce never expected to be living on welfare, sleeping in a Salvation Army shelter and looking for work at an unconventional employment centre in the heart of Canada's poorest neighbourhood.
Mr. Joyce, 54, had more than 25 years of experience in the fiberglass boat industry before he was knee-capped by the recession. He was a steady worker on the shop floor who held junior management positions and had served as a union steward.
"But boats are just big toys," he said. "When the economy gets bad, people are not going to spend their money on toys."
He was laid off at the height of the recession and has been bouncing from job to job ever since.
Mr. Joyce turned to Pathways, an agency that helps job seekers in unusual ways – like finding clothes for their interviews. It also connects them with conventional programs such as training and résumé coaching.
But then Mr. Joyce found out that the government was reorganizing its employment program. Pathways is closing its doors on March 31.
"Closing this place is going to leave a gaping hole," Mr. Joyce said in an interview at the Pathways office. "This place has people who actually understand the needs of the community and are prepared to respond to them."
The B.C. government is creating one-stop shops, centralizing access to its employment programs. That means closing smaller community agencies, such as Pathways.
Critics worry that the new model will help those who are well prepared to look for a job and start working, but will shortchange the hard-to-employ who require more help to move onto the road toward employment.
Currently, more than 400 organizations across the province are under contract with the government to provide employment services. Many are smaller organizations that cater to groups with specialized needs, such as immigrants who have English as a second language, those with disabilities or the chronically unemployed in the Downtown Eastside.
The number of contracts will drop to 47 – private companies and non-profit organizations that will deliver employment programs in 73 areas of the province. Many of those companies and organizations will have a number of offices, but each office is expected to offer the full suite of government programs – developing job-search skills, employment counselling and job-placement – to anyone who walks through the door.
"I worry about people that will fall through the cracks," Shane Simpson, the MLA for Vancouver Hastings, said earlier this winter in the legislature. He questioned whether the new centres would help those who need training or other kinds of support before they can start looking for a new job.
Mr. Simpson said later he believes the new program will likely work effectively for those who need traditional help – to conduct a job search or prepare a résumé. But others with complex issues may not receive the same level of service as is currently available, he said.
The government should have experimented with a pilot project before revamping the entire system, he added.
The changes stem from a shift in responsibility for programs financed by employment insurance after Ottawa and the B.C. government signed a labour markets development agreement in 2008. When provincial officials looked closely at the programs, they saw duplication and confusion, the ministry says. The government set out to restructure the system in order to make it easier for those looking for work.
Centralizing services will cut management and administration costs significantly. But the ministry says the government did not undertake restructuring as a budget-cutting measure. The federal and provincial governments have committed to maintain the $344-million annual budget next year, with Ottawa's share being $279-million. The savings will be earmarked for additional services for the unemployed, the ministry says.
It is unclear whether reorganization of the employment programs will lead to more job seekers finding work. Around 150,000 people who connected with the employment programs had a case manager working with them in 2009, according to the ministry's most recent statistics. About one-third of those found a job. More people, possibly as many as another 150,000, used the employment centres for services without the assistance of a case manager.
For many who use the services, the goal is simply what ministry officials call community attachment. The employment offices aim to help job seekers take the first steps, connecting them with adequate housing, decent clothing and a phone number for messages.
Open Door Social Services Society, a non-profit organization, was awarded contracts worth $20-million to open offices in five areas of the province, including the Downtown Eastside and adjacent neighbourhoods. Its Downtown Eastside offices will be located a few blocks down the street from Pathways.
Tom Burnell, the group's executive director, said the new program emphasizes job placement, but community attachment is an acceptable outcome.
"If someone walks in the door and is not ready for employment for a variety of different reasons, we legitimately can support that person until they get hooked up to a resource, and that is seen as a positive outcome," he said. "This notion that people will not be able to receive services as before, I don't think it is true."
Mr. Joyce said he realized when he came to Pathways that he had to go back to school before he could find something more than just another job on the shop floor. He had several discussions with Pathways staff before figuring out the academic program that he could take for retraining in design and engineering in the fibreglass industry.
"People here . . . .take time to sit down and help you figure out what your issues are and they hook you up with those services that help you deal with those issues," he said.
He feels he is slowly working to get himself out of the Downtown Eastside with the help of staff at Pathways. "My progress could be faster but it is not," he said. "But I am going to get out of here."