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Unemployed offered a leg up 

Jacob's Ladder joins Urban League to pair job seekers with gainful employment

Jane Norman is in the business of second chances.

Now facility manager for The Urban League of Central Carolinas, Norman is a transplant from Jacob's Ladder Job Center, a nonprofit job-placement service that finished merging with the Urban League last month. Jacob's Ladder helped unemployed and underemployed individuals, many of them saddled with criminal records and lacking high school diplomas, find gainful employment in Charlotte for more than 14 years. When the organization — plagued by leadership scuffles — imploded this year, it found its own second chance, settling into Urban League offices at the end of October.

The merger created a two-pronged approach to tackling unemployment that combines Jacob's Ladder's general job-readiness program and the Urban League's industry-specific job certification programs. Urban League leaders, who comprise the majority of the newly formed organization's management, hope the merger will help them meet new challenges faced by Charlotte's unemployed — a population for whom the city's growth spurt has meant growing pains, says Urban League president and CEO Patrick C. Graham.

"Those who helped build this community are not reaping the benefits and are not prepared with the skill sets required for the jobs that are available," Graham says. "People hear about the 'New South' and this sense of abundance, but the reality is that it's only true for certain skilled jobs."

Graham points to the broadening gap between a struggling public school system — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was ranked 10th out of 14 school systems in the greater Charlotte metro area by Carolina School Hub in 2012 — and the higher skills required for the area's influx of technology and health care jobs. He says problems with the K-12 system hinder students from obtaining higher education. This means prepared transplants nab better-paying positions while more Charlotte natives are unemployed or stuck in low-wage jobs, because, Graham says, "[in Charlotte] we're not grooming a workforce for our own future."

The Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League, offers short-term job certification programs to help fill this gap, aiming to "put everyone on a more level playing field," says Norman. Programs range from a two-week fiber optics/broadband certification to a three-month HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning repair) program. Participants — more than 90 percent of whom pass their certifications — are left with transferable skills, like solar-farm maintenance, that garner higher wages. "The certifications allow people to go from making nothing or minimum wage to making $16 per hour," says Sheila Funderburke, Urban League vice president of programs. Job certification programs, which qualify graduates to work for local employers like Strata Solar and Time Warner Cable, are offered at no cost.

North Carolina, which has the country's fifth-worst jobless rate, in June cut unemployment benefits as part of a plan designed to accelerate repayment of a $2.5 billion federal debt. Recipients now receive benefits for no more than five months, making it "more urgent to get employed," says Graham. Completing a higher-skills certification program, like the Urban League's, within that time frame prevents recipients from taking minimum-wage jobs out of desperation.

Indeed, the resulting shortened period of unemployment compensation sparked heightened interest in the Urban League's programs; Jacob's Ladder alone serves 1,600 individuals per year, and Graham estimates a 20-percent increase in participation over the next five years.

"Since welfare reform, the pattern has been to push people into low-wage jobs just to get them off federal or state benefits," Graham says. "But without investment in education and job-readiness, individuals will still be dependent on government benefits, like food stamps, to get by."

Job-readiness — candidates' ability to market themselves as strongly as possible and navigate the job application process — is where Jacob's Ladder came in. Norman says that despite its internal problems, Jacob's Ladder excelled at connecting clients with volunteers to boost clients' confidence and success.

"Once we merged, Urban League staff really started to get that relational aspect," Norman says. The Jacob's Ladder job-readiness program remains largely intact, with the same instructors teaching classes on weekday mornings and many of the same volunteers on staff. And for participants whose options are running out, it bridges a critical gap between the search for work and the need for better job qualifications.

Stephanie Jones enrolled in one of the first four-week job-readiness programs following the merger.

"I did other programs before, and I had to choose between training and the job search," Jones says. "The classes were all day, so it was impossible to look for work. But [Jacob's Ladder] incorporates the work search into the training." Jones has been out of work since March — she holds a bachelor's degree and has more than 12 years of experience in college administration, but couldn't find a new position in her field that didn't require a master's degree. The Jacob's Ladder program is helping her find a job in a new field — hospitality — so that she can wait to make a decision about pursuing her master's until her 4-year-old son is older.

Like many Jacob's Ladder participants, Jones came to the program via its contract with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services. The department utilizes the job-readiness course to fulfill the 35 "work search hours" per week required for unemployed individuals to receive benefits through Work First, North Carolina's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Work First aims to keep recipients off longer-term welfare by providing stopgap resources like job-readiness and child care — the program currently covers $190 in weekly pre-kindergarten tuition for Jones' son. Graham says that in stark contrast to the male-dominated job certification programs at the Urban League, the overwhelming majority of Jacob's Ladder program participants are single women who wouldn't be able to conduct a thorough job search without Work First support.

It's this critical need for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that has Urban League leaders on edge as the state's GOP volleys a bill that would require some Work First applicants to not only submit to drug testing but pay up front for their own tests. The N.C. Senate voted to override Gov. Pat McCrory's veto of the bill in September.

"We will not solve the problems we're facing with exclusionary policies like this," Graham says of the bill. "They will just make individuals dependent on other systems." A similar law went into effect in Florida in 2011; in the four months before a federal court ruled it unconstitutional, only about 3 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs — more than three times lower than the estimated illegal drug use rate of all Floridians.

Opponents fear that a mandatory drug testing law for Work First would deter more families from applying for the program, causing would-be Work First recipients to circumvent programs like Jacob's Ladder and wind up homeless or on long-term government assistance instead.

"This policy would create much larger gaps and issues than any current problems with Work First itself," Graham says.

For Jones, hope started to grow quietly after her first week at Jacob's Ladder. The 43-year-old is thinking less about the frustrations of a prolonged work search and more about the possibilities of a second chance.

"I feel like I can find a job now where I can show more of my personality and creativity, and maybe travel," she says. "I'm ready for a change."

For more information, call 704-373-2256 or visit www.urbanleaguecc.org.

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