By Bill Heltzel
March 24, 2016
A new jobs program in the Hudson Valley is trying to solve two perplexing problems.
Many workers who lost jobs in the Great Recession remain unemployed. Yet, the booming health care industry is finding it difficult to fill jobs.
Jobs Waiting, a $9.9 million federally funded program, aims to coach and train long-term unemployed workers and match them with health care jobs.
“There are two converging trends,” said project executive Donnovan Beckford. “We have a very large pool of individuals who were pushed out of the job market because of the recession. And our region has seen significant growth in the health care industry. That creates a dynamic health care environment.”
Lisa Douglas of North Salem is a prime example of how the program works.
She worked for IBM as an operations manager, but lost her job ten years ago when the corporation closed several Westchester County facilities. She was content at first to be a stay-at-home mom and contribute to her children’s schools by serving on the PTO and getting elected to the school board.
As her children grew up, she became less content with that status quo.
“You come to a point where you wonder,” she said, “How can I get out and make a difference?”
She began looking for a job two years ago. It was terrifying. Her skills were rusty, and the nature of the job market had changed. She was accepted for a Jobs Waiting boot camp last fall, a six-week program that coaches unemployed workers on resume writing, networking, interviewing and other skills.
Douglas had never seen herself as a health care worker. But she is strong on empathy, and that’s an attribute that can work well in back office operations.
ENT and Allergy Associates in Tarrytown was looking for workers for its Patient Rapid Response Center. The company pledges to match patients to doctors and services in its 40 offices in as quickly as one day. Douglas was hired as a trainer in the call center.
“I love it,” Douglas said. “I wanted to work for someone who was genuinely concerned for who they were serving. Everyone here wants to help people.”
The U.S. Department of Labor created Ready to Work grants in 2014. More than 10 million American workers were unemployed, including 3.6 million who had been jobless for at least six months. The long-term unemployment rate was 2.3 percent, well above historical levels.
Many workers had lost jobs through no fault of their own, according to the agency, and the longer they remain out of work the harder it is to land jobs. People were exhausting their savings. They were struggling with psychological and emotional difficulties. Their skills were withering.
The Department of Labor financed the grants with fees that companies pay to the H-1B visa program through which temporary foreign workers get jobs in the United States.
The grants pay for programs that train long-term unemployed Americans for middle and high-skilled jobs in occupations and industries that use H-1B visa foreign workers.
Almost 75,000 people had been unemployed long-term in the Hudson Valley when the Westchester-Putnam Workforce Investment Board applied for a grant. The board said 1,316 people had worked in health care.
The Hudson Valley is the “epicenter of health care change” in New York, according to the grant application. But employers were having trouble filling positions for radiologic and MRI technicians, medical coders and billers, and nurse specialists. Health care companies in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties had filed 341 applications for H-1B visas for foreign workers.
“Employers urgently need a pipeline of domestic workers who can be quickly trained and placed into these positions,” the investment board said.
The Hudson Valley grant was approved for $9,868,337 in late 2014.
The program aims to recruit 500 people, including 425 who have been out of work for at least six months and 75 who have jobs but want to move into higher-skilled positions. As currently employed workers move up, vacancies are created for entry level workers to fill.
Jobs Waiting expects 325 unemployed workers — about three of every four people who go through the program — to find jobs. That works out to program costs of $19,737 per participant and $30,364 for each unemployed person who finds work.
The first steps are recruitment and screening. Jobs Waiting is looking for workers who have an interest in health care and who already have strong basic skills.
Recruits then go to a boot camp, four days a week for six weeks. Three boot camps have already been held and 14 more will be scheduled. The program will run for three years, ending in October 2018.
The boot camps provide intensive assessment of each recruit. Coaches work with recruits on career mapping, financial planning, resiliency training and social media skills.
Some of the boot camp recruits will be matched quickly with employers. Others will be given more training or support.
The program also pays employers up to $20 an hour for on-the-job training internships. It pays up to $6,000 for advanced training at local colleges for specialty jobs like medical billing and coding.
The program in effect provides employers with an extra level of vetting.
Eric Saidel, human resources director at ENT and Allergy Associates, the company that hired Lisa Douglas, said he is impressed by workers who are willing to commit to a six-week boot camp.
“These are people who really want a job and who really want to work in health care,” he said. “They have already proven themselves as mature and dedicated and committed.”
His firm has hired eight people from Jobs Waiting, including four people for its call center, a registered nurse, an insurance collector, a regulatory affairs administrator and a correspondence clerk. Five have started their jobs and three will begin by April 4.
Annual salaries range from about $35,000 to $55,000.
“What I had hoped for came true,” Saidel said. “They showed up on the first day ready to work.”
A byproduct of the grant is temporary jobs for the people running the program. A 3-member team at the Westchester-Putnam Local Workforce Investment Board will be paid $641,000 in salaries and benefits to administer the program for four years. Beckford, the board’s executive director, is being paid a salary of $11,897 a year as project executive. Ali Tarshoun, a job center manager, is being paid $40,813 a year as project administrator. A budget specialist is being paid $48,565 a year.
The Westchester County Association has a contract for about $2 million for providing a program manager, coaches, job developers and other positions. The WorkPlace, based in Bridgeport, Conn., is running the boot camps for about $600,000.
“I think it’s a good use of government money,” said Amy Allen, vice president of the WCA.
She is pleased with the program’s progress, and she expects even better results as the program is fine-tuned for the health care job market.
Eighty-six people have graduated from boot camps. Seventeen people have accepted jobs. Eighteen are receiving more training, and 40 are in the process of signing up for more training or services.
Jobs Waiting is connecting workers to healthcare jobs in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, Ulster and Sullivan counties. An online application and more information about the program can be found at Westchester-Putnam One Stop Job Center website.