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Workforce Program: Pulling together to help Mon Valley residents recover from the pandemic’s effects

In less than three years, MVI’s Workforce Development & Financial Coaching program had to re-invent itself not once, but twice—first, when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns shut the doors of many employers, and again when the economy re-opened under entirely new, and unexpected, conditions.

“The employment market died and was reborn, in a way,” says T. Charles Howell IV, MVI’s director of workforce development & financial coaching. “It was a challenge, and we didn’t know how people were going to respond to it. But the only time in the last three years that things have slowed down was during the six weeks of lockdown. Since June 2020, it has not slowed down in any way.”

The workforce program, which includes Howell, three employment & financial coaches, an intake coordinator and a part-time computing skills instructor, had to move quickly from in-person interaction to video-conferencing. It did so, successfully. It also had to develop a new pool of employers and industries with which to match job-seekers.

And MVI’s workforce team had to spend more time than usual connecting people to basic needs before it could begin to help them with their employment problems.

“The pandemic has shined a light on how tenuously the employment system is built—and in 2020, people who were hanging on by a thread had that thread cut,” Howell says.

Jane Black and Eva Simpson work in MVI’s Mid-Mon Valley Office, located in Charleroi.

MVI’s workforce program, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2021, matches unemployed and under-employed Mon Valley residents with careers, and helps local businesses and non-profit organizations hire from the communities MVI services.

Traditionally, services were offered to Pittsburgh-area residents from Mon Valley Initiative’s office in Homestead, but beginning in 2019, a second office was added in the Mid-Mon Valley to better serve residents of Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The Mid-Mon Office, located in Charleroi, has brought MVI services closer to people who need them.

“Transportation becomes a barrier the further down the Monongahela River you go, because the communities are further and further apart,” Howell says. “The Mid-Mon Office has been a great asset to the team, both in terms of building exposure for the organization, and also because the employment coach there, Jane Black, does a great job of being out in the community—building relationships, meeting people where they are, and finding out where they want to be.”

At Mon Valley Initiative, employment coaches help job-seekers identify their career goals, work to close gaps in their training, overcome barriers to retaining a job (such as child care and education) and develop their “soft skills,” such as how to prepare for an employment interview, and how to meet an employer’s expectations while on the job. Coaches assist job-seekers with resume preparation and can even match them with programs that provide professional attire and transportation.

MVI’s workforce curriculum, which has evolved substantially since the program’s inception, was updated again after Howell became director in 2019. It includes both individualized one-on-one coaching as well as group sessions, called “Job Clubs,” where clients meet with potential employers and human-resources officers, and get advice from experts in fields such as banking and law.

MVI also teaches computer skills, from email basics to more advanced lessons in business software applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

Since 2015, when MVI was named a Financial Opportunity Center, financial literacy education has been a key part of MVI’s workforce program.

“Most of the people who come to us just want a ‘job,’” Howell says. “We hear all the time, ‘I don’t need a budget, I don’t have any money.’ Some of them have never seen their credit report, and they don’t even know what their monthly cost-of-living is.”

MVI’s employment & financial coaches help clients develop a better understanding of their family finances so they can set manageable career goals that enable them to build their savings and credit.

“We want them to achieve financial stability, so they’re never in this same bad situation again,” Howell says.

Shannon Lawhorn is a senior employment & financial coach in MVI’s Homestead office.

The workforce program also manages the Southwestern Pennsylvania Re-Entry Coalition, or SPARC, a program of MVI that provides a professional network of probation and parole officers, attorneys and social-service agencies who work as a group to discuss and address the needs of unemployed persons who are returning to the job market after having been incarcerated.

“The communities that we serve have been impoverished communities for the last 40 years, and some of them have become concentrated communities of poverty,” Howell says. “There’s been a mass exodus of resources at the same time. Some of the things that you find in impoverished communities are a lack of education, addiction and mental health challenges and crimes of survival.”

The restaurant, retail and hospitality industries have traditionally hired many participants who successfully completed MVI’s workforce program.

