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Program teaches skills, behavior modification to break cycle of minimum wage jobs

Program teaches skills, behavior modification to break cycle of minimum wage jobs

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WELLSTON • The epiphany came as Montez Williams looked inward and saw a 22-year-old with a wife and child caught in an orbit of dead-end jobs with no end in sight.

“I’m a grown man, I should be able to provide,” Williams told himself. “I need a career so I can grow and not live paycheck-to-paycheck.”

The self-assessment couldn’t have come at a better time.

As the Ferguson resident began searching for a path forward, St. Louis County was assembling a pilot program to address the cycle of minimum-wage jobs trapping young people in poverty.

Last month, the Family and Workforce Center of America startup converged with Williams’ goal of becoming a productive member of the middle class, if not further up the socioeconomic ladder.

Deborah Stovall, director of youth and family services for the federally subsidized program, has little doubt that Williams’ aspirations are within reach.

“When you raise the level of expectations for people they will rise to that level,” said Stovall.

Williams has done just that, showing up each weekday morning since late February for an eight-hour heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installation and maintenance course at the Metropolitan Education and Training Center — the hub for a consortium of job training programs. The converted factory is a few steps from the Wellston MetroLink station.

After class, Williams heads to an eight-hour shift as a minimum-wage maintenance worker, returning home after midnight to rest before the 16-plus-hour routine starts anew.

“I’m taking this real seriously,” says Williams, who turned 23 on March 16.

Williams in many ways fits the profile of the young workers whom officials hoped to target when they applied for the $3 million Department of Labor grant to bring the Family and Workforce Center concept to St. Louis County.

“We don’t have night classes here so if you have a job, you have to work around the courses,” said MET Center Director Lee Brotherton. “The people who complete programs here are successful in capital letters because it means overcoming significant obstacles.”

A troubled student, Williams left Normandy High School as an 11th-grader, migrated to the Job Corps and eventually earned his diploma through an equivalency program.

He quickly found that those credentials rarely translate into meaningful and continuing employment.

The certificate Williams expects to earn 12 weeks after beginning the job training program represents what he sees as a huge step toward reversing the trend.

The Workforce Center initiative welcomed its first students to two sites in February — the MET Center and Paddock Forest Center in Spanish Lake.

A third site, in Ferguson, will be up and running the first week in April.

The program sites are convenient to mass transit lines and residential areas occupied by the young people the program is designed to help.

“We wanted to bring it to the neighborhoods,” said county Human Resources Director Andrea Jackson-Jennings.

The county qualified for the federal grant by virtue of its designation as a U.S. Department of Labor “Promise Zone.”

Five additional U.S. cities have launched similar career programs, with 21 others awaiting approval to provide the service in their communities.

Representatives from Detroit, Milwaukee and Baltimore have visited Wellston to observe the roll out of the St. Louis County initiative.

“It’s important to note that this is a career program, not a jobs program. This is to move young people into careers — it’s for years,” said St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

At a basic level, the $3 million program prepares clients between the ages of 16 and 29 for jobs in the hospitality industry, skilled vocational careers and general business employment.

“This is an organizational approach to people unafraid to make a change,” said Carolyn Seward, the chief executive officer and president of the project.

But it’s the introduction of a behavioral modification component that separates the MET Center and Paddock Forest programs from the typical job training.

In a nod to the seething frustration that spilled onto Ferguson streets in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown, anger management is the key to the mental health piece of the program.

“It addresses a lot of the issues that surfaced in Ferguson,” Stenger acknowledged.

The program introduces coping mechanisms to individuals with voices silenced by poverty, the disadvantages of growing up in single-parent households, lackluster school districts and a job market with few opportunities for people like them.

“Our young people are angry — sometimes so angry that they can’t work. And we have to find a way to address that,” Seward explained. “They want someone to listen, they’ve created families from the street and we have to change that.”

Stovall, who oversees the integration of anger management in the curriculum, says the program imposes “tough love” to illustrate the importance of countering job stress with emotional intelligence.

“We’re teaching them that taking a moment, pausing and taking a step back is better than blowing up and losing your job,” said Stovall.

The job training-behavioral modification combination has so far proven successful.

The first group of 23 students to complete certificate programs graduated in early March.

Assisted by an aggressive placement program, most moved into full-time positions in the hospitality and customer service fields earning an average wage of $16.48 an hour.

Montez Williams is right behind them.

“Learning things I’ve never learned before,” the husband and father says he is more than ready to embark on the career he and his family deserve.

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Steve Giegerich is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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