by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine Green Mountain United Way and a consortium of economic development officials, social service providers, educational institutions and private employers are on a mission to develop a stable workforce and in so doing lift people out of poverty.
Four years ago Green Mountain United Way began a program called Working Bridges.
“What that does, essentially, is it uses the workplace as a foundation to provide social services,” said United Way Executive Director Tawnya Kristen. “We have eight existing large employer work sites right now across our service area (Washington County, Northeast Kingdom).
Kristin said when an employee connects with someone at work independent of a company’s human resources department, there is greater likelihood of identifying and resolving problems before they interfere with employment.
Bonnie Waninger, executive director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission said Working Bridges is focused on single mothers with children who live below the poverty line.
For a single mother with a child, living below the federal poverty line means earning $12,000 a year or less, she said.
“The partnership figured if you can make it better for that group you’re probably making it better for everyone,” she said.
With that goal in mind, CVPC took the initial lead and received a $20,000 Working Communities planning grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Waninger said armed with that grant for the last six months the partnership has been working on a plan to address the workforce issue, which is a significant challenge throughout the state.
With Green Mountain United Way now leading the effort, the consortium submitted a proposal to the Federal Reserve Bank for an implementation grant of up to $300,000.
If approved, it will build on Working Bridges and create a three-year pilot program.
“The unique thing about this is it’s really encouraging and putting money toward different types of collaboration and bringing together the business community as well as the municipal, state and of course the nonprofit and service provider community to come together and really look at innovative ways to support our workforce,” Kristin said.
She said the greater Barre area was seeing the female workforce or those unemployed “falling into poverty.”
Waninger said single moms living below the poverty line can be difficult to employ because of childcare, school and transportation issues.
“What the employers say is if I can keep an individual facing those challenges employed for 12 straight months they will be my employee for 12 years,” she said.
Employers were finding that the first year was the period when they were at most risk of losing these workers, Waninger said.
She said that risk is related to the life challenges a single mother faces like a car repair which prevents the employee from getting to work.
“The idea was how do we bring all these providers together to provide some wrap around services that take this person who wants to be employed,” Waninger said, “and help keep them in the workplace by working with the employee and the employer.”
One of the employers involved in the Working Bridges initiative is Central Vermont Medical Center.
Robert Patterson, the hospital’s vice president of human resources, said the hospital was already involved with Green Mountain United Way’s workforce program
“We have Working Bridges here on site so employees can utilize Working Bridges to help navigate financial issues or social issues and that works well for us,” Patterson said. “We’d like to build that out and we’d like to build that out for the community even more.”
When it comes to single mothers, Patterson said 55.3 percent of single mothers with children in Barre City live below the federal poverty line.
CVMC like other hospitals continues to face a nursing shortage. As a solution, three years ago the hospital began its own training program.
“What we’ve done is taken employees who are in entry level jobs and educating them and paying for their education to enter the workforce and then working on moving them up in the workforce into LPN jobs,” Patterson said.
The nurse training program not only helps employees, giving them stability, but Patterson said the hospital also benefits. He said the more home-grown nurses the hospital can nurture and develop the fewer traveling nurses the hospital has to bring in at a much higher cost.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.