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National spotlight: Bridging the basic skills gap in Chicago could teach DC a thing or two

Tawnee McCluskey, arrested five years ago for distributing meth, is now a welding supervisor

Alumni of the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, which offers job training and workforce development programs

Low-income workers often lack the basic skills needed to find a good job. To bridge the gap, experts says it's essential to invest in training. Yet despite millions of people out of work, programs are hard to find.
Tawnee McCluskey was arrested for distributing meth in Michigan City, Indiana when she was 22 years old. A struggling addict with a five-month-old son, she’d become caught up in a 40-person drug ring to feed her habit. She was charged with a felony and spent three years in prison.  

When she got out of prison, she struggled to find a job and pay the bills. “It was overwhelming, and I had a lot of anxiety [when I was first applying for jobs],” says McCluskey. “The first time you’re walking out, it’s like you’re saying [to employers], ‘Hi, I’m a felon.’"

Things began to turn around, however, when she found out about Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), a nonprofit that offers job training and workforce development programs.

McCluskey enrolled in classes at JARC, honing her welding skills, working on job readiness and developing her resume. JARC provided income support so she could afford to buy bus passes and move into an apartment. Financial coaches cleaned up her tainted credit score.
"My success shows that ... people can come back from [their mistakes] and do well in the community."
Today, the 27-year-old is a welding supervisor at Dudek and Bock, a Chicago spring manufacturer. "My success shows that there are people out there who make mistakes, but they can come back from them and do well in the community," says McCluskey.

Of course, McCluskey is far from alone. There are 20 million Americans out of work or underemployed, and many lack the basic skills needed for a career. Although economists debate how much the skills gap contributes to unemployment, there’s little doubt that it’s a factor. A recent Congressional Budget Office report says skill mismatches and erosion of skills among the long-term unemployed contribute a percentage point to unemployment.

President Obama recently signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, an amendment and reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1988. The goal is to streamline the $18 billion spent each year on workforce development; right now, only a small percentage of people who graduate from these programs end up with the skills they need to get jobs. When it comes to closing the skills gap, however, there are successful models.

JARC is effective because it helps people develop basic skill sets, graduate from training programs and find good jobs. About 97 percent of its graduates find full-time jobs with benefits, a starting wage of $13 per hour and opportunities for advancement.

“For low-income workers, a job alone tends not to be enough,” says Seung Kim, Program Officer for Family Income and Wealth Building with Local Initiatives and Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit that funds bridge programs at financial opportunity centers. “Even if they’re getting full-time employment, it’s often not enough to sustain their household. By integrating financial coaching with work support, we’re building an integrated services platform.”

Creating a career ladder

To be successful, low-income workers need a career pathway: skill building, training programs and a good job with opportunities for advancement. Those jobs are out there – right now, there are about four million unfilled jobs across the U.S. Employers often express frustration about how hard it is to find qualified workers.

LISC’s bridge programs are operated by Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs) across the country. Center staff are closely connected with local employers and understand which jobs are in demand and the skills that are required. They work with skills training course providers to learn what trainees need to do to prepare for these programs.
“The reality is many of our clients don't qualify for these programs. We have clients testing at 4th-6th grade reading and math levels."
It's neither simple nor easy. “The reality is that many of our clients don’t actually qualify for these programs,” explains Kim. "We have clients testing at 4th-6th grade reading and math levels despite having a high school diploma or GED. Beyond academic readiness, there are financial instabilities, family and social issues, and stresses related to poverty.”

Bridge programs are very intensive, but they tend to get results. Classes run for 3-4 months, and many are held in the evenings so that participants can work during the day. Students may be required to attend class for four hours a night, five days a week, learning basic Math and English and, for immigrant groups, English as a Second Language (ESL).

Yet success rates are northward of 85 percent, says Kim. The cohorts are relatively small – an FOC bridge program may only serve 50 people a year. That’s because the programs require a lot of staffing, with one student being aided by up to 15 services. Coaches help with everything from financial planning to interview prep to resume writing.

