AIKEN - People who are out of work can do more than line up and sign up at what most call the "unemployment office" in Aiken.
Since July 1, the Employment Security Commission has been a bustling One-Stop Career Center with a smooth flow of support services, job and training opportunities, workshops and access to information about hundreds of jobs.
If a customer can't feed the family while looking for work, there's an on-site social worker who can help. The center also offers referrals for medical care, reading help, even eyeglasses. Some clients are eligible for intensive job services at Aiken Technical College and possibly some higher education.
Don't know how to do what it takes to get a job? The center offers workshops. And it's all free to people who are out of work and those looking for better jobs.
It's a far cry from how it used to be, said Charles Haneman, area director of the state commission, who says he's proud of the rare example of government cutting red tape instead of creating it.
"In the past, our customers might have had to find their way to three, four, even five different offices spread around the county to reach all of the services their family might need," Mr. Haneman said. "It was unlikely they would know what was available to them, or where to get that help, much less have the means to get around to all those places.
"The result was, sadly, that some of the services intended to help our needy citizens become self-sufficient, productive members of our community never reached them," he said. "This is a logical, more efficient system where most of the needs of a family can be met under one roof."
The concept also saves tax dollars by blurring boundaries between agencies, cutting duplicated services, and making partners of government and businesses. Some let the center test prospective employees.
Computers are available for resumes, letters to go with them, typing practice with an online tutorial and national job searches.
"We are the largest single source of job listings in the world," Mr. Haneman said of the electronic linkage of all 50 states' employment offices.
Chris Kneece, 24, has been using the center for the past two weeks in search of a full-time job. The Aiken man said he works part time in an antiques mall and doesn't feel pushed.
"A lot of people think it's enough to come in once a week," he said. "But these computers are updated every day. There's always the possibility that the job I want will be on there and somebody else will grab it."
He's been using the self-help system and talking with staff, and is one of the final candidates for a job working with animals in a local lab.
"It's not a matter of necessarily going for the most money," he said. "I'm looking for something I'll be happy doing. I don't want to be somewhere two weeks and realize I hate it."
Like everyone else who registers at the One-Stop Career Center, he's in a computerized system that checks daily for good matches between people and jobs.
The center is also a good place for employers to find workers, with 12,000 to choose from. "Providing quality referrals isn't too hard ... with the customer base that we have," Mr. Haneman said.
Some customers come from other areas, including Georgia, where the system still has people take a number and wait.
The one-stop center gets rave reviews, evaluation forms show, although it requires people to do much of the work on their own. Assistant Director Kay Britt says that's good. It lets people feel they're doing something to improve their situation.
Even the atmosphere is more hopeful, she said. The old setup meant walking through the door to a massive reception desk in a roomful of chairs. Now there are several help desks and lots of activity.
The one-stop concept came about through the new Workforce Investment Act, and Aiken's Richland Avenue office is among the first to put it into action.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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