Workforce & Poverty: How Innovative Collaborations Bridge The Gap

Written by: Kristi Huber

Photography by Hillary Ehlen & courtesy of United Way of Cass-Clay

What do a 1.8 percent local unemployment rate and a workforce development case manager have to do with changing the life of a family and addressing our workforce shortage? Everything.

This article is the second installment in a series by United Way of Cass-Clay President Kristi Huber in which she writes about some of the lesser-seen components of developing and maintaining a healthy workforce: child care, training and development, mental health.

RELATED: 4 Ways Quality Child Care Positively Impacts Our Local Workforce

Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he can feed himself for the rest of his life — an old cliché, yes, but like most clichés, there’s an element of truth. Today, this adage doesn’t go far enough.

A fisherman with a simple fishing pole and boat won’t go hungry, but is that really the end goal? Doesn’t our community want a better future for people and their families? And hasn’t the need for a skilled workforce challenged us to think differently?

For this man and his family to rise out of poverty, he will need a job with a reasonable wage at a stable fishing company. This is the only way his daughter might move up the ladder and have a chance at becoming an engineer, a scientist or a CEO.

United Way Community Impact Director Thomas Hill with Workforce Development Case Manager Amy Feland. United Way worked collaboratively with M State and Lakes and Prairie Community Action Partnership to create a new position designed to both lift families out of poverty and provide trained employees for our local workforce.

When I visit with leaders across our community, the conversation is often about how the workforce shortage is impacting their business and its bottom line.

Interestingly, if you look at the numbers, there is a correlation. It’s estimated that by the year 2020, there will be 30,000 open jobs in our local community.

At the same time, one in eight in Cass and Clay counties, or approximately 27,000 people, are living in poverty, which is defined as a family of four living on less than $24,600 per year.

Through conversations with community partners, it’s clear that the barriers for many of these families are twofold:

  1. Access to skills
  2. Basic needs unique to each person

A solution has been found in the form of hiring a first-ever collaborative workforce development case manager, Amy Feland.

Feland’s innovative role is funded thanks in part to generous United Way donors and was created through strategic collaboration between United Way, M State, and Lakes & Prairies Community Action Partnership.

Eric’s Transformation

When Eric first met Feland, he had just come to Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership seeking help to keep him from becoming homeless. Instead, he noticed a poster for a new welding program.

Thanks to United Way, he had the support and opportunity to complete an M State welding course and secure a job that will help to lift his family out of poverty.

“When I first met Eric, he was working but at risk of becoming homeless,” Feland says. “He was sleeping on the floor in a small, nearly empty apartment. With a felony in his background, he shared how there was always a barrier between the jobs he wanted and his ability to even get a callback, much less an interview. He knew he had to develop better skills.”

“I believe in them until they can believe in themselves.”

With six weeks of support from Feland, Eric would spend eight hours in welding class provided by M State, work a part-time job at a local restaurant and do his homework — oftentimes until 3 a.m. before showing up the next day for class. The hard work paid off but wouldn’t have been possible without support from her.

“I believe in them until they believe in themselves,” Feland says.

“She kept encouraging me and helped me problem-solve the issues I had in my life,” says Eric, who is now proudly employed. “I didn’t believe there were good people in the world, but I guess I was proved wrong.”

In April, Eric met his 19-month-old daughter, Aria, for the first time and with Amy’s help, found an apartment that will be a better environment for him and his fiancée, Leslie, to raise their little girl.

Removing Key Barriers for Families

“While excellent training programs exist in our community, a person living at the poverty level may not be able to access them because of specific barriers that stand in the way of themselves and their family,” explains United Way Community Impact Director Thomas Hill.

“The goal of this two-generation model is to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by moving the family toward economic security while simultaneously addressing the identified need for a skilled labor force,” Hill says.

“Like many of our investments, we started with a pilot program and measured the results and outcomes. When we were able to see the data and hear the success stories such as Eric’s, we realized we needed to expand the offerings across different industries and increase the number of clients served.”

Today, thanks to United Way, the workforce development case manager will continue to provide support to clients in these M State training programs:

  1. Welding
  2. Certified production technician (CPT)
  3. Certified nursing assistant (CNA)

Feland says that graduation day is a transformational moment in participants’ lives. It makes the promise of economic mobility a reality for their families.

“When you can see an individual go from nearly being homeless to now working in a career and coming home every day to an apartment with his family under one roof, you can see the good that can come from this work,” Feland says.

Building Social Capital

Another positive outcome from this strategy is the social capital built among the people going through the training programs.

“It’s amazing to see the bonds that are formed,” Feland says. “They encourage and root for each other, and we have seen that carry over into the workplace when they get a job in their field.”

Not only are people getting jobs, they’re entering the workplace knowing the value of supporting one another when it comes to their fellow employees.

And it’s not just about giving low-income people the chance at a career and helping employers fill openings. When one participant was asked about her experience working with Feland and graduating from the CNA course, she said, “Thank you for this chance to make my dreams come true.”

“It is rewarding to know that together we are eliminating barriers to help people in our community get the jobs that will support their family,” says Amy Hochgraber, M State Director of Business & Industry.

We invite you to join United Way by investing in this bold strategy. Together, we can bridge the gaps to unlock the potential of unemployed and underemployed individuals, which will positively impact not just their own lives but our local businesses, our local workforce and ultimately all of our lives as a collective community.

United Way of Cass-Clay

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