New ESC chief has view of plight of jobless
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on February 26, 2012 1:50 AM
Darlene Williams knows what it is like to be unemployed. Now part of her job as the new Employment Security Commission director will be helping people find jobs.
Freshly graduated from Atlantic Christian College, Darlene Williams had no idea where life was about to take her.
It was 1983 and her degree in business management had gotten her a job at the nearby Employment Security Commission office in Wilson straight out of college, but now she found herself laid off with her entire future ahead of her and no idea in which direction she should take her next step.
But not being sure where to go next didn't mean she sat in place.
"I said, 'I don't want to be in this situation,'" Mrs. Williams, now 51, recalls.
She began networking and publicizing heavily her thirst for employment, sending out applications and letters to businesses across the state, including the employer who had just laid her off.
"I kept a positive attitude knowing I'm not going to remain unemployed," she said.
The Employment Security Commission, today known as the Department of Commerce's Divison of Economic Security, had an opening and brought her back on as a permanent employee.
Since her month of unemployment, she has been working there for 28 years, culminating with her taking over as director of the organization's Wayne County office last summer.
But that month of unemployment hasn't been pushed far from her mind, since she sees clients every day who are trying to make ends meet in one of the most unforgiving job markets in American history.
"I've been there," she said.
Mrs. Williams grew up in LaGrange and attended Wayne Community College, which was then known as Wayne Technical Institute, after graduating from North Lenoir. She transferred to Atlantic Christian, which is now known as Barton College, in Wilson and quickly became engrained within the Employment Security Commission's culture.
She worked for a decade in job placement before becoming a claims supervisor for another 10 years.
She headed west, to Raleigh, next and worked as a "rover" handling fraud claims. That work took her across the state, appearing in court, assisting with audits and helping to insure those receiving benefits illegally were sniffed out.
A move to investigator supervisor in 2008 was her last stint in Raleigh before she came back to Wayne County in August 2011, essentially coming full circle.
Now she lives with her husband, Dennis, while her daughter, Aiyanna, teaches in Wilson and her son, Dennis Jr., studies at Winston-Salem State University.
Her lifelong connection to the area surrounding Goldsboro has allowed her an additional way to relate to those struggling with joblessness.
"Coming from this area, I understand some of the struggles some of the population is dealing with," she said.
And she says it makes her even happier to help make a difference -- especially in a region that has been hurting.
Wayne County's unemployment rate has fluctuated during the most recent jobs crisis across the state and nation, but has remained buoyant, standing out against other counties in the area thanks in large part to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Still, as Mrs. Williams took over for longtime director Mike Pate, who retired this past summer, it wasn't the best time for American workers, but Mrs. Williams saw it as an opportunity to do the most good.
"I want them to be taxpaying members of the county. I want to train individuals to be highly qualified for business here and to contribute to our local economy," she said.
And the organization, which has become a division of the state's commerce department in recent months, now has the facilities to assist individuals in a variety of skills, from improving computing and interviewing abilities to connecting applicants with employers seeking workers. The building, which has been open for less than two years, hosts seven agencies and 16 employees who report to Mrs. Williams.
But even as director it is difficult to keep her away from the clients who walk through the door, she says, as she oftentimes will handle claims or other requests personally.
"I enjoy working with the public. I'll call somebody for a client, take a claim or do contacts to find whether they've listed an opening. It's difficult to have leanred through the ranks and then not use those skills," she said. "I don't pass the buck whenever I can handle it myself."
In a state that has just pulled its unemployment rate out of double digits for the first time since June, Mrs. Williams said it's difficult to weather the job hunting climate with a positive attitude, but it's essential to not lose hope.
That's the type of inspiration, on top of skills and unemployment benefits, her office hopes to share with those pining to join the workforce but unable.
"Jobs fluctuate," she says, noting that Wayne County has a great selection of people to hire. "(You) can't win a race if you never enter."
No matter the job climate, she insists that it's about attitude and making yourself available.
"Put yourself in position to be selected," she said.
Twenty-eight years ago that's what she did, and you can't argue with results.