Reading, Writing, Working

Although Oklahoma’s 5.6 percent unemployment rate may seem relatively low compared to the rest of the U.S., how low it seems has no bearing on the hardships encountered by those unemployed.
Workforce Oklahoma, a state initiative to help job seekers find employment and access available services, reports serving upwards of 2,500 people a month, assisting them in applying for services and exploring their opportunities in the workforce.
Many times, they direct them to local colleges that can train them in various careers in high-demand industries, and those colleges list applicable programs on Workforce Oklahoma’s Enrollment Management System.
Tulsa Community College is one of those colleges with which Workforce Oklahoma has joined as a partner since the federal government passed the Workforce Investment Act in 1998, funding local workforce boards to design One-Stop Centers where job seekers and employers can access workforce-related services.
Each fiscal year, Workforce Oklahoma receives between $3.5 and $4 million to serve youth, adults and displaced workers.
Until this year, that’s as far as TCC’s partnership with Workforce Oklahoma went: A referral program and a seat for a TCC representative of the Tulsa Area Workforce Board.
“I’m serving now, actively participating in the board, which directs Workforce Tulsa and tells them how we think the money should be spent,” said Dr. Mary Philpott, dean of workforce development at TCC. “We tell them what kind of demand there is for jobs, and we tell them what kind of educational institutions provide the training for jobs out there.”
The board is comprised of 40-plus business, institutional and agency leaders, said Darcy Melendez, executive director of Workforce Tulsa (the short title of the board, which operates under the umbrella of Workforce Oklahoma).
The Tulsa Area Workforce Board operates One-Stop Centers in four counties – Osage, Creek, Tulsa and Pawnee – with centers in various cities and towns in those counties.
In December, Workforce Oklahoma served 3,600 unemployed, directing many of them to higher education institutions like TCC. But, with so many people needing benefits, Workforce Oklahoma reps didn’t have the time to devote to explaining to each person the ins and outs of financial aid, enrollment and admissions. So, they invited TCC to have a physical presence at Workforce Oklahoma.
“One of wonderful things about TCC is that not only do they provide degree programming and availability of that programming on each campus, but they are also willing to look at workforce needs and design short courses in those demand areas,” said Melendez.
Filling a Gap
Trevor Lane, manager of student recruitment services, partnered with TCC’s Education Outreach Center, at 2201 S. Garnett Road, just down the road from the Tulsa Eastgate Workforce Office at 4002 E. 21st St.
“We’re seeing more and more people without skill sets being let go from their jobs and needing to retrain,” Lane said. “My challenge is to help people who are not college-ready.”
Lane said he’s seeing an increasing number of unemployed workers who cannot read or write, many laid off from manufacturing-type jobs that do not require those skills.
And because they lack those basic skills, they’re neither able to get another job nor go back to school.
So, TCC is offering developmental classes for reading and writing as well as short-term, accelerated degree and certificate programs that will land those folks in jobs in high-demand industries. The programs will begin sometime in June.
“Through our affiliation with the Outreach Center, we hope to be able to streamline the financial aid, enrollment and admissions processes,” said Lane. “And, really what we hope to do is be able to sit down with a lot of unemployed folks, because really they just don’t know what their benefits are. So while they’re trying to figure out what their benefits are, what they’re entitled to, what they can and cannot have paid for, we’re going to come in and offer financial aid workshops, because their benefits have no bearing on their financial aid award. We want to at least show them how to pay for their classes, get into school and get things going while they sort through all the other benefits they may be entitled to.”
Workforce Oklahoma will help them sift through those other benefits to determine what they’re eligible for.
“Tentatively, what we have planned is Tuesdays we’ll set appointments with people, and Thursdays we’ll set up the financial aid workshop and enroll students,” said Lane.
He’s been working on the project for six weeks with a staff of two.
Philpott said that, when TCC began to seek out departments to lead the new partnership with Workforce Oklahoma, Lane volunteered the Recruitment Services department.
Philpott is designing the curriculum of fast-track classes provided by TCC through Workforce Oklahoma, and she said she hopes to roll 12 to 15 of those out in June, along with the developmental classes.
The accelerated programs will focus on jobs in the health care, aviation and information technology industries that have been proven to be in high demand, jobs such as Certified Nurse Assistants and Geriatric Nurse Assistants.
Philpott said TCC is using data from the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the City of Tulsa’s economic development initiatives to determine which industries are in demand and what classes to offer.
The accelerated programs are intensive, with students attending three to four days a week, for up to eight hours per day. They’re designed to be completed in eight weeks to 18 months.
The WIA funding will pay for their tuition, books and fees, and Workforce Oklahoma will help them either collect unemployment or severance benefits or secure a full-time job while attending school.
“The purpose of the short-term, accelerated programs is to enable them to get training while they’re still receiving severance pay and get them into something else or have them ready to get into something else (by the time that runs out),” said Philpott.
“The degrees are more intensive, with industry courses,” said Philpott, and there aren’t a lot of prerequisites. Following completion, a student can either re-enter the workforce or move on to a four-year degree program.
Possible Impact
“There are at least 20 to 100 enrollments a month sitting out there waiting to be enrolled,” said Lane. “As to how many people will actually follow through and go back to school, I don’t know. One thing I’ve found is people who have been out of school for a long time have an inherent fear of going back to school. So what I’m dealing with, in addition to all their social and financial woes, is also this fear of going back to school.”
Lane said his department will work closely with Workforce Oklahoma’s clients to personalize their enrollment processes and help them go back to school. But it won’t be easy.
“I’ve met with people 10 or 12 times before they finally put their application in the system, and I had to physically walk over there with them and sit with them (while they filled it out),” Lane said.
He also said that those folks who can’t read or write are sometimes too embarrassed to tell him that, which also creates a barrier to their enrollment. But he hopes, with time and a lot of personal attention, he can help convince them to enroll in the developmental classes first and then move on to one of the accelerated degree or certificate programs.
He said he’s not sure how many people will enroll in the beginning, but each class requires a minimum of 10 attendees and a maximum of about 20 or 30. Philpott said that, if there’s an especially high demand in one area, the school will open more than one program in that area.
“I’ve met with more than 60 or 70 people in one day and then seen half those people make their way to campus for a financial aid presentation,” said Lane.
He said he expects the developmental reading and writing classes to fill up, but he’s not sure about the accelerated programs.
When asked about the possible economic impact of reinjecting that many people into the workforce, Philpott said neither TCC nor Workforce Oklahoma has begun to try to predict that number. Right now, they’re focused on getting the programs ready and getting people enrolled.

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