Programs aid move from jobs to careers County tries to extend welfare-reform effort

June 21, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

A caption with an article about an electrician pre-apprenticeship program in Sunday's Anne Arundel County edition of The Sun incorrectly identified a man in the photo. Dennis Thomas is president of Independent Electrical Contractors Chesapeake and one of three instructors for the program.

The Sun regrets the error.

Mary E. Brown longs for the day she can make ends meet working one 40-hour-a-week job. For many of her 34 years, she's worked two or three jobs at a time. For the last 12, she's worked 60 hours a week as a housekeeper at a car dealership -- and still needed food stamps.

Then she decided to get a career. She has been spending four nights a week, after her job at the dealership, installing lights and electrical wiring at a small industrial building in Odenton.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

She's not moonlighting this time. She is one of seven students in a four-month program designed to prepare the working poor for apprenticeships leading to high-wage jobs.

Journeymen electricians earn about $15 an hour, according to the Independent Electrical Contractors Chesapeake, which runs the pre-apprenticeship program.

That's the kind of wage that makes for true independence for people who work but still depend on the state for food stamps, child care and other support, state welfare officials say.

So, when IEC Chesapeake set up its training center in Odenton, helping to fill the need for an estimated 150,000 new electricians nationwide by 2000, the Anne Arundel Department of Social Services agreed to recruit students.

The department pays the IEC $4,400 per student.

Brown, of Annapolis, said the training program was too good to refuse.

"All my life, it's been two or three jobs. I'm looking forward to making this a job -- just one job -- with enough money to afford my bills and live comfortable," she said on a recent class night.

She's on her way.

Brown said the car dealership recently raised her pay from $6.75 an hour to $8 to entice her to stay. After an open house at the training program, a Bethesda contractor offered her an $8.75-an-hour job as an electrician's helper. Brown said she reluctantly turned it down because she'd have a hard time getting from Annapolis to Bethesda before 6 a.m. But she's looking for a similar job closer to home so she can start working in the field before she enters a four-year apprenticeship in September.

Moving motivated clients from jobs to careers is the Social Services Department's next big push in the innovative welfare reform it began in September 1995, far ahead of other counties. Among the state's metropolitan counties, the Anne Arundel department is second only to Montgomery County in reducing its cash assistance caseload.

People who find jobs through the department's Job Search program earn an average of $6.50 an hour to start.

That may be enough to satisfy federal requirements that welfare recipients find work, but the Anne Arundel department wants to go further and attack underemployment, according to Vesta Kimble, deputy director of the Anne Arundel Department of Social Services.

It offers career training to county residents earning $7.50 an hour or less. The goal is to help them get jobs that pay at least $8.15 an hour and offer health benefits.

While most welfare recipients are women, many of the better-paying jobs, accessible with a moderate amount of training, are in fields such as construction and transportation, where women are a small minority.

"That's where the big bucks are," Kimble said. "If we're going to pump training money into someone, then we ought to be able to get something for it."

It has been surprisingly hard going. At least two of the seven students in the electrician's program say they would rather go into retail sales of electrical supplies than apprenticeships. The department is recruiting a second class to begin next month to boost the number of potential apprentices in September.

A program to train welfare recipients to run their own van transportation companies, with the department as a main client, has produced four entrepreneurs.

The department is having trouble recruiting participants for what amounts to an individually tailored career program at Anne Arundel Community College with tuition and books paid for.

Some people fear losing health care or child care benefits if they start to earn higher wages, Kimble said. But the department has called on the University of Maryland School of Social Work to help market the various career training programs.

Women especially can benefit by moving into male-dominated trades and careers, according to Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington nonprofit group.

Those benefits include:

Wages 20 percent to 30 percent higher than in jobs traditionally held by women.

Better health benefits, sick leave and paid vacation plans.

More chance at promotions and raises.

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