Although there are no official numbers, evidence from JARC and other centers suggests that the prevalence of bridge programs may be growing, in part due to the success of these existing models in helping low-income workers find family-supporting jobs.

Building basic skills first

Bridge programs tend to focus on the things that many employees take for granted:What should I do if my child care falls through? What if I need to take a day off? What if my car breaks down? If I have a problem at work, who should I ask for help?

Beyond work readiness, these programs also advance basic math and reading skills. This is essential, because even though there are openings in advanced manufacturing, many low-skill workers don’t qualify because they don’t know how to read blueprints and use basic measuring tools. Bridge programs train people in these areas so they can apply.

According to Regan Brewer, Associate Director of Programs for JARC, one reason that bridge programs are so successful is because the learning is contextualized. “You’re actually teaching some of the basic manufacturing skills alongside math and reading,” she says. “When it comes to measuring, you’re sitting down and using micrometer gauges, instead of having them do problems adding and subtracting decimals.”

“You know all this math you thought you were never going to use? Actually, in manufacturing, there is a use for trigonometry, fractions and decimals,” she adds.
"You know all this math you thought that you were never going to use? Actually, in manufacturing, there is a use for it."
The long-term goal of bridge programs is to help workers find family-supporting jobs. Ricardo Estrada, Vice President for Education and Programs with Instituto Del Progreso Latino in Chicago, says his organization does not stop with basic skill building. Instead, it strives to help workers finish college and even graduate school and land a good job. For instance, workers who become registered nurses can earn from $33-36 per hour.

Such programs are really only successful if they hold trainees accountable. If workers come into a JARC program late, they receive a verbal warning. If it happens again, they get a written warning, and consequences escalate from there. “It’s like showing up to a job,” says Brewer, noting that there’s a "whole village" making sure participants stay on track.

Can success be replicated? 

Although intensive bridge programs only enroll a small number of people each year, they’re an important component of our country's workforce development strategy, says Fred Dedrick, President of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, a nonprofit organization.

“We find that a lot of folks we work with don’t have preparation to succeed at advanced training," he says. "Bridge programs like these help to make sure that people who get into training programs are more likely to be successful.”

Unfortunately, with limited training dollars available, bridge programs are hard to develop and sustain. “It’s very hard to get funding for a program that puts people on a longer journey,” Dedrick explains. “There’s almost no funding for these programs in the Workforce Investment Act. There’s only training for putting people into jobs.”
“There’s almost no funding for these programs in the Workforce Investment Act. There’s only training for putting people into jobs.”
In fact, most bridge programs are funded by foundations or other philanthropic efforts, not government funding. For example, LISC’s work in this area has been funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Eleanor Network at the Chicago Foundation for Women, Accenture and Walmart. There are still relatively few bridge programs around the country – in Chicago, for example, there are only a handful of programs like JARC.

Bridge programs are expensive, Dedrick says. However impressive the success stories, politicians would prefer to spend tax dollars getting faster results by training skilled workers. “There’s not enough money for these programs, and money for workforce development has continued to decline,” he says, citing the lack of champions in Congress as one reason.

Kevin Jordan, Senior Vice President for Programs at LISC, says that bridge programs do offer a replicable model, however. They offer hope that forgotten workers who are being left behind can climb out of poverty, no matter how low their skill levels or how dire their circumstances.

“What we realized is that we needed to help people get into better jobs by getting better skills, that you can become a good money manager, but $9 an hour only goes so far,” says Jordan. “Programs like this are hard to implement in terms of cost, but they definitely have the biggest impact on wages. That’s a gap that has been missing for a long time.”

This story is part of a series on community transformation underwritten by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national organization dedicated to helping community residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy and sustainable communities of choice and opportunity.

Want to read more about what D.C. is doing to bridge the skills gap? Read about D.C.'s Harvard of the Hood, about a program that trains teens and young adults in landscaping and ecology, and about the new tech and training center in Congress Heights that is bringing 'a new day' to the neighborhood.

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a Cleveland-based writer and editor who serves as Editorial Director for Issue Media Group and Development Editor for Fresh Water Cleveland. Follow him @leechilcote
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