Helping workers to better futures

The Baltimore Sun

Two local foundations are helping to launch a $50 million, five-year national effort to improve worker training, with three Baltimore programs among the first to get funding.

The National Fund for Workforce Solutions, to be officially announced in Washington tomorrow, has raised $20 million from four foundations and the U.S. Department of Labor. The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, both based in Baltimore, are each contributing $5 million - plus, in Casey's case, the money earmarked for the local training efforts.

Other funders are being recruited, Casey says.

In Baltimore, programs to train workers for construction, biotechnology and health care fields are reaping the benefits. Casey - which has been contributing money to the programs as test cases for the fund - wants them to expand and inspire like-minded efforts elsewhere.

"It really moves the field to focus on career advancement versus dead-end jobs," said Patrice McConnell Cromwell, senior associate at the Casey foundation.

The fund - which also has money from the Ford and Hitachi foundations - encourages work force development that isn't focused only on getting someone any job, but on training unemployed and underemployed people for jobs in growing fields with advancement opportunities.

In Baltimore, the disconnect between worker skills and good jobs has contributed to a staggering number of out-of-work residents. The city's official unemployment rate is about 7 percent, but that counts only those residents officially looking for work. In total, about 45 percent of city adults did not have a job in the average month last year - at least, not a steady job counted by government surveys.

"For a city like Baltimore, it's so incredibly important that there are funds available that can be used in creative ways to keep programs going that make a meaningful difference in people's lives," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, which helps run one of the city programs that will benefit from the work force fund.

The national fund initially will give three-year grants of $150,000 a year to 10 sites, with the potential to extend the grants for two more years. Fund leaders want to expand to at least 30 sites across the country.

The three Baltimore programs will get more money because Casey is funding them directly. This year, the foundation has committed to giving a total of $375,000 to the Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, the BioSTART program for prospective biotechnology workers and the JumpStart pre-apprenticeship program for construction fields.

"It's wonderful, it's just wonderful," said Ronald Hearn, executive director of the health care alliance, which helps pay for the cost of "career coaches" at city hospitals and offers classes in basic skills to prepare workers for the more rigorous training required to advance in health care.

University of Maryland Medical Center employee Keyana Williams, 27, talked weekly with her coach - about everything from time management to life problems - as she studied for an associate's degree in respiratory therapy. At her graduation last week, she called career development specialist Latoya Patterson "my shoulder to lean on."

By moving up the ladder from patient-care technician, Williams' hourly salary will rise from $13 to $23. Now, she said, she can afford to send her 3-year-old son to private school when the time comes. And the hospital gets a seasoned employee in a field with nationwide worker shortages. The Maryland Hospital Association's annual staffing survey this year found a vacancy rate of nearly 15 percent for respiratory therapists.

"Everything's just worked out," said Williams, a Parkville resident. "Without the career coaching, I wouldn't have been as successful in the program."

The BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, which trains residents for jobs as biotech lab technicians, began offering BioSTART classes as a way to bridge the gap between the math, reading and laboratory skills residents have and what they need to do well in the group's regular program. Kathleen Weiss, executive director of the institute, said the work force fund will help her expand and improve the classes.

"The leveraging is just terrific," she said. "It's great to see ... minds that think this big."

Weinberg foundation leaders said they signed on because they see this as a rare chance to get truly apples-to-apples comparisons of work force development efforts. All programs receiving money will be tracked for effectiveness on the same measures, said Donn Weinberg, a foundation vice president and director.

"This is really to see what's working out there for us to learn from it," said Marci Hunn, a program director at Weinberg.

Part of Casey's goal is to fund projects with a strong local grounding. JumpStart, for instance, which prepares residents to become apprentices in several construction fields, has other grants and is coordinated by the Job Opportunities Task Force, Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake and the Baltimore metropolitan chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

By building on local money and expertise in this way, leaders of the national work force fund hope to place at least 50,000 people across the country onto a career path to economic stability.

Casey is focusing funding on East Baltimore because major redevelopment work is under way there. A biotech park and new housing are under construction.

The foundation and other leaders want residents - especially those displaced by the development - to benefit from the jobs created.

"We're not just about relocating residents, we're trying to create opportunities for them to return," said Cheryl Williams, senior director for community and human services at East Baltimore Development Inc., which is managing the revitalization initiative. "The residents who live here have been disenfranchised for so long."

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