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Photo by Michael Lawson

Latauna Bigelow, a graduate of WOW's Building Futures program, is saving to buy a home and hopes to open her own business in the next five years.

Job training programs open the door. Budget cuts may close it.

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 

 

Latauna Bigelow never had any idea what she wanted to be when she grew up.  

“Nothing,” she replied to the common question. “I never wanted to be anything. I was just living in the moment.”

The American Dream was an afterthought.

“I heard of it,” said Bigelow, “but it didn’t mean anything to me.”

Despite a murky view of her future, Bigelow now makes middle-class wages as a sheet-metal apprentice, earning more than $25 an hour. She is on a career path to become a licensed sheet-metal worker and is saving to purchase a home. And that despite spending a quarter of her life in prison. Bigelow had a helping hand breaking into the sheet metal trade. Now that helping hand is in danger of being broken in a game of political football.

Nearly $1 billion were cut from federal job training programs in the resolution to fund the government passed in April. The 2012 House Appropriations bill, introduced last week, proposes even deeper cuts to funding for job training programs. 

“The threats to federal job training dollars, the very minimal adult training dollars in DC in particular, really put programs like ours and others in the community in jeopardy, “ said Joan Kuriansky, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW).

WOW has trained more than 10,000 women for well-paid jobs in the Washington, D.C., area since 1964, according to the organization. Through its job training program and policy advocacy, the nonprofit works for economic independence for families and women. 

Research conducted by the group found that nationwide 49 percent of women work in industries that pay the least: services, sales and low-level administration. Bigelow was trained through WOW’s Building Futures program, which provides job training and counseling for women in professions that pay relatively high wages, like construction and manufacturing — many of which are male-dominated. From 2009 to 2011, Building Futures trained 280 women in new job skills, with 76 percent gaining employment, according to WOW.  To keep the program going for the next three years, the organization is relying on funds from the Department of Labor's Green Jobs Innovation Fund — funding that House Republicans want to block in 2012. 

The extra wages earned by women who break into higher-paying industries is critically needed, according to WOW’s research. The group compiles Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST) to illustrate what is required for workers to meet needs such as shelter, transportation and child care.

“What we found is that even for a single worker without any family, in order for him or her to just make ends meet to be secure as we have defined it, requires an hourly wage of about $14 an hour,“ Kuriansky said. “There are many, many jobs, particularly those where women dominate where they are going to get closer to minimum wage … half of what a single worker needs.”

When she was 25, Bigelow was convicted of selling drugs. She spent 11 years in a Virginia prison, where she said she felt like she never fit in. Being behind bars made Bigelow want for something better after her release.

“It made me stop and think,” Bigelow said. “It made me grow up and know I had to make major adjustments just with my attitude alone.”

While in prison, Bigelow became interested in the heating and air-conditioning field through a vocational training program. After being released in January 2008, Bigelow spent four months unsuccessfully applying to positions in retail and heating and cooling. A friend referred her to Washington Area Women in Trades, a program coordinated with WOW to introduce unemployed and underemployed women to careers in construction. The group provided a 12-week training program in which participants are taught essential math skills and receive instruction from people in various trades and advice on interviewing and job readiness. 

An Urban Institute study (pdf) on employment post-incarceration found that nearly half still relied on family and friends for income, as Bigelow did for four months. More than two-thirds said their criminal record hindered access to employment. 

Now all that has changed for Bigelow. 

“Is there a word to describe that feeling? It’s excellent,” said Bigelow of going to work each day. 

Bigelow, now 39, is set to graduate from her apprenticeship program in October, at which time her wages will nearly double to $40 per hour. In the next five years, she hopes to start her own heating-and-cooling business.

“I’m comfortable now,” she said. “Being able to provide for myself is comfortable.”

That comfort is out of reach for many women workers. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 15 percent of women lived in poverty last year — the highest rate in 17 years. Women of color and single mothers were disproportionately affected. A quarter of black and Hispanic women live in poverty and 40 percent of women who head families lived in poverty.

Saundra Berry is a single mother of two who exemplifies those statistics. Berry was a victim of domestic violence and experienced homelessness while trying to juggle working with a newborn. She saw the military as a way to security.  Berry entered the Army in 2003. Despite never seeing combat action, she suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being attacked during deployment training. She came home to dismal employment prospects.

“Unless they look at you and tell you’re disabled, it’s kind of hard to get that medical discharge,“ Berry said. “I was depressed not knowing how I was going to provide for myself let alone my kids.”

Despite being honorably discharged after seven years of service, Berry found herself living at a homeless shelter and working part time at a nearby McDonald’s. 

“Here I am in the military, and I’m working at McDonald's and I’m homeless,” she said.

After being without a job for a year and a half, Berry is getting help from Calvary Women’s Services, which runs a program called STRIDE (Search Together to Resume Dignified Employment). Through STRIDE, Calvary provides job placement to formerly homeless women.  After completing a 16-week, culinary career training at D.C. Central Kitchen, Berry interviewed and was hired for a chef’s position at Calvary’s women’s shelter in downtown Washington.

“We pay above minimum wage, so that there really is enough income that you feel like the service that you are giving and the work that you’re doing is valued,” said Calvary’s Executive Director Kris Thompson. 

Calvary Services runs three housing programs, open to any woman who needs a place. Case managers work with women to develop life goals, with a focus on mental health. Workers in the STRIDE program receive paid leave and are on a set schedule. Employment is guaranteed for 12 to 18 months. Thompson hopes the working experience will give women a psychological and economic boost as they look for permanent jobs.

“I think there’s a lot of jobs where you take a job because you have to take a job, and it’s not good conditions, and it’s not a good work environment,” Thompson said. “You then know that this is possible in other places. I actually need to look for a job where I feel good about where I’m working and how I’m treated on the job and make demands for that.”

Finding any job is a tall order in today’s economy, let alone a job that feels good and treats employees well. But focused job training can help, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), particularly for low-income workers. After training, job-seekers were more likely to continue working and find employment in jobs that create economic security, according to CLASP research (pdf). In 12 states, the salaries of women trainees in particular were significantly boosted. 

Opponents of federal funding for job training programs question the effectiveness of job training programs, suggesting that without clear evidence of success, the programs should be on the chopping block. Neil Ridley, a policy analyst at CLASP, admits national data on training effectiveness has been elusive. But, he cautions, that’s not because the programs are failures, but because of variations between the states and a changing landscape. The draft appropriations bill in the House would not explicitly make cuts to the Workforce Investment budget, but a technical change to the payment schedule could leave training programs without key funding at a critical moment.

“It’s difficult to know for sure what these changes are likely to bring,” Ridley said. “If the intent is to change the funding schedule and to make a cut, which would probably hit in the second half of 2012 and into 2013, it would have a great impact on the unemployed.”

 

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