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Economy: Workers look new skills straight in the eye

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mandy Terry is nervous, even though she is just practicing for a job interview.

“I’m great at computers,” she tells interviewer Tony Jordan, a Georgetown insurance agency owner who volunteers with the Helping Hands jobs program called Time To Change. “And I’m not dumb at math.”

Terry concludes the interview with eye-contact and a firm handshake, just the way she had been taught during Helping Hands Jobs Week, the first step in training sessions for people who are unemployed or under-employed and want to do better.

During the feedback session, Terry is advised by her fellow students not to disparage herself and to be positive. John Bush, executive director of Helping Hands in Georgetown, tells Terry she’s a good candidate for the right job.

Belinda Cooper tells Jordan that she’s been home tending grandkids and hasn’t been in the job market. “Be yourself. Be honest,” he advises later. “The more you practice, the better you will feel.” Garrett Bourne says he likes helping people with their problems. He rates himself a 6 out of 10 as a candidate for work. “I’m not perfect,” he tells Jordan. Brian Woodward says he’s had seven jobs in seven years during his mock interview for a job at Dick’s Sporting Goods. It’s not as bad as it seems. Several were temporary. He reveals that his goal is to become a certified welder and start his own business. The group agrees that he’s giving too much information for a first interview. Nearly a dozen people completed Jobs Week at S.C. Works on Highmarket Street in Georgetown Friday. The program is patterned after one called Step Up in Raleigh, N.C., where Bush worked previously. Starting a jobs program has been a goal at Helping Hands since Bush arrived two years ago, board president Dick Schwab said. “I learned how to sit properly, dress properly and talk without being nervous,” Bourne said. He said the best advice was to be up-front and honest with employers. He said he feels ready when the opportunity for a job comes.

The nonprofit has hired Amy Brandon as employment coordinator and Deena Cooper as mentor for the students case management and peer support during a 12-month follow-up. Local churches provide lunches for members of the class during their first week. Used clothing is available for people needing business attire for their interviews. Students get coaching on everything from improved posture and body language to goal setting, conflict management and being punctual. The classroom door closes promptly at 8 a.m.

Brandon calls the Helping Hands program faith-based. “I am a child of God,” she tells the class members. “Attitude unlocks doors. When life knocks you down, we are going to overcome.”

Schwab said he has seen students’ confidence and enthusiasm grow. They have trouble believing it’s OK to be themselves. “Employers aren’t looking for rocket scientists,” Schwab said. “Just convey your enthusiasm.” Bush said it takes most of the week for students to rebuild their confidence. “A lot of times,” he said, “people in this position have been beaten down in terms of not having opportunities, not feeling confident enough to ask for the opportunity.”

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Soft skills help break the grip of poverty

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Having trouble finding a job? Your soft skills may need some work.

Eileen Patonay, regional workforce adviser for the South Carolina Department of Commerce in Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties spends her time reminding people that being nice matters. She led a seminar for county public works employees recently and reminded them how to present themselves as hard-working, nice, good people. “The need everywhere is soft skills: being polite, body language, showing up for work on time, being respectful, positive,” Patonay said. “Regardless of the career path, they need those skills. Employers say show me someone with a positive attitude and a willingness to work and I can train them.”

The emphasis on jobs as a means of escaping generational poverty has been formulating in the community for a few years. The Bunnelle Foundation and Black River United Way have changed their approaches from treating the symptoms of poverty to treating the causes.

There is no easy fix, according to Charlie Ball, executive director of Friendship Place in Georgetown. From 2010 to 2011, he said, children living in poverty increased from 26 percent to 36 percent in Georgetown. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found long-term unemployment is increasing across all groups of education, age, occupation, industry, gender, race and ethnicity.

“We are trying to find willing and capable residents of Georgetown County who want to break out of generational poverty,” Ball said. “The only way to do that is find work that advances you.” Friendship Place directors took a hard look at its program to train health-care workers and decided it wasn’t progressive enough. “We were not making a dent in generational poverty,” Ball said. “It’s only getting worse on our watch. How do we see some improvement?” Friendship Place is finishing its first year of Georgetown Works, a jobs program patterned after the successful Cincinnati Works. “According to the model,” Ball said, “it takes about six years starting at entry level. You’ve got to commit to a long time, find the right company that helps you move forward. Those are the challenges we are finding. People don’t have a great work history, interview skills. We help them break through those barriers. We make a commitment with them to move up and out of poverty.”

Katrina Cohens is a recruiter and employment coach for Georgetown Works. “We intentionally stayed small this year,” Ball said. The program has advanced from recruiting, to orientation to placement. The next class will begin Aug. 24. “People think it’s boring, sitting behind a desk,” Ball said. “It’s far from that. They see the value of it. People vote with their feet in those things.”

Georgetown Works requires a drug test and a background check “to make sure we find willing and capable people who want to make changes in their lives,” Ball said.

Sheriff Lane Cribb came to the conclusion eight years ago that the best thing he could give departing jail inmates was a job. Not one of the 187 men completing the community re-entry program has returned to jail. The sheriff’s office was cited by the S.C. Department of Corrections Training Academy in May for its jobs program that tracks participants for one year after their release.

“What happens is they get out with no training to get a job and no self-esteem,” Cribb said. “That’s what we’re trying to fix with this program. It lets them know they can do something and then it helps them do it.”

The program is voluntary and to remain enrolled, inmates are required to follow behavioral guidelines. They have to be willing to work hard and show commitment to the program, the only one of its kind in the state. After their regular daily work, participants go to class in the evenings learning trades such as construction, welding, heat and air conditioning, small engine repair and automotive skills.

“It’s so wonderful; these guys are coming out of jail after five- to 25-year sentences, and they’re getting very good jobs because of the skills they’re learning here,” program director Debbie Barr said. “Some of them are even getting jobs lined up before they’re released. We work with them to set up interviews with employers and help them get their résumés ready. A lot of times they’ll be released from jail on a Monday and start work on a Wednesday or Thursday.”

A number of inmates who complete the program actually go on to find work with Georgetown County’s Public Services Department. It uses inmate labor for a number of tasks, from sorting recyclable materials to construction.

“We couldn’t do the amount of work we do without the inmates,” said Ray Funnye, the county’s director of Public Services. “We’ve got a great paid crew, there’s no doubt, but every day we get new assignments and the list gets longer and longer.”

Over the years, he’s found that many of the inmates are already skilled and others are willing to learn. Those who prove themselves valuable have made the transition to paid employees. “We are hiring them and we’re hiring them with great satisfaction,” Funnye said. “These guys are committed to their jobs. They demonstrated that as inmates and continue to do so as employees. I go to a job site and inspect what’s being done and they are fully engaged. They’re very inquisitive and often offer suggestions on how to improve the process.”

Opportunities are available for individuals to improve their job skills without a formal program through the state’s technical colleges. “Our community technical colleges in South Carolina are No. 1 in job training, in my opinion,” Patonay said, “especially Horry-Georgetown Technical College. Using state lottery money, you can attend a school in your home county for a very affordable rate.”

Technical colleges only offer courses that meet workforce needs, she said. Welding and machine tooling are popular courses now, and there are over 50 students in welding classes at Georgetown High. Boeing and some of its suppliers sent representatives to a job fair at Tech recently to talk to students in machine tooling. “That’s a very marketable skill,” Patonay said. Heating and air conditioning is another field that’s rich in opportunity, and the classes are full.

“For people who are polite, show up on time and are willing to learn,” Patonay said, “a career is waiting for you.”

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