Gov. Paul R. LePage has long said that the best cure for poverty is a job, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families workforce retraining program, known as ASPIRE, is all about providing support to obtain work experience and employment.
Several recent opinion pieces have called for welfare reform to do just that — focus on connecting needy families with the resources, including education and training, necessary to getting them a job and all of the positive personal, professional, and economic benefits that brings.
The state departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services launched the worksite development and placement part of the ASPIRE program less than two months ago. Statewide, we have created local work teams and partnerships that are dedicated to helping people get the skills, education and experience they need by placing them in a “work experience” — an unpaid volunteer position — with an employer.
Many participants have worked before, but may have worked in food service or retail jobs, and their new work experience exposes them to an office or other work environment. In other cases, the ASPIRE participant may have been out of work for several years or not have ever worked before. In all cases, the work experience helps them gain specific skills needed for work as well as confidence about their ability to contribute to an organization.
The governor has championed these efforts and encouraged the use of existing resources to help people better themselves and to gain meaningful, sustainable employment.
The Department of Labor’s strength is assessing workers’ skills and matching them with employer need. DHHS’ strength is providing the critical supports, like assistance with child care, transportation and work-appropriate clothing, to help keep someone employed once they have a job. This collaboration takes advantage of each department’s core competencies; it’s a critical element in a client-focused approach to create a pathway to employment.
Today, every TANF recipient receives a vocational assessment. Since this program’s inception, more than 350 comprehensive assessments have been completed and shared with the DHHS ASPIRE staff to assist participants toward achieving their employment goals.
The data confirm some of the barriers our clients must overcome, including generational dependence on welfare and histories of mental illness and substance abuse. But it also shows that people want to work. Nearly 80 percent of those assessed expressed a strong or urgent desire to work.
We know each case is different; our experienced staff will help create an individualized approach to success. After participants go through the vocational assessment process and resulting training to address individual needs, they begin working with dedicated career counselors who work in the Department of Labor’s CareerCenters. CareerCenter staff specialize in matching all job seekers who are looking for work with local and regional employers and with the training resources available to prepare job seekers for the career path of their desire.
The primary goal of this work experience is the development of participants in meaningful and lasting ways that prepare them to enter the workforce. Each CareerCenter now has a staff person working with local businesses and nonprofits to identify worksites and assist the business or nonprofit in providing the work experience. Neither the participant nor the worksite has to “go it alone.”
Each participant has different needs. Many just need to be shown a different way to approach the issues they face. By providing a comprehensive employment plan and prioritizing the steps to take, CareerCenter staff enable ASPIRE participants to look forward to opportunity and gain self-esteem, rather than cling to self-denial by telling themselves, “I can’t do that.” One of our major objectives is to change the culture of this program and the mindset of benefit recipients to one that emphasizes what a person can do versus what he or she cannot.
Our career counselors start the placement by talking to the participant and assessing their employability. They discuss their work history and family situation. In a couple of cases, participants have been work-ready — they have just needed the confidence to look for work. In March, we got a York County man a job with a starting wage between $12 and $15 an hour. This is success for that participant and for this program.
The reality is that state agencies and the community are working together like never before. Employers can join with us by becoming host worksites.
Together, we are building stronger, more self-sufficient families. We are providing hope for the present, as well as the future. And we are changing lives.
Jeanne Paquette is the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Mary Mayhew is the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. They have been leading an interagency collaboration to better connect people on welfare with job training and employment.