Getting a leg up on the job ladder

Programs aim to help ex-welfare recipients

August 24, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Leaving welfare behind for a job is one thing. Making a decent living is sometimes another.

On Sept. 1, Howard County Department of Social Services will start a pilot program for people on that first rung of the employment ladder who, with a training course or a boost from their boss, could climb to the second rung with a pay raise and possibly medical benefits.

Debbie Douglass, assistant director of Social Services for Family Investment, says the program is called "skills enhancement" by state bureaucrats, but its goal is to give a deserving person a hand. Although it's a state program, each participating county can craft a local version.

"The goal of this program is to get individuals better trained, with more skills, and upgrade their salary," Douglass said.

County Executive James N. Robey is to join Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 3rd District Democrat, today at Howard Community College to learn more about the employment and training programs available.

For a person whose job has room for advancement, social services will propose a deal to the boss: If the person is given a chance at a better, more responsible position and the county pays half the increased salary for 90 days of on-the-job training, the manager is asked to guarantee at least a 4 percent pay raise at the end of that period.

Similarly, the state will pay up to $400 for an employee to receive more training at the community college if that would help him or her advance on the job. That's the key to the program, Douglass said: "Is there room for this person to move up?"

Linking employers, workers

Douglass and Fran Mutts, coordinator of the county's Jobs First program, say they have $86,000 to spend on as many as 50 people, and the college is hiring a coordinator for the program.

Becky Lessey, coordinator of continuing education at HCC, said the program coordinator will recruit employers and match them with workers who need training.

Someone doing low-level filing, for example, might benefit from a 30-hour Microsoft Word training course. "So many folks don't have computer skills because they don't have a computer at home," Lessey said.

Mutts and Douglass explained that although plenty of entry-level jobs pay more than minimum wage in Howard County, where the unemployment rate is less than 2 percent, many are service jobs without benefits.

"We are shooting for a higher pay rate," Mutts said.

Although social services is working only with the college, other training partners could come along, Douglass and Mutts said.

In Howard, where higher-paying jobs are often in offices, the college offers noncredit courses involving computer training and other office-related skills.

Howard County welfare rolls have declined more than 80 percent since 1995, before welfare reform began, said Sam Marshall, social services director. Many of the remaining cash recipients are young children, the elderly or people with difficult or multiple problems that have kept them from getting jobs, he said.

"A large portion of those on assistance we now have are folks who are limited," either by drug addiction or physical or mental problems, or people who have "no work history," Marshall said. "There will always be some people who can't work."

`Tasted some success'

But many of those who have left the cash-assistance rolls don't come back, even if they lose their first job, he said. "Having tasted some success, they see how nice it is that they don't have to come in and fill out papers," he said.

The county has 79 families with an employable adult who are still getting cash assistance, he said.

While the goal of getting people off welfare and into jobs remains primary, the emphasis is moving toward helping people keep their jobs and get better ones, Marshall said.

With help from social services for Howard's two toughest employment-related problems for low-income people -- transportation and child care -- officials hope they can keep the momentum.

Douglass and Mutts said they are cheered by successes, such as the young woman so shy she cried at the prospect of interviews and working face-to-face with the public. She was hired for a customer service job at $9.50 an hour and has been promoted.

"She's just blossomed," Douglass said. "The whole feeling about welfare has changed."

Now, Mutts said, even when someone loses a job, he or she doesn't reapply for public help. "They come back to our resource room and get another one within a week or a couple of weeks. They're not looking for the easy way out," Mutts said.

"That's what you want to see. They're being self-sufficient."

Pub Date: 8/24/99

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