Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Standout Efforts That Are Getting Americans Back to Work

November 20, 2014
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The Standout Efforts That Are Getting Americans Back to Work
Instructor John Zaccheus teaches automotive students at New Community Corporation in Newark, NJ, one of many community-based organizations training workers for technical jobs. Courtesy New Community Corporation
What will it take to find jobs for the 9 million unemployed?

After four years as an assistant branch manager at Hudson Valley Bank in Bridgeport, Conn., Dora Coriano was laid off in August 2013, when the bank left the state.

Coriano, who’s 58, soon discovered that finding a new job wasn’t as easy as it had been the last time she’d been unemployed, 15 years prior. “In 1998, you could literally grab a stack of resumes and pound the pavement,” she says. “You went from door to door … you left your resume, you got called, and you got the job.”

A year after losing her position at the bank, and submitting more than 75 job applications, Coriano still hasn’t found full-time work. Instead, she has joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

“It’s been really disheartening,” Coriano says. “That’s how I feel — like I’m stuck.”

Despite a dropping unemployment rate, which hit 5.8 percent in October, 9 million people nationwide are like Coriano — stuck without a job.

Across the country, people are working to determine the best way to help those jobseekers find employment. Economists, analysts, policy-makers and not-for-profits are all seeking the antidote to unemployment, so they’re trying out different programs that train or retrain the jobless, help them achieve certifications or land internships.

Several approaches are showing promise. From paid apprenticeships to beefed-up community college programs and public-private partnerships, here’s a look at some of the ways people are getting back to work — including Coriano.

Placing Workers in Apprenticeships

Organizations looking to bridge the gap between job training and job placement are increasingly turning to the apprenticeship model. One of the most successful of these is Apprenticeship Carolina, an initiative of the South Carolina technical college system.

While Apprenticeship Carolina’s main focus is to help businesses that want to expand, says Brad Neese, program director, “a really positive byproduct is that these companies are going to hire South Carolinians.”

Funded by the state, Neese and his crew of consultants help companies to establish apprenticeship programs by connecting them with technical colleges around the state. “We meet with them and discuss the needs of the company,” says Neese. “We personalize the process, and it’s all free.”

So far, it’s working. Apprenticeship Carolina started with 90 companies in 2007. Today, it’s working with more than 700 businesses and over the past seven years has placed almost 11,000 apprentices (in fields ranging from manufacturing to health care).

Seeking Out Trained Talent

While training programs are reaching out to potential employers, some successful programs start the other way around.

In St. Louis, the aircraft company Boeing approached the local community college to set up a 10-week program for would-be assembly mechanics. The class is free for students (paid for by Boeing), and the company hires 87 percent of those who complete it, says Becky Epps, program director.

In Newark, N.J., the Ford Motor Co. sponsored an automotive technical program at the New Community Workforce Development Center. In nine months, students are trained and certified and then placed in jobs through established relationships with Ford, Nissan and Toyota, says the program’s director, Rodney Brutton.

“The placement rate is 60 percent, which is great in this line of work,” he says.

The Ford program helped a mechanic named Tom after he was laid off. Although he had 20 years’ experience, he found he couldn’t get another job without new certifications. All he heard was, “Leave your number and we’ll give you a call.” No one called.

After completing the program, Tom ended up getting 10 certifications, updated his resume and “started hearing from the dealerships,” he says.

Now, he says, he’s making over $25 per hour, and he’s no longer one of the country’s 9 million unemployed workers.

Linking Companies and Community Colleges

Community colleges can play a key role in workforce development. Recognizing that fact, the White House in September announced $450 million in grants to the schools, aimed at improving job training programs.

One popular movement in job training programs, according to Lauren Eyster, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, is to build strong connections with hiring companies, so that trainees can be channeled right into waiting jobs that need their new skills.

Both of these trends are converging at Cape Cod Community College, in West Barnstable, Mass., which won one of the recent federal grants. The school is creating two 12-month programs to train workers to inspect and repair airplanes and airplane engines, in response to the needs of area employers.

“There’s enormous support for this,” says Michael Gross, director of communication. He says the school has letters of support from JetBlue, Delta and Cape Air, which will be looking to hire the first graduates of the program.

Supporting Struggling Students

While community colleges can set people up for new careers, some students have significant obstacles to overcome first, like lack of transportation, child care or money for books.

“The other piece of this is, once you get them into these programs, how do you get them to complete?” says Eyster. “The latest number I saw was only 40 percent of community college students graduate in six years.”

Eyster says some colleges are starting to employ “navigators” to help guide students through school. At the Accelerating Opportunity: Kansas (AO-K) program at Washburn Tech, in Topeka, Kan., students learn technical skills while earning GEDs, with assistance from a navigator provided along the way.

“These students are under-resourced in every way you can imagine,” says Gillian Gabelman, associate dean at Washburn Tech. The navigator helps connect students to social services like child care and veterans benefits.

“The transformation of the students is extraordinary,” Gabelman says. For example, a woman who dropped out of high school to have a baby has been able to go into medicine, and a reformed drug addict went through technical training and is working for a local manufacturer, she says.

Reversing the Snowball of Unemployment

Now Coriano, the unemployed bank worker, may be on a new path to employment, too.

After a year without work, her savings dwindling, Coriano enrolled in a program in Bridgeport called Platform to Employment, aimed specifically at the long-term unemployed, who often face snowballing challenges.

The longer people are out of work, the less attractive they can be to employers and the more discouraged they get. Platform to Employment tries to address both of those challenges with a two-pronged approach.

The first is a full-time five-week course of job preparation classes. “It’s not a job training program,” says Tom Long, vice president of communications and development. “It’s more about taking someone who’s ready to be back at work and helping them improve their confidence and readiness.”

During the course, Coriano and other participants learn how to present their best selves to employers, to develop their “personal brand” and to “conquer their fear about their own limitations,” Long says. They also meet with a behavioral health specialist and learn how to deal with the stress and psychological struggles that come from long-term unemployment.

The second part of the Platform to Employment approach is to place participants in jobs with local employers for a two-month “tryout,” paid for by the program. The try-before-you-buy system allows employers to take a chance on a new employee with no financial risk, since private foundation funding pays for wages.

After a successful pilot program in Bridgeport in 2011, Platform to Employment recently completed a 10-city nationwide expansion. And, with $3.5 million in funding from the Connecticut Legislature, the program is spreading across that state.

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