Jobless gain skills to be their own bosses

Photographer says Self-Employment Assistance Program helped him pursue dream

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Long before his employer shut down this summer and left him without a job, Tim Stewart could feel himself pulling away, moving in the direction of making his own way in business.

“There was change in the air,” the 66-year-old Vancouver resident said.

So when Penguin Windows, the residential window replacement company, started issuing pink slips, Stewart, who worked there as an assistant manager, had already made plans to transform his love of photography into his own company.

But it’s not exactly easy or flexible to be unemployed — conducting time-consuming job searches on a weekly basis to qualify for jobless benefits — while trying to fit the mold of an entrepreneur.

Enter the Self-Employment Assistance Program, run by the Washington Employment Security Department, and recently made available in Clark County, complete with a local office and staff. Stewart, who’s enrolled in the program, said it’s been crucial to helping him pursue his dream of self-employment.

The program, created by the state Legislature in 2007 and operated by the state Employment Security Department for about $162,000 annually, allows job seekers who are likely to run out of jobless benefits before they find a new job — and who want to run their own business — to enroll in self-employment training. Participants continue to receive unemployment benefits but don’t have to look for work.

Instead, they receive business counseling for a set period of time.

In Clark County, participants also attend business-related classes at Clark College. Monthly progress reports are part of the deal. And, if all goes as planned, participants walk away with a strong business plan in hand, ready to successfully operate their own company.

“They’ve got a little time to ramp up and create a job that they’ll be able to have for as long as they need it,” said Jan Harte, a certified business advisor with the Washington State University Small Business Development Center in Vancouver.

The Small Business Development Center, in partnership with Clark College, brought the Self-Employment Assistance Program to Clark County, launching services in mid-September at 11700 N.E. 95th St., Suite 102, in the Eastridge Business Park.

Previously, the nearest program site was in Longview.

Harte, and her colleague, Buck Heidrick, a Small Business Development Center business advisor, provide guidance to would-be entrepreneurs under the Self-Employment Assistance Program. Harte said people who are interested in joining the program should first call the state Employment Security Department to see if they’re eligible and to inquire about how to submit an application.

“It’s an opportunity that people should take advantage of if they’ve got the wherewithal to do it,” she said.

To be eligible for the program, you must qualify for regular unemployment benefits; receive a letter confirming that you’re likely to run out of those benefits before you find a new job; and enroll in a training program.

Between January 2008 and Sept. 30 of this year, 1,582 people statewide were approved to take part in the program.

To maintain your unemployment benefits while in training, you have to show progress in getting ready to run your own business. Moreover, the program doesn’t pay for books or school-related fees. Participants are on the hook for those costs.

It also takes gumption to launch your own business.

Stewart believes he’s got it.

He’s registered his business — Spektrum Enterprises LLC — with the corporations division of the Secretary of State’s office. This week he met with Heidrick to talk about his plans.

He’s got experience to draw on, including many years in sales and management in the recreational vehicle industry.

He’s got a portfolio of his pictures, including flattering shots of Vancouver government’s new City Hall downtown and of the new Vancouver Community Library.

Stewart wants to do work for Realtors, snapping snazzy photos that help sell properties. He’d also like to do work for a variety of other clients, the kind of work that helps promote Vancouver, capturing the city’s public art and landmarks in photos.

And Stewart said he realizes something: Being self-employed allows him to keep working, to apply his skills in a way that benefits the larger community.

After all, he said, there probably aren’t a lot of companies out there looking to hire a 66-year-old, even if he’s still eager to work.

These days, though, he’s thinking about his business, about connecting with clients.

“I’m out drumming up business,” he said. “I’m out knocking on doors.”