Free online education program's aim is better jobs for low-income workers

May 17, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake are joining forces to offer low-income workers a chance at better jobs with a new program to provide free education online.

In what its organizers are calling one of the first programs of its kind, Better Opportunities through Online Education seeks to break down the main barriers for entry-level workers, time and transportation.

Designed primarily for women who have completed Goodwill's job-readiness course for welfare recipients and have gone on to permanent work, the program -- to be unveiled at a news conference in Annapolis this morning -- aims to take participants from jobs to careers by offering certificates in accounting, management, workplace communications and computer applications. Credits earned in the program can be applied to UMUC college degrees.

Eight Baltimore-area women will begin the program in the next week, taking UMUC classes on personal computers installed in their homes and donated by USA Today. UMUC, the University System of Maryland's adult education institution, hopes to take the program national.

For women such as Judith A. Chandler, a pregnant mother of two who will be among the first participants, the program provides a path to her dream career, teaching special-education students.

Because her husband works nights and she works during the day, Chandler, 35, an instructional aide at Edmondson Heights Elementary School near her home, often wouldn't be free to leave her house for classes. But she says she'll be able to work online.

"This way, I can get my education and get the qualifications I need while still being able to maintain a family," Chandler said.

Deborah E. Powell, conference service coordinator at Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, hopes to finish the college degree she left incomplete after attending Morgan State University for three years. Her aim is to manage a "gorgeous hotel" or run her own catering company.

When her counselor from Goodwill called in December, inviting her to apply for the program, Powell, a 31-year-old single mother, was thrilled. "I said, `Yes, I'm willing. I'll do whatever I have to do.' "

The program will provide mentoring, tuition, books and instruction for the participants for up to three years, though most certificates can be completed within two years, said Robert E. Myers, UMUC's senior vice president for policy, planning and administration. At the end, the students are allowed to keep their computers.

"We hope this will make the difference between their eventually flipping burgers or having good-paying jobs," Myers said.

In addition to the donation of the computers, the program has raised about $100,000 from the Bell Atlantic Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation and Citigroup Foundation, and from hundreds of UMUC employees who have pledged part of their incomes over the next five years.

Maryland's welfare rolls have plummeted by more than two-thirds over the past five years, but many former recipients languish in low-paying jobs, studies show. At the same time, companies facing a tight labor market are in constant need of skilled workers, said David W. Bower, a member of UMUC's board of visitors and president of Data Computer Corp. of America, an Ellicott City software developer.

"Because the program is online, the students are free from the inhibiting factors of both time and space," Bower said. "The participating students who are working can keep on working."

Better Opportunities is able to serve only a few of the people who go through Goodwill's welfare-to-work program. About 4,000 attended that program last year, and 1,200 of them got permanent jobs. A second class of 15 people is scheduled to start online classes soon.

Goodwill officials will look for candidates with basic writing and computer skills who have kept the jobs they got, said Lisa A. Rusyniak, Goodwill's vice president for marketing and development.

"This is fabulous, because we can now see people grow and advance," she said.

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