Vermont awarded $1.5 million to train long-term unemployed


Vermont was granted $1.5 million to fund job training for long-term unemployed, laid-off workers, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Wednesday.

The federal money will go to a joint program between the state's DOL and the private nonprofit Vermont HITEC to continue their longstanding workforce development partnership. It's part of $154.8 million awarded nationally to 32 states, Puerto Rico and the Cherokee tribal nation.

The VDOL/HITEC program will target skills development for machine operators, information technology specialists, and medical coding and pharmaceutical technicians, according to a federal grant summary.

No related experience or technical skills are required in order to apply.

HITEC president, CEO and co-founder Gerry Ghazi said 50 individuals will be placed in livable-wage jobs at the end of the two-year grant cycle - 25 placements each year. That averages out to $30,000 per position, but Ghazi said many more individuals will be served.

"When we bring in all those unemployed, we'll work with them on their resumes, interviewing skills, what areas do they want (to pursue), career coaching and mentoring," Ghazi said. Participants also are connected with additional support services from the state.

But only a small portion of program applicants are likely to go on to receive education and on-the-job training through HITEC. That's because HITEC only provides training for positions with guaranteed job placement upon graduation.

To illustrate the program's competitive nature, Ghazi said HITEC is now accepting applications for 20 medical assistants and 10 pharmacy technicians at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. In the third week of recruitment, the organization has received about 500 applications. There are four weeks left to go before the window closes.

The new federally funded initiative, dubbed Vermont Gets Back-To-Work, will follow the model HITEC has developed in conjunction with the state's Department of Labor over the years. The two partner on outreach to unemployed and underemployed workers, followed by an eight- to 10-week educational component for intensive skills and behavioral training.

That includes such topics as showing up on time, displaying a team attitude, thinking problems through, staying focused while working independently and receiving constructive criticism well.

"The behavioral component is equally as important as technical competencies," Ghazi said. Students can have an A+ on technical competencies, but they don't graduate unless they pass the behavioral components, he said.

All HITEC programs incorporate an apprenticeship, as well - typically one year of on-the-job training, or OJT. After that, all graduates are guaranteed jobs with livable wages and solid benefits packages.

Vermont Gets Back-to-Work will be different in that its outreach will be "laser-focused" on the state's long-term unemployed, as proscribed by the federal grant criteria, Ghazi said.

An estimated 1.8 percent of Vermont's workforce had been out of work 15 weeks or longer as of early 2014, according to survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The long-term unemployed served by Vermont Gets Back-to-Work are those collecting unemployment insurance for 26 weeks or more - or those nearing that threshold, with no prospects for work, Ghazi said.

Currently, HITEC is preparing 10 high school juniors and seniors to work at Husky in Milton through Husky's Summer Internship Institute funded by a grant from Vermont DOL. They'll get 17 college credits plus $10 per hour for two months of full-time work, which may lead to permanent positions at the end.

Ghazi said HITEC is in conversations with employers who may partner with the group for its next, federally funded program. In addition to covering administrative costs, the grant money will reimburse employers for some of their investment in the training program.

Participation can reflect a broad spectrum of job seekers, Ghazi said. He's worked with a baker who became a software developer and a homeless man living in his car.

"Or the other extreme, it could be an engineer. Say someone who's making $60,000 or $70,000 at IBM and needs to transition," Ghazi hypothesized. The individual may be highly skilled, but may not have the specialized industry knowledge a new employer is looking for.

The educational components and apprenticeship program, or on-the-job training, are designed to close those gaps.

"We have a very unique model we haven't found replicated anywhere else in the country," Ghazi said, speaking from San Francisco, where he was asked by USDOL to present at a roundtable on discussion on apprenticeships.

"Folks are perplexed that we're able to get employers to commit up front," he said.

He said the accelerated training program is also unique, and he emphasized that none of it could happen without the close collaboration with VDOL staff.


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