Peter Ullman teaches a class on finding a job at the San Mateo County Women’s Correction Center in Redwood City, Calif. The course covers writing a résumé and job interview tips.
Dai Sugano / San Jose Mercury News
Dai Sugano / San Jose Mercury News
Job advice where it’s most needed
One man has helped hundreds of inmates find employment
By Mike Cassidy / San Jose Mercury NewsPublished: November 16. 2011 4:00AM PST
SAN JOSE, Calif. — If you’re looking for a jobs czar in these times of soaring unemployment, you could do worse than Peter Ullman, a guy who has helped hundreds of long-shot candidates find work.
His target market? One-time shoplifters, batterers, check kiters, identity-stealers, pushers, users and other undesirables. For nearly 25 years now, Ullman has gone into jails in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and helped a captive audience write résumés, fill out job applications and practice job interview skills. Most of all, he’s helped them learn something about themselves that they might have forgotten: Each of them is worth something.
“I’m not judging you,” Ullman, 85, tells his students. “If I had been in your shoes, I might have done something twice as bad.”
In fact, Ullman, who is Jewish, had his own tough start. He fled Nazi Germany with his parents in 1936. Within six years of settling in the United States, both his parents had committed suicide, apparently unable to cope with being uprooted and replanted in a strange place with a strange culture.
“I think because of what happened to me, it might make me a better teacher,” Ullman said, “particularly with the groups I deal with.” Ullman understands the cruelties that life can present and the brew of difficulties those cruelties bring forth. Indeed, his biggest qualification is that he cares. A lot.
Ullman had already worked one successful career when he went into the jails as a volunteer in 1987. He had been a manufacturing engineer at companies like Fairchild and Hewlett-Packard. He had had a number of jobs and hired more than a few people, so he figured he could teach a thing or two about finding work. Now he spends three days a week teaching job-search skills to prisoners, probationers and the homeless, with no plans to slow down. He even put his advice into book form, though he has had no luck finding a publisher. And he landed himself a job. His prison and probation work shifted from volunteer to paid about eight years ago.
“I tell everybody I hope I do it until I’m 100,” said Ullman, of Palo Alto, Calif. “I enjoy teaching very much.”
Very much. In his two decades of work, most of it in San Mateo County, Ullman figures he has helped 500, maybe more, ex-cons find jobs and a way to potentially turn their lives around.
“He pushes them and says, ‘This is going to change your life. This is going to help your family,’ ” said Stuart Forrest, San Mateo County’s chief probation officer. “He’s very good with that.”
Forrest said Ullman has an uncanny ability to get people who haven’t thought much about the good they’ve done to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. For instance, he said, Ullman once worked with a woman who had very little job experience but who was also a huge pet person. It turned out she knew plenty about pets’ health and nutritional needs. “He helped her put that into a résumé and eventually helped her get a job out of it,” Forrest said.
Most of Ullman’s job-search advice is hardly exotic: Know all about the company where you’re applying. Dress nicely. Address interviewers as Mr., Mrs., Miss, etc. Don’t misspell words or mangle grammar on your résumé or in your cover letter. Follow up an interview with a thank-you note. In jail workshops, however, he does offer a few pointers that you might not hear from a typical career counselor.
Bringing out the best
During a recent session at the San Mateo County Women’s Correctional Center, Ullman sat before 14 inmates who had wrestled with addiction. He wore a casual floral shirt and owlish glasses as he delivered some pointers in his thick German accent. Job interviews, for instance.
“Don’t use the word ‘embezzle,’ ‘steal’ or anything like that,” he told inmates, adding that it’s best for the women to explain what was going on in their lives that led them to break the law. There are some challenges, like the truck driver who’s doing time for multiple DUIs. Ullman has encouraged her to highlight her “crossover skills,” or skills from her old job that might apply to a new career. And there is the new student who is happy, sort of, to see Ullman after all these years. It seems she took his class in 1998 while on probation and landed a job with his help. Now she’s in trouble again and determined to turn things around, again.
The nuts and bolts that Ullman teaches are important, but there is clearly something bigger going on here.
“A lot of us in here, we’re not feeling very good about ourselves,” said Carla Leonardi, 50, the truck driver looking for a career change. “Peter has a way about him that he can bring our best forward. We walk out of here feeling that we can take on the whole world.”
Business surveys increasingly note that employers have job openings they can’t fill.
Many workers have a hard time accepting that. They’re trying hard to land a job, or they know others who have been applying for months.
Unfortunately, there are millions of job hunters — but most lack the precise skills or experience for openings.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half of 2,280 randomly selected hirers surveyed in eight industries said they couldn’t find the right people they need.
Engineering, high-skill medical, science, information technology and manufacturing firms were most likely to say they’re finding skill gaps between the applicant pool and their requirements.
“It follows logically that if key jobs cannot be filled in organizations, then other less-critical jobs requiring less skill cannot be created either, because the organization’s growth is stunted,” said SHRM Vice President Mark Schmit.
SHRM said the most basic skill gaps were in the ability to write or speak English well, to do basic math and to read with good comprehension.
That is sad information indeed. Workers without those high-school-level skills will have a hard time competing for any job, especially when MBAs and college graduates are vying for work.
What’s harder for many job hunters to understand is why they personally — well-educated and with a solid work history — aren’t getting hired.
The answer lies in the word “precise.” Most employers don’t have the time, money or interest to train someone who is nearly right for the job. They want someone who comes in the door as a perfect fit.
An engineer needs to be the right kind of engineer. An IT specialist needs to be the right kind of IT expert. In this job market, it’s difficult to get a foot in the door to show how one’s skills are transferrable.
It’s yet another reason why networking into smaller and midsize companies may be better for job hunters who want to display their transferrable skills or trainability.