“For our participants, those jobs have some of the lowest barriers to entry,” Howell says. “In many cases, you don’t have to have a college degree—just a high school diploma.” Unfortunately, those industries were also the first and hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession.

“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve seen an increase in the number of new clients we’ve served, but 2020 was the first time we also saw an increase in returning clients,” Howell says. People whom MVI had previously helped find employment had been laid off due to the pandemic and needed help again.

So the workforce program regrouped. “We got together as a team and said, ‘what are the realities that people are dealing with, and how can we help them?’” Howell says. “When you look at people’s basic needs—food, shelter, health care—there was a flood of assistance available, but there also were barriers to accessing those services. That’s why you saw miles-long lines of cars waiting at food bank distributions, for instance.”

MVI’s workforce team determined what types of pandemic relief were available to residents of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties, and then began helping clients access those programs, including the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, for residents of Allegheny County. “One of the things we’ve really been able to do, as a team, is become a bridge to connect people to resources,” Howell says. “I can’t tell you how many hundreds and hundreds of applications we’ve filled out for people.”

Deborah Mattie joined MVI as an intake coordinator and now works as an employment & financial coach.

Until 2020, most MVI workforce services were delivered face-to-face. When COVID-19 hit, health and safety restrictions made that impossible, workforce team members quickly became experts in using Zoom video-conferencing software.

“Some of us had a little bit of experience with video-conferencing, but not as a primary mode of operation,” Howell says. Nevertheless, coaching sessions and “Job Club” group meetings moved online successfully. Although lack of broadband Internet access prevented some clients from accessing video-conferencing at first, many other clients were able to fully participate in MVI’s workforce development activities for the first time because they could log on from home—meaning that getting to an MVI office for an appointment wasn’t an issue.

“Technology has been a barrier for some people,” Howell says. “What we also found was that there were fewer barriers to connecting employers to job applicants. Folks didn’t have to worry about transportation or child-care, for instance. We have not had a presentation in the last two years that has had fewer than 20 people in it. We’ve had people from New Castle, Butler and Beaver participate in our program—those are not necessarily areas that we’ve been able to reach before.”

The workforce team also has been meeting with employers who have never previously needed MVI’s help finding new employees. During the early months of the pandemic in 2020, Howell and workforce team members got on their phones and connected with companies and industries that were struggling to fill vacancies, including manufacturers and warehouses, as well as logistics and delivery companies that found themselves strained to the breaking point.

“The crisis forced our coaches to become a little more investigative,” Howell says. “If you have someone coming to you from New Castle for help finding a job, then you’d better find out who the big employers are in New Castle. Did we get shot down sometimes? Sure. But usually, once we had a conversation with the employers, we had some good partnerships develop.”

MVI’s workforce coaches began encouraging people who had become unemployed from the hospitality and restaurant industries to use their downtime to re-evaluate their career goals, and develop new skills by enrolling in colleges, trade-school programs and apprenticeships with local unions. Job Clubs now include a regular series of virtual visits with representatives of training and apprenticeship programs, many of which provide on-the-job paid training.

“Our next push is reaching out to future-facing opportunities, such as solar-panel installers and electric-vehicle maintenance programs, because those kinds of technologies are the future,” Howell says.

T. Charles Howell IV is director of workforce development & financial coaching for Mon Valley Initiative.

An advisory committee consisting of human-resources officers and other personnel experts from a variety of private businesses and non-profit agencies helps the Mon Valley Initiative workforce development & financial coaching team understand and anticipate personnel needs and trends in the Mon Valley.

“So much of what we’ve been able to do comes from people being able to trust one another and share information,” Howell says. “As a team, I can’t be more proud of the way our people have pulled together during this crisis. The sheer volume of work they have accomplished makes me look smart. They have really shown up for our friends and neighbors.”

This story originally appeared in Valley Vision 2022, MVI’s three-year report to stakeholders.

Mon Valley Initiative