June 2014 was one for the record books for Towards Employment. First, our Funders Committee approved up-to $550,000 to support year four of WorkAdvance, a national workforce development pilot that Towards Employment is implementing locally in partnership with Northeast Ohio workforce organizations and employers; The Plain Dealer named it a Top Workplace; and the United Way of Greater Cleveland awarded it a $151,000 grant.

 

Then, as if those achievements weren’t noteworthy enough, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) awarded the nonprofit $2 million to support a three-year collaborative career pathways program for individuals with criminal backgrounds to reenter the workforce. A few days later, Towards Employment Executive Director Jill Rizika was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change for her work helping those with criminal records reenter society through viable employment opportunities.

 

“The common theme across all of these initiatives is the career pathway approach” said Rizika. “Through WorkAdvance we applied this approach to middle-skill jobs in manufacturing and health care; with the new DOL grant we will expand it to include construction and hospitality pathways.

 

“We are thrilled to be able to bring new resources to our community that will create opportunities for un- and underemployed NEO residents to gain the skills and supports needed to start a family-supporting career and meet local business needs,” she added.

 

Towards Employment was one of just 37 agencies across the country to receive part of the $74 million DOL Training to Work funding. The nonprofit attributes the award to the initial success of WorkAdvance, which is demonstrating how an integrated delivery of workforce services tied to in-demand jobs with advancement potential can improve outcomes for economically-disadvantaged individuals and employers in manufacturing and health care. The DOL funding will go to support a program using a similar model, but targeted to the reentry population in the manufacturing, construction and hospitality sectors.

 

“WorkAdvance gave us leverage that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Rebecca Kusner, director of the initiative locally. “By adding the two new sectors, this grant brings the WorkAdvance model to a whole new set of people who weren’t able to access it before” she said.

 

WorkAdvance was launched through a competitively awarded White House Social Innovation Fund program and is supported through the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and their philanthropic partners. The Fund is the local funding partner for the Northeast Ohio-based initiative.

 

WorkAdvance links social services, work readiness, academic remediation, and technical training with employers and industry association representatives to provide a continuum of support for economically-disadvantaged individuals. Participants in the program earn less than 200% of the federal poverty line and the majority of them are minorities. Program participants placed to date are receiving an average starting wage of $10.83/hour in Cuyahoga and $9.97/hour in the Mahoning Valley and nearly 40% of them have already advanced by position or wage, with an average wage increase of $2.28 in Cuyahoga County and $1.43 in the Mahoning Valley.

 

WorkAdvance is now influencing efforts to improve workforce systems around Northeast Ohio, including in Medina and Summit Counties. Partnerships have been a huge component of the program’s success, Kusner said.

 

WorkAdvance partners with Compass Family and Community Services to implement the program in the Mahoning Valley. Other partners include The Center for Health Affairs, Ease at Work, MAGNET, Mahoning Columbiana Training Association, Ohio Means Jobs, WIRE-Net, and multiple education and training providers across the region, including Fund member Cuyahoga Community College.

 

And partnerships will be a cornerstone of the new program as well. With support from Ohio Means Jobs-Cuyahoga County and the Cuyahoga County Office on Reentry, participants will be recruited from Oriana House and The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light program; guidance on labor market needs and trends will be provided by industry experts including Wire-NET (manufacturing), Diversified Labor Support LLC (construction) and EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute (hospitality); and credentialed training will be provided by Cuyahoga Community College, EDWINS and Career Development & Placement Strategies Inc. Other supports will be leveraged from a variety of community agencies including Recovery Resources, Cleveland Housing Network, College Now Greater Cleveland, The Literacy Cooperative, The Ohio Association of Foodbanks, United Way 211, and Volunteers of America Greater Ohio.

 

Rizika sums up the ongoing opportunity: “Our goal is to break down silos and deliver a seamless set of services through a collaborative structure that has the potential to be sustainable. We all aim to make NEO a better place for both job seekers and business.”