Tonya Dantzler

With 20 years of work experience and a master’s degree in business administration, Tonya Dantzler never thought she’d be unemployed for long. Yet there she was, on a stifling-hot morning in late July, sitting inside an NCWorks Career Center, talking about what she needs to make herself marketable in this 2019 job market.

Four months earlier, Dantzler had quit an employer she’d known for 18 years, having risen through the ranks there to become a supervisor and then a manager. But her decision to quit — an opportunity she took to “rebrand” herself — hadn’t worked out.

For one thing, she found herself firing off resumes to faceless computers. And when she did get to speak to a breathing person, the calls never went as planned.

“I have two degrees. I’ve been at one company for 18 years. I can’t even go to a temp service…” she recalled. “The first thing they do is look at me and say, ‘Well, what type of income are you looking for, because you’ve got a lot of experience?’”

When experience is not enough

It’s a situation seen often at NCWorks Career Centers – highly educated professionals who can’t find jobs. Mark Greer, an NCWorks career counselor assigned to work with Dantzler, said he’s seen frustrated clients break down in tears or even talk suicide.

Greer said his clients generally have played by society’s rule – they got an education, accumulated plenty of work experience, and some even got promotions and the fat pay raises that often follow. But playing by the rules no longer guarantees employment, he said. And in today’s job market, experience is easily discounted.

“Everybody has experience,” Greer said. “What differentiates you? The old way, experience probably would have gotten you over. You have a lot of experience… (employers now) can find someone who can do it cheaper.”

NCWorks Career Centers can help

Mark Greer, right, a career counselor with NCWorks, talks with Tonya Dantzler. (Photo: Qcitymetro)

As the U.S. economy has shifted, Greer says, NCWorks Career Centers have encountered a growing number of professionals, some unemployed due to layoffs, others looking to upgrade their skills to find better jobs with higher pay.

“I have a lady out there now with a master’s degree,” he said. “…I always start the conversation with, ‘What are you looking to do?’ People hear ‘job,’ but frying chicken is a job. What are you looking to do, not just from an employment standpoint. I speak in life terms, to look at things from a big-picture perspective.”

Dantzler, 45, moved to Charlotte in 2001 to work in the biomedical field. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Winston-Salem State University and an MBA. A self-described “lab rat,” she saw Charlotte as a place where jobs in her field would be plentiful and pay would be solid.

For nearly two decades, she said, employment was never an issue. Then earlier this year came her decision to quit.

“Unbeknownst to me, the world was very different in 2019 than it was in 2001 when I first started out there,” she said. “It was a culture shock. It took me a long time to really figure out what I needed to do next.”

When job offers didn’t pour in, Dantzler said, she went to an NCWorks Career Center to apply for unemployment. That’s when she heard about a free resume-writing class.

Dantzler learned that she had been constructing her resumes all wrong, as if humans would read them. In 2019, she learned, resumes are scanned by computers, which look for key words associated with particular jobs. That means writing a different resume for each job she applied for, making sure to embed key words.

While enrolled in that resume workshop, an NCWorks career counselor asked Dantzler whether she had earned a PMP certificate, validating her skills as a project management professional. She’s now enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College and expects to earn her certificate by the end of December.

Asked why someone with Dantzler’s work history would need a project management certificate — she had managed numerous projects during her 18-year career in Charlotte — Greer said employers aren’t looking for people with experience but people whose training is “current.”

‘Life-changing moments

Charlotte/NCWorks Career Center

For Dantzler, her sessions at NCWorks have been about preparing herself mentally. She described those early job-hunting weeks as “mentally crippling.”

“In my mind, I was going to have a job in a week,” she said. But then reality hit — “Not only are you not even going to get a call or offer or a sniff or anything, but you’re going to sink in this hole, and you’ve got to find a way to pull yourself out…,” she said,

Greer says he has seen this before — the laid-off worker who spoke of suicide shortly after his wife died from an aneurysm, the woman with a criminal record who found herself homeless but now is on track to make $90,000 this year as a truck driver.

For some, Greer said, unemployment can be a “life-changing moment.” In addition to the psychological shock, he said, there’s also the mental stress of paying bills, buying food and dealing with the loss of health insurance.

In all those issues, he said, the career counselors at NCWorks are there.

“That person who sits in that seat, if I am the only ray of hope they have for that day…fine,” Greer said. “But they will not leave out of here the same way they walked in here.”

Dantzler said she paid nothing to attend NCWorks workshops, and even the cost of her certification classes at CPCC were covered.

“I am definitely in a much better place than I was when this process started out,” she said. “When I first started this process, I was mentally broken. …I can honestly say I was lost and I’m able to find myself now.”

Need Employment Help? To get started on your new career journey, visit In Mecklenburg County, NCWorks Career Centers are powered by Charlotte Works.