Helping clients move off welfare Jobs First matches job seekers with potential employers

'Any job is a good job'

June 07, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

It took Mira Mundy a year to make it from her Columbia apartment to the county social services building less than 10 miles away.

A single mother of two young girls, Mundy knew she needed to find a job, get off welfare for good and make a life for herself and her children. But she was depressed, confused and scared to ask someone she didn't know for a job.

In April, Mundy's counselor at the Howard County Department of Social Services sent her to see a job training specialist at Jobs First, the county's welfare-to-work program for residents who receive temporary cash assistance, the major aid program.

Jobs First "really helped me a lot," said the 28-year-old Mundy, who was raised in and around Washington and Columbia, where she settled a couple of years ago to get her children into the public school system. "They give you a lot of help to find a job and they help you get motivated to look for one, too."

Since the advent of the federal welfare reform program in October 1996, more than 370 people receiving temporary cash assistance in Howard have found work through the Jobs First program, a partnership between Howard's social services department, Careerscope Inc., and Howard County Community College.

Although county welfare rolls have been reduced by 71 percent since January 1995 -- to 817 people in April -- Jobs First is still in demand.

The Jobs First Resource Center -- in the sprawling Columbia offices of Howard's social services department -- averages more than 200 visitors per month.

Job training specialists working for Careerscope run workshops and coach people on career planning. The college provides job-placement services for Howard residents on welfare and tries to match Jobs First candidates with employers in the private and public sectors.

The resource center is equipped to make looking for a job as easy as possible. There are computers for resume-writing, telephone banks for making calls to potential employers, a table laden with classified ads clipped from local newspapers, and fax and copying machines.

Classes and workshops are held daily on such topics as interviewing skills, showing up for work on time and dressing for success. There are job training specialists to help candidates search for work and to assess their skills.

"We wanted to set a different atmosphere here," said Debbie Douglass, assistant director of family investment for the Howard Department of Social Services. "We wanted to get a clear message out that we're about work and employment."

Participation in the Jobs First program is mandatory for anyone applying for temporary cash assistance and other welfare benefits. Clients are required to make at least 10 contacts with potential employers every week, five of them in person.

Those looking for work are expected to be in the resource center between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Vouchers for child care and transportation to and from the center are offered.

Duane Charlow, a Careerscope training specialist, said Jobs First and other welfare-to-work programs will work only if participants are willing to invest time in their job search.

'We're excessively tough'

"I haven't seen a willing participant go through this program and not have a job at the end of it and not be transformed along the way," Charlow said. "I'd say we're excessively tough. The message that's being sent out is that everybody needs to go to work and that any job is a good job.

"Despite popular opinion, most people on welfare don't want to be on welfare and want to have a job and a better life," he added. "I have yet to see a person on welfare that doesn't want a job and want to do a good job."

Though there are certain people who don't see having a job as the answer to all of their problems, Charlow said he's seen remarkable changes in "people who have realistic and achievable goals. It's really important that people on welfare who're looking for work have tiny successes."

Individual attention

Charlow believes Howard County has reduced its welfare rolls because the county can give its comparatively small public assistance population more attention and because Jobs First is "small and flexible enough to wrap itself around each individual who comes into the program."

There are three job training specialists with Jobs First, each of whom handles about 50 cases at one time, said Hilanne Myers, TTC coordinator for Jobs First.

Most participants in the program find work in retail, food services, telemarketing and other entry-level jobs.

But getting a job may be easier than keeping one. Many Jobs First participants go from one job to the next, trying to find better pay and benefits. What's important, said Douglass, is to stay in the job market.

"Given our economy, most people are successful in finding jobs" Howard County, she said. "Hopefully, they'll have the job skills and the seniority to keep them employed when the economy begins to turn the other way."

'Employers are desperate'

Constantine Bitsas, executive director for Careerscope, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization, said "there are more jobs here than there are job-seekers. Employers are desperate and will hire just about anyone."

Mira Mundy is still searching for work. She's been on and off welfare for years.

"I realized that that monthly [welfare] check just wasn't making it," she said. "I had to go out, get a job and make something of myself."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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