February 1, 1998

Training getting former welfare recipients into the work force

BOULDER — Although Hope Kay, 29, had worked several years doing medical insurance filing and had extensive computer experience, she didn’t know how to use the computer spreadsheet program Excel.

And nine out of 10 jobs the former welfare recipient applied for required Excel proficiency. So Kay enrolled in a Excel training class at Workforce Boulder County (a government-funded agency) offered as part of the federal government’s “welfare-to-work” push.

After learning the computer spreadsheet program, Kay now works 30 hours per week as a bookkeeper for a homeowner’s association at an area condominium complex. The young mother also is working on her bachelor’s degree in psychology, a goal she expects to complete in two years.

Best of all, Kay (a pseudonym), now takes home about $1,000 per month, compared to the $500 she used to receive under the federal Aid For Dependent Families program. (The aid recently was renamed the Temporary Aid for Needy Families as part of a federal revamping of its welfare program.)

It wasn’t easy for Kay to make the switch from welfare to work, however. Once she started working, she was told she owed money to the government. Her parents pay the $144 monthly price for her 3-year-old son’s child care.

“It is so hard to convert over. I felt when I first started working, I was trying to get on my feet and make a better life for myself, and the system made it very difficult for me to get off,” Kay said. “Now I have rent, utilities, phone — it was really difficult. I felt there could have been something more transitional.”

Jada Petersen, 22, also had problems getting off welfare, mainly because jobs she found paid less than the cost of $10 to $15-an-hour child care for her 2-year-old daughter.

“Stable housing and child care were probably the biggest barrier I had. Even among my working friends who had been on welfare, child care is still the biggest problem for working mothers,” Petersen said. “My intern wasn’t here this afternoon because her child was sick.”

Both women say the county’s “help” agencies, especially Workforce Boulder County, did a fantastic job of getting them back on their feet, job-wise.

In Boulder County’s tight labor market, employers are looking for more workers like Kay and Petersen. And former welfare recipients are getting snapped up quickly, according to statistics gathered by Toya Speckman, executive director of Workforce Boulder County.

From July to October, 72 welfare recipients found jobs, Speckman said. Another 20 to 25 people have been placed in business internships in the same time period. Boulder County welfare rolls stood at 667 people in November. Workforce Boulder County now has about 400 to 450 people on its books.

Ball Aerospace and Technology hired one former welfare recipient after he completed a manufacturing training class, Speckman said. Other manufacturers, including Storage Technology Corp. (See related story, Page 11) have said they’re interested in getting former welfare recipients.

On the other side of the coin are companies like Advanced Component Systems in Lafayette, which always is looking for new workers, especially blue-collar workers like truck drivers and assemblers, said Steve Anderson, president.

The direct lumber yard, which employs about 270 people in summer months, plans to hire 20 people in the next month to 45 days, Anderson said. New hires make about $12 per hour plus benefits after a two-month probation period.

But one of his biggest problems in looking for new employees is finding ones who don’t use drugs, Anderson said. Drug testing eliminates about half of all potential new hires, Anderson said.

“It’s hard work, and in this day and age, people are looking to sit behind a desk with a computer there. They want a white-collar job,” Anderson said. “We’re looking for people wanting to work hard and willing to learn. We spend thousands of dollars a year in want ads.”

Some former welfare recipients are working on drug problems, Speckman said. But most just need some new skills to make them marketable to area employers.

“We have some people where their work activity may be to work on substance abuse problems, too, and child support legal custody problems,” Speckman said. “We have some people where they’re not ready to be on a training program, in our job search programs, in workshops or in school, so we have the whole range.”

A $180,000 learning lab at Workforce Boulder County teaches clients how to use software programs like WordPerfect, Excel and Lotus. Welfare recipients also take classes at Front Range Community College. At Blackfox Technology Institute in Longmont, two new instructors have been hired to keep up with demand for a 60-hour electronics assembly training program, said Neal Bucknell, vice president of Blackfox Training Institute.

In Petersen’s case, she said bad circumstances and no child care led to he r status as a welfare recipient. After leaving college, Petersen said she worked as much as she could while she was pregnant. At that time, she and the baby’s father paid about 80 percent of their income for rent on a Boulder apartment ($500 per month in rent on $700 per month in income.)

When Petersen was six months pregnant, she quit working. Before taking the office job at Workforce Boulder County, she last worked as a late-night newspaper delivery person. She quit the job in October 1996, since she had no one available to take care of the baby after splitting up with the child’s father.

“I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t have good child care set up; I didn’t know what marketable skills I had,” Petersen said. “I was trying to get into school. Applying for this job was more an afterthought.”

BOULDER — Although Hope Kay, 29, had worked several years doing medical insurance filing and had extensive computer experience, she didn’t know how to use the computer spreadsheet program Excel.

And nine out of 10 jobs the former welfare recipient applied for required Excel proficiency. So Kay enrolled in a Excel training class at Workforce Boulder County (a government-funded agency) offered as part of the federal government’s “welfare-to-work” push.

After learning the computer spreadsheet program, Kay now works 30 hours per week as a bookkeeper for a homeowner’s association at an area…

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