It is immobilizing to not have a driver’s license.

“Transportation encompasses employment and wellbeing,” said Susie Green, a transportation coach at Community Action Duluth. “It affects a person’s quality of life and prevents them from getting ahead and into the next bracket.”

Ten percent of St. Louis County residents 16 and older don’t have a driver’s license, according to state data, potentially disqualifying thousands from available jobs due to application requirements or transportation issues.

As employers in the region reckon with record-low unemployment — leaving more job openings than there are people to fill them — the license is a barrier to growth for both employers and would-be employees.

Yet there’s only so much that can be done to help them.

“Just last week I had two people call and say ‘I need a car to practice with,’ and I couldn’t give them one,” Green said. “And it hurts my soul.”

Starting from scratch

These are not the relatively well-off young people in big cities who are choosing not to drive. These are people whose parents did not have a car. Who can’t afford insurance. Who can’t get a job to afford insurance because the best-paying jobs require them to have a car with insurance.

“I rarely have someone in here who doesn’t have a driver’s license by choice,” said Jason Beckman, program director at SOAR Career Solutions in Duluth. “In this area, we’re very car-centric.”

Beckman works with people facing barriers to employment, and about half the people who come into his office don’t have a license. Transportation and child care are the top two issues keeping people from the jobs they want, be it with far-off manufacturing firms, on mobile construction crews or in hospital shift work that doesn’t line up with bus schedules.

“We see people who are stuck,” he said. “Growing up in a household without a car, you figure out a way to get your life done without one. But you have muted choices. You can’t apply for the same jobs.”

In 1983 more than 90 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds had a driver’s license; in 2014 just 76 percent did, according to a national study from the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan.

A separate study by the institute showed the time and money involved in getting a license and owning a car were the main obstacles keeping young people unlicensed — as opposed to the minority of folks who say they prefer other modes of transportation.

“I think that’s where employers are still lagging behind, if they’re wondering why no one is applying,” Beckman said. “For folks without a driver’s license, that takes maybe 30 percent of jobs off the table.”

Elena Foshay is encouraged by the number of employers backing off a driver’s license requirement for jobs that don’t require driving.

“It’s something the labor shortage has caused employers to take a look at,” said the city’s director of Workforce Development. Yet Foshay said that beyond advocacy and providing bus passes, gas cards or help with car repairs, “we don’t have a lot of great solutions.”

Beckman said employers should consider swallowing the cost of providing transportation, if they are so hard-up for applicants.

“It doesn’t make them money in the short term,” he said, “but it keeps your staff full.”

Restarting

Susie Green motions to a stack of folders she has been collecting since starting in her role three years ago — hundreds of people all needing help with driver’s licenses, whether that means clearing fines or studying for the permit test for the first time.

“I’ll go with them to court. I’ll go with them to the DMV,” she said. “It’s a web of things, depending on your situation, and it is a process, bouncing from system to system.”

One of Green’s clients at Community Action Duluth had racked up $3,500 in tickets, all stemming from rolling through a stop sign and falling behind on ticket after ticket that accrued after driving with a suspended or revoked license. With her help getting the fines reduced and getting on a payment plan, he was able to get the license back and get a job making $35 an hour in construction.

Another client was able to get back on the road and back into her community, attending pow-wows on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Another woman went from client to a peer — she's now helping people with transportation issues herself.

Green gets calls from around the country from agencies that want to emulate her approach to helping people control their transportation destiny; she recently spoke about her work in Los Angeles. She knows firsthand what it means to have a license, that bridge to a better life.

“I just got my license four years ago,” she said.

Many Minnesota cities and counties offer a diversion program for drivers charged with low-level offenses that helps keep them on the road and out of the cycle of one ticket turning into a mountain of fines and a suspended or revoked license. The pilot program that began in 2009 with Duluth and four other cities was made permanent in a public safety bill that passed in the Legislature's special session in May.

"It is an excellent tool to assist medium and low-income individuals to earn their driving privileges back by paying off their financial requirements at a rate equal to their earning power," Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson wrote in a letter in support of the program earlier this year. "Participants in the Driver Diversion Program can legally drive for employment purposes, childcare purposes and grocery shopping without incurring further fines and suspensions."

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin wrote that without the program it can be "overwhelmingly challenging" to get a license reinstated.

"It is in society's best interest, if they are eligible, that drivers not only have insurance, but a valid license."

There is so much freedom wrapped up in those flimsy plastic cards, so many doors unlocked, that they're easy to take for granted, especially if your parents had a car and the money for driver's ed classes. If they didn't, the ticket to the middle class gets that much more expensive.

“We’ve seen people who in addition to improving their financial situation, they become more of a leader in their family, taking their kids to school functions,” said Community Action Duluth Executive Director Jeff Longenecker. “It’s a quality of life enhancer that so many of us don’t appreciate.”

Racheal’s journey

It was a long winter for Racheal Volkey, but when the sun finally started shining it didn’t stop.

After sharing her story about the challenges she and other formerly incarcerated people face finding employment and moving on in her life in the News Tribune this February, she found a job, she found an apartment, she got married, she's back in her kids' lives, she's nearly 1,000 days sober. She’s moving on.

"We would go through hell or high water, out in a snowstorm, to get high. So how can we not put that much effort into saving ourselves and making it better?" Volkey said.

Over coffee recently Volkey spoke about her commitment to a brighter future and the daily maintenance of recovery — something she'd like to help others with professionally someday.

“I can’t wait to be a sponsor," she beamed. "I was at the bus stop just the other day trying to recruit this woman to go to Celebrate Recovery."

Volkey's job at Goodwill can be draining, but coming home tired has been fulfilling.

"These are hardest dollars I've ever worked for — but they're the best and most honest."

She's found the hard-fought stability that having a criminal record often prevents — and she's looking to get her driver's license back to take care of another barrier on her journey toward thriving. Volkey also talked about how her faith guides her and keeps her motivated and how even a bad day at work is better than the alternative she has already lived.

“I remind myself — you prayed for this.”