Single moms join the workforce

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 14, 2001

A pilot program developed to get women off welfare taught Riverland staff as much as the program participants, but questions of funding mean further sessions are doubtful, some say.

Saturday, April 14, 2001

A pilot program developed to get women off welfare taught Riverland staff as much as the program participants, but questions of funding mean further sessions are doubtful, some say.

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The five enrollees in the nontraditional building maintenance program learn basic carpentry, electrical, boiler repair, welding, small engine repair, plumbing and preventative maintenance skills, to increase their employment options and help them move off assistance programs, said curriculum director Bob Bender. The program was the result of a partnership between Workforce Development Inc., and Riverland Community College. A grant covered enrollment, child-care, clothing and transportation costs for the students.

&uot;Our agency decided to find a program that would move women who were receiving public assistance off the public assistance program,&uot; said Val Kvale, retention specialist for Workforce Development, Inc. (WDI).

There was a need for more skilled maintenance people in the workforce, and the wages would be better than the service-oriented positions otherwise open to the women, she said.

All five enrollees were single mothers, and had been receiving public assistance. They had been out of school as long as 25 years, and were not used to the workforce, or the structure of classes Kvale said. They spent the first few weeks in the program at the Workforce Center brushing up on math, computer and organizational skills.

As non-traditional students, the women faced a number of challenges: paying bills while going to school; being away from their children; getting to class on time every day; and arranging childcare and transportation. But the biggest adjustment for the women was getting ready to support themselves, after depending on public assistance, Kvale said.

&uot;The huge barrier, that is almost intangible, was the fact of being in transition,&uot; she said.

During the Workforce Center sessions, the women got to know each other, and began forging friendships. The support network created in those first few weeks would be the foundation of the women’s success in class, Kvale said.

&uot;We were all intimidated by each other in the beginning,&uot; said participant Martha Beighley, of Albert Lea. &uot;But we found out that we all have the same problems, the same interests. We all help and we don’t judge each other.&uot;

&uot;It’s made a hell of a difference,&uot; said participant Amber Oakland, of Albert Lea.

&uot;We’ve all pretty much gotten close,&uot; agreed Beighley.

Some participants, like Beighley and Cindy Gonzalez, of Albert Lea, had experience with many areas of building maintenance. Others, like Oakland and Marilynn Boarland, of Hartland, had never considered learning to weld or replace a sink. By establishing a separate class, the faculty hoped to make the subject less intimidating for the women, Bender said.

Instructors modified curriculum to fit the women’s interests and needs, class times were flexible to use available lab space, said program instructor Joel Krass.

Developing the program took more effort than regular classes, but Krass said faculty and administration learned as much as the students through the experience.

&uot;I’m hoping that they do it on a continuing basis,&uot; Krass said. &uot;I think you would also find, if the other instructors were here also, they would all tell you how rewarding it was. It was a bit of an education for us too.&uot;

&uot;With the women, it wasn’t just to produce something, it changed their lives,&uot; Krass said. &uot;The school has gone twice as far.&uot;

The women’s experience in class changed the way they see themselves, and relate to their families, children and communities, Kvale said.

&uot;They’re changed completely,&uot; Krass said. &uot;I think you’ve got five people that aren’t going to go back on the public assistance program.&uot;

The participants agreed they are more self-confident and organized. They are proud of their new skills. They are excited to begin working at challenging jobs, and excited to be role-models for their children.

Oakland said her goal is to be off public assistance before she has to explain it to her daughter, who is now a year old.

&uot;I don’t want her to think that the government will take care of you,&uot; Oakland said. &uot;That it is ok to be broke.&uot;

The women said their children will only learn to be independent if they show them.

&uot;It’s like telling them not to smoke when I do, or telling them to try when I don’t try,&uot; Oakland said.

Boarland looks forward to the feeling of independence she expects when she gets off assistance.

&uot;You just feel good about yourself when you can go out to a job you actually like and bring home an honest paycheck,&uot; said Jessica Bjorge, of Lyle.

The education they receive in the maintenance program will go a long way in enabling that independence. After they complete a four week internship, the women will be qualified for jobs with wages starting at $8 to $10 an hour, rather than minimum wage, Bender said.

&uot;It gets us out of the retail workforce, which is just mindless,&uot; Bjorge said. &uot;This gives us the opportunity to think, to be creative.&uot;

&uot;It has expanded their employability already quite significantly,&uot; Parr said. &uot;That’s the first step really, that’s the big goal for these women.&uot;

But the skills they have learned won’t only help them in the workforce, Bender said. The women will be able to use their skills to diagnose and repair household problems. Their confidence in problem-solving will carry over into other aspects of their lives as well.

&uot;When you don’t feel like you have to depend on other people to do it for you, self-esteem-wise, you just feel so much cooler,&uot; Beighley said.