Program aims to help people land better-paying jobs

Community Action Duluth announced Wednesday its plans to launch a new workforce development program designed to train people and help them land higher-paying jobs.

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Community Action Duluth announced Wednesday its plans to launch a new workforce development program designed to train people and help them land higher-paying jobs.

Over the next three years, the initiative, which will link aspiring workers with local employers, is slated to receive $600,000 in funding from Duluth LISC - short for Local Initiatives Support Corp.

Other local organizations, including the Northland Foundation, will be stepping up to provide additional matching money.

The program has been dubbed Connect Forward, and it will build on five years of work at a Financial Opportunity Center operated by Community Action Duluth and funded primarily by $885,000 already funneled through LISC, to date.

"Community Action Duluth is really excited about this new transformative LISC grant that will lead directly to higher-paying jobs and career pathways for people in poverty - primarily those stuck in minimum-wage jobs or working more than one job right now to support their families," said Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth.


Miller pledged that her organization will assist 150 people through the program in the coming year. She said Community Action provides accessible evening classes twice a week, with coaching, child care and food available on site.

Community Action will rely largely on the Duluth school district to provide adult basic-education classes designed to increase program participants' math and reading skills.

Miller said the program also will partner with Lake Superior College "to provide the industry-specific training that will help ramp up people's skills and put them on a career pathway."

Two large employers already have signed on as the program's business partners: Essentia Health and Wells Fargo & Co. Miller said she hopes to forge relationships with additional employers as the program gets off the ground.

While Community Action already has helped place hundreds of people into jobs, Miller said she believes the additional LISC support will help program participants reach a new level.

"The average wage of these jobs is slightly over $11 an hour, which is good," she said. "But it's hard to support a family on that. So we're really at: What's next on those career pathways?"

"It will help employers to hire employees who have the needed math, reading and soft skills required for higher-paying jobs in customer service, banking and health care," Miller said. "More importantly, it will help unemployed and underemployed Duluthians to build a career and increase their income and then their family assets, as well."

Marissa Jackson came to Community Action Duluth in March 2014 as a young single parent living in her parents' home. She said staff members helped her create a budget and locate affordable housing, but employment difficulties have been difficult to overcome.


"Finding a job for a single mom is hard, especially when you don't have child care support," she said. "Jobs in my field, which is working as a personal care assistant, can be challenging because they often involve working nights and weekends."

Through participating in the Connect Forward program, Jackson said she hopes to find another career with more stable and convenient hours.

"I would love to continue my journey and work with Essentia Health if I can," she said. "I think it would give me stability, so I can take care of my kiddo the way I need to."

Meghann Whiting, a workforce planning and sourcing specialist for Essentia Health, described the program as a good fit.

"This type of work is very important and very relevant to the community in that we're serving our community's needs and we're also helping to create a workforce that can staff our facilities," she said.

"As the largest private employer in the Northland, we really appreciate opportunities to work with other groups like Community Action Duluth. And the LISC grant opportunity provides us the access to be able to train people to be employees at our facilities," Whiting said.

Whiting said there are numerous entry-level jobs at Essentia for people working in a clerical capacity. For those willing to seek medical training, she said there also are entry-level jobs for nursing assistants with the opportunity to advance to the roles of licensed practical nurse or registered nurse with additional education.

Kim Priem, assistant vice president of Wells Fargo's West Duluth branch, said: "I'm very passionate about wanting to have a workforce that we can pull from that has some good skills. ... Wells Fargo is an amazing company to work for, and we really support organizations that work to strengthen the communities that we live and work in."


Priem said more than 80 percent of people at Wells Fargo begin their careers as tellers, and said that will be the likely entry point for qualified people who go through the Connect Forward program. She noted that her first job with the company was as a teller, too, and there are many opportunities for advancement.

Pam Kramer, executive director of LISC Duluth, predicts Connect Forward will produce tangible benefits.

"We see this as an opportunity to benefit the entire community - the workforce system that is looking to replace baby boomers who are leaving their careers and creating skilled employment needs and gaps in our community. It's also going to be looking at how we can build the skills of underemployed and unemployed individuals," she said.

Duluth is one of 13 cities in the nation to receive federal money for such a program. Other beneficiaries include: Boston; Chicago; Cincinnati; Detroit; Houston; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Newport, Ky.; Philadelphia; Providence, R.I.; San Diego; and St. Paul.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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