Mapping a way to work

For welfare recipients and those with disabilities, the biggest hurdles

to landing a job have little to do with resumes and references. Instead,

said Brenda Sands, an employment specialist with the Delaware Division of

Vocational Rehabilitation, the real hurdles tend to be more emotional.

"As soon as you starting talking about a job, people start throwing

up barriers," she said. "They start arguing: "I won't be able to find child

care,' or "I don't have any way to get there.' They've talked themselves

out of it before they even get started."

She knows of a recently unemployed worker who, after losing his food-service

job at a nursing home, became so depressed about his future prospects that

Sands could barely get him to think about another job. "Deep down, he did

want to work, but he didn't have a lot of real job skills and he didn't

think he could find something close to his house," she said. "It seemed

so daunting. He was really in despair."

To help him see the possibilities, Sands logged on to Career Directions,

Delaware's new Web-based geographic information system (GIS). The system

(www.oolmi.net/Career_Directions.asp) uses spatial mapping and business

and agency data to help people find bus routes, child care facilities, schools

and training sites within a set distance of their home or workplace.

When Sands used the system to pull up a job opening at a department

store just a few miles from the worker's home — complete with address, phone

number and mapped directions — he suddenly became enthused and quickly applied

for and landed the job.

"That happens all the time now," Sands said. "When people see that there's

an opportunity 10 blocks from their house, and they can see their problems

solved right there on the map, they get real motivated to move forward.

And that's how I tend to use the system — as a motivator."

Career Directions, created by the Delaware Department of Labor and unveiled

last February, is proving more helpful than its designers expected.

"It's kind of been surprising," said Lyn Anderson, a GIS analyst for

the Department of Labor's Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information

(OOLMI), which developed and operates the application. "We didn't expect

quite so many people to be interested in the system."

In fact, Career Directions was initially created to address welfare-to-work

issues. Delaware officials believed welfare recipients wanted to find jobs

but were too often held back by lack of information about available child

care, transportation and training. "The purpose of putting together a system

was to take down all those barriers to employment," Anderson said.

But now others are getting into the act as well. Caseworkers, employment

specialists, businesses looking to recruit employees, economic development

workers looking to entice out-of-state businesses to relocate, and educators

planning school-to-work programs have recognized that the system offers

aid to anyone with a need to link information to location.

And because the application is available via the Web, anyone can use

it, a scenario that's particularly convenient for Delaware. Nearly 50 percent

of the state's residents have Internet access, as do all public libraries,

school classrooms and the Department of Labor's career centers.

"In a tight labor market, an employer can showcase itself positively

by demonstrating to prospective employees that it is on a public transportation

line with child care and...retail sites nearby," said Lisa Blunt-Bradley,

secretary of the Department of Labor.

Anderson said the idea of using GIS technology emerged after people

in her office studied its potential for disseminating labor market information.

"We had several people in the office who were familiar with GIS, and

we thought a system that was interactive would be an incredibly positive

way for people to help themselves," she said. "We wanted people to actually

get out there and manipulate the data to their own needs, rather than just

supplying them with data that wasn't interactive."

To make it all possible, the agency called in Environmental Systems Research

Institute Inc. (ESRI), a Redlands, Calif.-based firm that specializes in

GIS software and services. The company built the new system using ArcView

for the GIS database and MapObjects Internet Map Server (IMS) and RouteMap

IMS for the Web site.

ESRI also used Geographic Data Technology Inc.'s (GDT) Dynamap/2000,

a database containing more than 14 million addressed street segments as

well as postal and census boundaries, landmarks and water features.

Although spatial GIS programs have been used successfully for some time,

the biggest challenge remains pulling together the relevant data, some of

which often has to be assembled or purchased.

In Delaware's case, interns were sent out with Global Positioning System

(GPS) machines to find longitude and latitude data for some of the businesses

that hadn't been geocoded through normal channels.

Still, Anderson's office had less trouble than expected, tapping needed

data from the state's Department of Labor, Department of Education, Department

of Health and Social Services, Economic Development Office, Department

of Transportation, Family and Workplace Connection, and America's Labor

Market Information System.

People now have access to DART First State bus and train schedules and

information such as the phone number, address and number of employees of

nearly 70 percent of Delaware employers (those not listed employ fewer than

five people or work from residential offices). There is also pertinent information

on child care centers, including the minimum and maximum ages of children

accepted and the hours of operation.

The child care information has proven especially useful to prospective

employees, said Darlene Brown, office manager for the Fox Valley Shops career

center for the Department of Labor's Division of Employment and Training.

"Before, we'd have to help people find the information, or they would

go out on their own and leaf through the Yellow Pages and call up tons of

places trying to find a child care facility close to work that would keep

their child during, say, the evening hours, if they worked the third shift,"

she said. "It was all very, very time-consuming. Now you can figure it all

out with a couple of clicks of the mouse."

One of the biggest challenges in building the new system was designing

the Web screens to be as user-friendly as possible, said Jill Gorski, a

program manager for ESRI. Fortunately, they were able to achieve their goal.

End users looking for information on child care, for example, can find

it in several ways: by typing in an address and asking for the closest service

within a specified search radius, asking for a list of all services or clicking

on a state-level or street-level map.

Once they select a business, people can learn about bus routes (schedules

and fares are available via DART First State's Web site) or receive written

and visual directions by typing in the address of their work or home and

the address of the child care facility. A menu of services also includes

schools, higher education facilities, training sites, bus stops, bus routes

and businesses by industry.

More than 100 state employees have been trained to use the application

to better serve welfare recipients and others hoping to find their way

into the job market.

"The power is having the data right at your fingertips," said Anderson,

adding that next spring they plan to add a feature that will help the state

track how people are using the site.

A few states have taken notice of Career Directions and have shown some

interest in developing their own Web sites. But Anderson said the application

has been successful for Delaware in large part because of the state's small

size.

With only three counties, collecting data and geocoding areas were not nearly

as difficult as those activities might be in larger states.

"I don't know for sure, but it could be economically prohibitive for

other states because it can be very expensive," she said.

The cost includes a commercial basemap priced per county and per site.

Delaware sends its data to GDT, which matches each site with latitude and

longitude data and then charges the state per match. "Obviously, the more

matches, the more money involved," Anderson said.

OOLMI staff members have adjusted Career Directions. Now people can

search within a greater radius of miles and they can search for a site by

name. "These are things that people have asked for," Anderson said.

Gorski said the system has drawbacks, including the fact that the data

stops at the state line and a large number of potential users are still

not aware of the site. In time, Delaware hopes to work with other states

to create a regional database, upgrade to more powerful servers using ESRI's

ArcIMS and jump-start a statewide marketing campaign.

Already, though, people are lauding the system for its quantum leap

in functionality over the old way of doing business.

"People can just relate better to information when they can see it on

a map," Sands said. "They can solve their problems and they can do it so

quickly and easily. Everyone I know just loves it."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

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