‘Cheerleader’ for the Unemployed - The Missourian: Senior Lifetimes

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Voelker Spent Her Career as a ‘Cheerleader’ for the Unemployed

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Posted: Friday, January 3, 2014 2:41 pm

“We’re really there to be a cheerleader for clients,” said Diana Voelker, 64, who recently retired from the Missouri Division of Workforce Development.

The office, which is located in Washington, is responsible for helping unemployed and dislocated workers find employment.

After nearly 40 years of service to the state of Missouri, the newly retired Voelker has a hard time not speaking in present tense.

Upon retirement, Voelker was the regional manager for the Jefferson-Franklin region that included Washington and Arnold. From March until her retirement she also was responsible for the offices in Poplar Bluff, Park Hill, Cape Girardeau, Sikeston and Kennett.

She managed Washington’s location for 12 years before her November retirement.

“When something my agency did led people to be successful it was a thrill. If I worked with them personally it was a double thrill,” Voelker said. “To see people have these life-changing moments because of state intervention was the most important part of it.”

The Beginning

Though she spent most of her working life at a career center, Voelker originally thought she wanted to be a teacher. She taught for three years before realizing it wasn’t her passion.

She had taken several state tests and was hired as a case worker for the Family Services Division, but soon found that it wasn’t for her either.

Eventually, she was hired with the Division of Employment Security (as it was called before the Missouri Division of Workforce Development. It was in the same office as the claims job).

“When they said they had a position where they help people find work, I thought ‘Well that sounds like me,’ ” Voelker said.

She waited for the position on the training and employment side and landed a job there.

In 1981 Voelker attained her master’s degree in counseling from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was a career counselor at the Division of Workforce Development for many years.

She started in management 19 years ago and stayed in that position until she retired.

“I just felt I had a knack for working with adults,” she said.

Though much of her career was spent in the St. Louis area, Voelker has several ties to Washington.

Her father, Lawrence Gustafson, started working at a machine shop in Maplewood, then worked for Sporlan Valve to help with the war effort after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

He was a member of the Washington Elks and was drafted for the war from Washington.

Her parents had a weekend farm in Clover Bottom when Voelker and her three siblings were young. The couple had a two-room cabin and an outhouse.

During their stays, the family would attend St. Ann’s Church in Clover Bottom and would visit Washington for many things, including Patke’s for ice cream, when cones were a nickle. Though Patke’s is now closed, Voelker has fond memories of the shop.

Additionally, Voelker’s uncle Robert Dierkes was the mayor of Washington for one term.

Management

As a part of the Jefferson Franklin Consortium, Voelker managed Washington and Arnold locations.

She was responsible for all programs under the Division of Workforce Development and worked closely with the fiscal agent.

Voelker helped with training programs for adults, youth and dislocated workers.

Voelker also oversaw the labor exchange, or the services offered to job seekers and employers.

“When I started, my function was in the same division as those who administered unemployment programs,” Voelker explained, adding that it was through the division of employment security.

In 1999, economic development took over the training and employment portion and the agency that took claims stayed under employment security.

The agency now offers registration in the job search system, which is Internet based.

People can register for work, record their skills and abilities, as well as experience and use the system to find a good match (at www.jobs.mo.gov).

The office offers training resources, whether it’s a formal course at a community college or a workshop to help hone their job seeking skills.

“That’s always important, because some of the people coming into the system may have gotten their job 35 years ago and never had to interview with somebody,” she said.

Voelker said the office continues to partner with and work closely with East Central College, which helps retrain individuals.

Voelker said ECC was a wonderful partner and resource for individuals seeking retraining or employment.

Recession

One of the most difficult times in her career was during the Chrysler shutdown, which Voelker described as “absolutely horrible.”

“So many people’s lives, especially in Jefferson and Franklin County. . . It just destroyed lives,” she said. “The impact was awful in these two counties.”

Voelker said when those workers became re-employed she “rejoiced” for each of them.

When Chrysler closed, there was a domino effect with suppliers since any company that made anything for Chrysler was affected.

“All of those jobs just disappeared,” she said.

During the height of the recession, there would be as many as 8,000 visits to the office per month in Arnold and about 4,000 per month to the Franklin County office.

Now, people can stay connected electronically and don’t have to visit the office as much, Voelker said.

Changes

The biggest change, Voelker said, was the computerization of services.

“When I started, people would come in and fill out a tri-fold card with what they were interested in . . . basic information,” she said.

That information was filed in a square tub on wheels. People were responsible for certain categories and to pull cards when a person needed assistance.

As jobs came into the office, orders were written and copied for each of the employees.

Voelker recalls when a potato chip factory needed help unloading a truck of potatoes, they would come to the office and ask for volunteers. Those people would go unload the truck and come back to the office.

“There would be a sea of people sitting in the waiting areas,” she said. “It was just a completely different system in the ’70s.”

A person jobseeking either had to be in the office, waiting at home near the phone or the office would send post cards.

“It’s amazing we still got the job done,” she said.

If people didn’t have a phone, they would have to visit the office several times per week.

In 1976, the division started with CRTs (cathrograde tubes), a mainframe system where registrants could be entered.

It was the first step to computerization and was very basic, but it laid the foundation for the system today and Voelker was finally able to get rid of the tubs.

Even as a manager, Voelker said she would try to match the right person to the right job.

“Through my entire career, I still got the same buzz when someone told me they got the job I sent them to,” she said, “especially during and after the recession.

“It was always just a real rush,” she added.

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