OPINION: Local United Way takes holistic approach to job advancement 

By Stephen Knight

Last December, I wrote a few paragraphs about a new direction the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford is taking. Taking their cue from the national United Way and the work of so many of their sister local United Way agencies, they decided to focus on one particular area of need, and that is Workforce Development. The UWMW has been meeting with a wide range of groups, businesses, government officials and individuals to get feedback on the issue. 

They now have a working model that is the product of those many meetings. As Executive Director Maria Campos Harlow is quick to state, what they have designed is still a “work in progress” and is subject to adjustment as they roll out the program and it is tested. But given what has been created thus far, it looks like it has great potential to deliver serious help to many of the members of our communities struggling to start or improve their careers.

Many may be asking: why workforce development? Doesn’t the State of Connecticut Department of Labor handle that? Well, yes they do. The state spends a fortune on such efforts, and yet the results are spotty because the bureaucracy essentially acts only as a clearinghouse, matching employers that have posted job openings with individuals looking for work. It’s all done on a very high level. For so many that are in need of a job, the entire process is either intimidating or confusing or frustrating. Tons of studies have shown that a more holistic approach would be far more effective.

Enter the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford. Basically, what they found is that there are thousands of people in the Meriden-Wallingford area who are stuck in entry level jobs from which they are unable to advance due to many factors not dealt with in the present state system. Training may be the issue. Basic education skills such as adequate reading ability or arithmetic may need improvement. Even the elementary knowledge about how to apply for a job, complete a resume, how to present oneself for a job interview and other life skills may be lacking. 

But even more than that, there may be other situations in a person’s life that create seemingly insurmountable barriers to getting that first decent job or that render him/her unable to pursue a different, better job opportunity. There may be a transportation issue that must be overcome to actually reach the job that is available. With parents, especially single parents, child care may be too expensive. In other cases, dealing with other issues such as finding housing or food can be so time-consuming that opportunities are missed. 

Essentially, what the agency found in their research is that a more intensive, complete approach toward assisting a person is the only real way to raise the success rate in placing individuals in jobs that they not only can secure, but keep. And such employment will have an enormous impact on reducing other sources of stress, leading in turn to being better employees, a possible advancement, or, simply stated: a better life for themselves and their family. 

So the approach the UWMW has developed is two-fold. There are to be three agencies in Meriden and two in Wallingford that will employ Workforce Navigators. Then there will be multiple agencies in each community that will handle Workforce Supporting Services.

Workforce Navigator: As described in their Request for Grant Proposals issued in April, an agency that is chosen to handle this function “will designate dedicated staff time to recruit and guide candidates [i.e., clients] to select a career path, enroll in an upskill training program, complete the program, secure a job, and retain the job. The workforce navigator will also help the candidate to address barriers that prevent him/her from remaining in the selected career path by using existing community resources.” This person will act as a career coach, a life coach, a person dedicated to helping each of their charges to overcome obstacles, gain self-confidence, optimism and hope. It’s intensive and personal – and very, very effective where it has been employed.

Workforce Supporting Services: There are many agencies that will be brought in by the navigators to provide “wraparound services.” These are the ancillary services people need to overcome obstacles to getting and keeping that job. Connecting job seekers with these services is the other key element in the program. The agencies already perform these services, but the workforce development program connects the candidates to these agencies.

The United Way of Meriden and Wallingford is embarking on what promises to be a very impactful program. As Maria stated in a letter last fall: “Our society faces many ills, and at times they seem insurmountable. However, we at the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford are convinced that many of these systemic problems can be overcome by individuals and families if they can find a good job that provides the necessities for a good, stable and productive life.”

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.


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