SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Collect unemployment benefits while you're employed. The obama administration is asking states to sign up for an experimental program that allows job seekers to try a job, voluntarily; it's called the "bridge to work" program.
The idea is to put unemployed people in jobs as unpaid trainees. It's modeled after a similar set-up in Georgia, where about a third of the time the trainee is then hired on for pay. Missouri is one of just a handful of other states already using a variation of this progam.
Most job seekers will tell you the job market is struggling. And some of them have been struggling for longer than others.
"It was the end of March," one man tells us of his lay-off.
"Six months," says another.
"Since December 18th, 2009," says a third, looking disappointedly at his resume.
James Vess falls somewhere in the middle of those we surveyed at the Missouri Career Center. That's pretty scary, considering he's been unemployed for nearly a year.
"You know, 8 and half years you've got a job and all of a sudden it's gone," Vess tells us, shaking his head.
Vess blames the economy and a bad decision. A DWI lost him his driver's license and a chance at most jobs.
"Cook at Village Inn," he reads from one of the career center's computer screens. "20, 30 hours a week, morning positions," he continues. "See this is what I don't get. As a cook you've got to have a valid driver's license."
If only Vess could prove himself.
"My problem right now is being able to get my foot in the door and prove to them what type of person I am as far as a worker."
That's where Work Ready Missouri comes in. Still in its infancy, it's a program that would put Vess to work, but as a trainee.
"I think it's awesome because that's exactly what somebody like me needs is to be able to go out there and show the employer how good I work, how good I am as an employee and be able to still keep my benefits," says Vess.
It's also perfect for someone seeking a career change.
"I'm thinking of getting into the restaurant business now," Vess explains.
And while the work is voluntary in a sense, the trainee keeps collecting unemployment with the end goal being paid employment.
It just may be the chance frustrated job searchers in the Ozarks have been hoping for.
States with programs like Missouri's are still eligible to apply for the federal one, which began accepting applications Thursday. There will be ten nationwide.
In March national unemployment topped 8%. In Missouri it was about a percentage point lower.