They file in wearing sweatpants or slacks, some speaking with Latino accents while others slip into familiar jargon, whether hipster or hip-hop.

They sit in this pale white room, where the walls are plastered with promises of jobs available and testimonials of jobs found, and they stare at the man who will tell them that other jobs, their jobs, may be only a few steps away.

The man is Robert Lopez, program coordinator here at the Mission Hiring Hall. In a lavender button-down and pin-striped slacks, he is the sharpest-dressed and most outwardly confident person in the room.

But clothes and confidence come easy when you know you can pay the bills.

The others, the ones slumping in the aluminum folding chairs, the ones with the nervous laughs and the beaten-down smiles – they represent the Mission contingent of America’s suffering 7.6 percent and California’s 9.2 percent.

They are the unemployed.

Friday, it was announced that the U.S. unemployment rate is the highest its been since 1992, and state offices closed with state employees on their first of two-day-a-month furloughs. More bad news: The Labor Department announced 598,000 new cuts in January.

Here, Mauricio Correa sits in the front row, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and a piecemeal goatee, hoping to find construction work.

Two seats down is Ray Mendoza, wearing sweats, sneakers and a pair of earrings. On the sign-in sheet, he is asked what kind of work he wants. At first, he writes “construction.” He then pauses, picks up the pen and crosses that out, replacing it with more general parameters.

“Anything,” he writes.

It was easy to find construction work last year when the Bay Area’s unemployment rate stood at 4.6 percent; but difficult with it now at 7 percent. It’s little consolation that it’s much higher in places like Merced—13 percent—or El Centro—22 percent.

Aspiring construction workers aren’t the only ones who walk through these doors. Speaking Spanish or English, wearing blue collars or white ones, out of work for a few days or a few years, all jobless San Franciscans are invited to the Hiring Hall, which was established in 1971 and works in conjunction with the South of Market Employment Center on 7th St.

Lopez, who moved here from the Bronx last year, works with clients whose skills range from construction to care giving to computer programming to law, and he has watched a steady increase in the number of people seeking help, regardless of industry or specialization. Many come after months or even years of unemployment, discouraged by their inability to land a job on their own.

At a Thursday morning orientation, Lopez preaches the principles of job-readiness, employment tips wrapped in motivational phrases. His message is simple. Confidence. Competence. Pride. Professionalism. Present yourself as humble, hard-working and in control of your own life. Do that, and you will be attractive to employers. No matter what the economy looks like.

In the past month, as the U.S. unemployment rate has reached its current 16-year high, Lopez says the center has been flooded with applicants. At the Hiring Hall, clients are taught application and interviewing skills, and they undergo job counseling and are introduced to employment opportunities.

Many speak only Spanish, and Lopez says those applicants face the most challenges in finding work. Some have no resumes. Many have no e-mail address. And as they vie for competitive jobs, many are unable to adequately market themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

Lopez has also noticed a steady up tick in the number of applicants coming from professional fields, whom he calls “job-ready.”

“They’re easier to place in theory,” he says, “but right now it’s tough because the jobs just aren’t there.”

The jobs aren’t there for Nick Young, 22, a recent Portland transplant with stints as a Naval cadet and a Subway sandwich artist who now wants a job in customer service. After four months of search, nothing.

So far, there’s nothing in this market for 19-year-old Antonio Solorzano either. The Mission native with a ponytail halfway down his back and a smile made for customer service most recently worked routing trucks for the conservation corps. Now, he wants to move into retail.

“I just need some help,” says Solorzano. “I need something. Anything.”

He’s been looking for 18 months.

Balinda Turner can top them all. Her search has lasted five years. The 31-year-old with a paralegal certificate and a Bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State has given up her hopes of finding work in the legal field.

Turner wants something administrative or clerical, she says. “But really, I’ll take anything.”

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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