Nearly one in five families in Albemarle and Charlottesville do not make enough money to be considered self-sufficient, but city officials and Chamber of Commerce representatives spent Wednesday morning explaining their efforts to address the issue.
The city’s economic development department is working with the Chamber on the Charlottesville Works Initiative.
“We have enrolled 90 people in our program and of that, 81 percent who have completed it are employed and 67 percent of those who are employed are making $25,000 or more,” said Ridge Schuyler, vice president of the Greater Charlottesville Area Development Corporation.
In 2011, Schuyler approached the Chamber with an idea to quantify the number of families in Charlottesville that are struggling to make ends meet. That resulted in the “Orange Dot” report that found one in five Charlottesville households are not self-sufficient.
An update published earlier this month expanded that study to include Albemarle and found on average 18 percent of families in both communities are financially impaired.
“If we look at both communities together, it’s 5,661 families who do not earn enough to be self-sufficient,” Schuyler said.
The original report led to the creation of the initiative, which is headed by Schuyler.
“We decided coming out of that report that we were not only going to dip our toe in the waters of workforce development, we were going to jump off a high diving board to try to address the issues,” said city manager Maurice Jones.
The city has so far operated four separate “Growing Opportunity” programs to train people to become bus drivers, electricians, office workers and certified nursing assistants.
The program was crafted in response to an important question.
“Can we make a more intentional pathway for the people who are struggling into the jobs that we have?” Schuyler asked.
Schuyler said he has created a peer network to get information on jobs into the neighborhoods that need them. But the network also helps to get people the training they need as well as transportation and child-care.
“We need to identify those things up front and make sure people have everything they need in order to get to the jobs,” Schuyler said.
Jones said workforce readiness is another need.
“We’ve had conversations with a lot of employers around the city who feel as though they’re not getting folks who can interact with people,” Jones said.
One graduate of the six-week-long GO Office program is Donald Gathers, who is now the front desk supervisor at the Graduate Hotel on West Main Street.
“As a recent transplant into the Charlottesville area, I myself was in the statistical category of underemployment,” Gathers said. “I was indeed truly blessed to have obtained gainful employment. However, it was truly dead-end, underpaid, and unappreciated.”
Gathers said he was able to gain important workplace skills in order to secure his current job. He said he is now in a position to hire other graduates from the program.
“We don’t get to the place where we’d like to be through profiling, misogyny, welfare programs or ignoring the problems,” Gathers said. “We get there through proper planning and execution.”
The city created the GO Driver program to fill one of their own employment needs.
“[Charlottesville Area Transit] was having issues with the economy getting better and more drivers getting back into trucks rather than driving buses,” said CAT’s assistant manager Juhwan Lee.
“What we really want is someone who can handle the passengers,” he added.
The program’s curriculum included lessons in how to relate to people.
“We started off with customer service tactics and how to deal with the customers on the bus, the management and how to deal with one another,” said Latita Talbert, a graduate who is now a relief driver for CAT.
However, Talbert said the transition has been challenging because getting a $15-an-hour job means she no longer qualifies for Medicaid or food stamps.
“Yes, I have a good job, but how do I go from low-income to mid lower-income to an income that can be more than just $15 an hour?” Talbert asked.
Pam Thomas, a talent acquisition coordinator for the University of Virginia Health System, said a shortage of nurses has meant her organization is hiring more certified nursing assistants.
“I challenge most employers to create either a progression for a new hire or definitely start some kind of a ladder that they can move up through in their organization,” Thomas said. She said working with the city has helped the UVA Health System build one.
Devon White is a certified nursing assistant who got the position through the Charlottesville Work Initiative’s peer network.
“I am employed at Cavalier Barbers on the Downtown Mall,” White said. His wife knew someone else who knew that Schuyler was looking to help people get higher-paying jobs.
“His first words to me were ‘Hello, I’m Ridge. Tell me about yourself,’” White said. “I let him know I had a deep desire to be able to work to provide for my family.”
The city’s economic development director said the program will only work if its participants can see a reason to put in the hard work of training.
“The programs that we’re talking about have several components but a key component is a job,” Engel said. “Not the possibility of a job, but a high likelihood that if you complete the program, you will be situated so you can be employed.”