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Work Ready Program Builds Skills and Confidence

A client came to the Grace Learning Center, a nonprofit educational center in Michigan City, Indiana, with no work history whatsoever. “He was isolated his entire life,” says Erica Morse, the center’s program developer. “He took Mary’s Work Ready classes and is now successfully employed 40 hours a week. He is not alone.”

Morse is referring to Mary Foell, LaPorte County Community Development Extension Educator, whose success rate in preparing her Grace Learning Center adult students to secure and maintain employment is 100 percent.

The center relies on 35 community partner agencies to offer a full calendar of instruction that addresses barriers contributing to homelessness. Purdue Extension is among them, providing classes in nutrition as well as the Work Ready curriculum.

Purdue Extension’s Work Ready program teaches skills necessary to increase the number of qualified applicants for U.S. job openings. “Employer input was important,” says Monica Nagele, Montgomery County Extension Director and part of the Purdue Extension team that developed the curriculum. “Businesses will teach the skills to do that job, but they wanted employees to come in with soft skills.”

Nagele tapped into her own experience leading job preparedness classes for individuals in her county’s probation system. “They couldn’t get off probation until they paid their fees, so they needed a job to do that,” she explains. The topics she covered, from skills assessment to mock interviews to personal accountability, are woven into Work Ready.

Extension educators statewide teach the Work Ready curriculum to both high school students and adults. Educators are encouraged to choose the topics that best serve their populations. The curriculum adheres to the Cooperative Extension Service’s practice of teaching only research-based information in a hands-on format.

Nagele says her Work Ready students learn the most from the module on writing resumes and cover letters. “Many have a limited education, and learning to use power verbs is new for them,” she says. When she teaches high school students, they’re often shocked to learn that prospective employers may look at their social media accounts, she adds.

In both populations, Nagele says, Work Ready offers a different avenue for people who don’t attend college, while building a more skilled workforce and assisting employers having a hard time finding quality employees.

“Many clients come into our program never having worked a job that provides a W-2 statement,” Morse says of people seeking help at Grace Learning Center. “They may have worked for cash just to get by. They’ve never been taught how to fill out a tax form or file a tax return. They don’t understand benefits paperwork. They have never had their own bank accounts to provide a routing number for direct deposit.”

But on “Working Wednesdays” at the center, clients can spend the afternoon learning computer and critical thinking skills in addition to writing a resume or practicing for interviews in Foell’s Work Ready class.

In addition to her weekly classes at Grace Learning Center, Foell teaches Work Ready lessons at a women’s shelter. Her students, she says, “are just looking for a better life. We try to build upon what they have and inspire confidence in their abilities.”

Building people up is Foell’s forte, Morse says. “Mary has the ability to sit one-on-one with individuals who have been beaten down and devalued and feel they are not deserving of a job. She does this in a judgment-free way to build their confidence and motivate them. She coaches, but she’s also the cheerleader who is high-fiving her participants the moment they get a job offer.”

“Suddenly a class they were intimidated to attend is full of laughter.”

Foell says her students benefit most from the curriculum’s Plan for Life module, because they can apply its lessons — understanding the role of setting goals in career planning and in forming working connections between self-discovery, career exploration and planning for life — outside of class.

Purdue Extension is well positioned to be a collaborative partner, Foell adds. “We are good with education. We are good with connecting and networking. As part of the workforce development scene, we have found our niche.”

“If I can affect one person, I think I’ve done my job,” she adds. “I’m passionate about this program and how it has changed people’s lives.”


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