Strengthening Stark Career Connect matches workers with jobs

Tiffany Sams decided late last year she wanted to be a state-tested nursing assistant. After months of hard work to get into a program, she was preparing last week to take her final exam.

“I just decided it was time for me to find a career that I wanted to do, and I like to help people,” Sams said. The 33-year-old Canton woman’s long-term goal is to become a registered nurse.

Taking the first step toward a career wasn’t easy for Sams. The state paid for her STNA classes, but she struggled to find a course near her home and lacked reliable transportation to classes.

She overcame the hurdles thanks to Strengthening Stark’s new Career Connect program that helps workers qualify for the jobs local employers need to fill.

Strengthening Stark is a countywide economic development effort backed by businesses, government, not-for-profit groups and education leaders. It aims to raise the talent level of local workers, grow businesses and make Stark County a better place to live.

And jobs are available.

Employers in the area have 8,200 open jobs; 6,100 of those positions pay at least $15 an hour or $30,000 a year, which Strengthening Stark considers a living wage for the region. The most in-demand workers are truck drivers — more than 1,700 are needed. The job requires a commercial driver's license and pays around $21.50 an hour.

On the other side of the equation are residents like Sams who want to work.

But solving the workforce problem takes more than arithmetic. To get good-paying jobs, workers often need training and credentials. Only 400 of the jobs that pay more than $30,000 have few or no barriers to entry, such as requiring an advanced degree or technical certification.

Some prospective workers also lack reliable transportation or don’t have money to buy the gear they would need for a new job.

Others need affordable childcare or have unpaid student loans that can bar them from getting further education.

To better match workers with jobs, Strengthening Stark and its community partners have launched Career Connect. The program is supported in part by a $100,000 Paradox Prize awarded in April by the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Career Connect’s goal over the next year is to begin working with 300 jobseekers and keep at least 60 of them in jobs that pay a living wage and benefits, said Rebecca Kuzma, Strengthening Stark’s chief operating officer.

Career Connect brings together community agencies, employers, schools and government agencies to link workers with jobs. At the program’s core are career navigators at the Greater Stark County Urban League, ICAN Housing and Goodwill Industries of Greater Cleveland & East Central Ohio.

Clearing hurdles

As a career navigator at the Urban League, Clishawn Robinson’s job is to help prospective workers clear hurdles. Tiffany Sams is one of her clients.

The process often starts with a referral from another community agency. Robinson talks to the person about the type of job they want, their life situation, the obstacles they’re facing and their career goals.

She said low-income individuals who are unemployed, under-employed or hard to employ have unique challenges.

“Yes, jobs are out there, but it’s not like, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Robinson said.

A person who lives in persistent poverty makes decisions that are essential for day-to-day survival but can keep them from getting ahead in the long run.

Can they afford to take a job if it costs them government benefits but only pays $10 an hour? If they have a job, do they work so many hours to pay the bills that they don’t have time for education that would increase their wages?

“People don’t want to be stuck in that situation,” Robinson said.

Getting to class

As a career navigator, Robison helps a job seeker take two or three items off their plate so they can focus on their future.

Sams’ major issue was transportation. Stark State College was offering an STNA course at its Akron campus, but she didn’t have a ride to Summit County.

Robinson worked with Stark State to offer an STNA class at the Jackson Township campus. She also got Sams a SARTA bus pass, so that she could make it to class when she didn’t have a ride.

Without the help, Sams said, she would probably still be looking for an STNA course. Instead, she’s near the end of the roughly five-week program and fielding job offers.

Robinson said she tries to link prospective workers with jobs that pay $15 an hour, or at least open the door to a career path.

“This is a stepping stone for her,” Robinson said of Sams.

Into a job

While Sams looks for a job, Maurice Horner has found one.

Horner was the first person to get work through Career Connect. He started working at Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Raff Road SW in early September.

Horner collects items donated to the thrift store, helps customers load large purchases into their vehicles and restocks empty areas on the display floor.

“I like the fact that I get to lift some heavy stuff because I do miss playing sports, so it’s kind of my way of working out or relieving a little bit of stress,” Horner said. “You get to lift some stuff that’s a little heavier than you thought.”

Horner, 24, was laid off by Union Metal earlier this year, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit Ohio. He diligently applied for two jobs a week, but most businesses, even fast-food restaurants, weren’t hiring, he said.

Kevin Stillwell, another career navigator at the Urban League, told him about ReStore. He started working in mid-September.

“An opportunity, that’s all I really needed,” Horner said.

The job pays less than $15 an hour and doesn’t provide benefits, “but it’s perfect for me,” Horner said.

He has guaranteed hours every week and a schedule that enables him to look after his 1-year-old daughter. He has another daughter on the way.

The hire has worked for ReStore, too.

The not-for-profit thrift store had trouble finding workers when the college and high school students it employs during the summer returned to class, said Courtney Brown, ministry operations manager for Habitat for Humanity East Central Ohio.

“Our navigator made it very easy for us, Brown said, explaining that Stillwell sent her an email with Horner’s contact information and that Horner called to apply no more than 10 minutes later.

The store isn’t looking to fill any openings at the moment, but Brown said she knows where to find job candidates in the future.

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