“A little over a year ago, I was laid off from my job of nine years,” said Robert Austin, the valedictorian of the National Career Institute (NCI) employment and training program in a speech to his fellow graduates in Jersey City on July 21. “I felt lost for the first time in years…. I knew I had to change my career eventually, but I always thought I had time. Well my time was up. Any job I would apply for would be entry level with low pay. And at 32 years old with a mortgage, that was not a feasible option.”
Austin, who now has a career in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, is like many adults, young and old, who found themselves on the outside looking in at a world that does not seem to offer many pathways to success for students not in the top percentile of their graduating classes. Schools, meanwhile, dedicate plenty of resources to sending the ‘smartest’ kids to college. While income inequality worsens, some programs attempt to alleviate the disparities of the modern-day economy.
In 2013, the U.S. Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which provides grants to states to help fund employment and training programs (ETP) for unemployed and underemployed people.
The Jersey City Employment and Training Program (ETP) takes advantage of those funds by working with unemployed and underemployed people of all ages from across Hudson County, as well as those re-entering society from prison. The nonprofit offers High School Equivalency Degree (HSED) preparation, partnering with organizations like the National Career Institute, which offers technical training for adults, and Project Urban Suburban Environments (U.S.E.), which offers summer programs for out-of-school youth.
“Because I chose to have a baby at a young age, life got harder. Coming to ETP was one of the best decisions I ever made.” – Jeslenee Gutierrez
A ‘living education’
Project U.S.E. students graduated a week before NCI students at the Mary Bethune Life Center in the Greenville section of Jersey City. Every graduate completed 40 hours of combined job training and work on urban farms, with many achieving a High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), though one-third of the students are court-involved.
“When I first got here I considered myself a dropout, and I did not expect to amount to anything,” said Jeslenee Gutierrez at the Project U.S.E. graduation ceremony. Her education was pushed back when she became pregnant. “Because I chose to have a baby at a young age, life got harder,” she said. “Coming to ETP was one of the best decisions I ever made… Now, six months later, I am graduating and preparing myself for college.”
Guiterrez and her fellow graduates worked on urban farms in Jersey City while taking classes over the summer to prepare for further education. Project U.S.E. focuses on what it calls “living education,” which builds connections to the students’ communities through programs like urban farming, boat building, and retreats to a 50,000-acre wilderness center at Wildcat Mountain in Morris County. Much of the produce harvested through the program is given to the soup kitchen at the United Methodist Church.
“We feel that we are able to connect folks not just to nature and sustainability but to the job skills that help them succeed while learning that connection to their community and having pride in what they do,” said Craig Livermore, director of Project U.S.E. Livermore said that agriculture can teach very important life skills like getting to work on time and seeing a project through to completion.
“I think there is a strong need for a sense of belonging, a community involvement on the local level that give you meaning,” Livermore said. “Especially for the adults in [prisoner] re-entry, it gives that sense of re-integration both morally and spiritually, a sense that no one is holding your mistakes against you. You’re supported here. There’s a deep human need for that kind of stability in a person’s life.”
The HSED, formerly known as the GED, has come a long way since it was first created in the 1940s to qualify returning soldiers for civilian jobs. It now covers four subject areas – language arts, math, science, and social studies – and is very challenging. Changes to the test in 2014 made it more accessible by putting it online, but barriers remain with cost. ETPs are valuable, in part, because they pay for students’ testing costs.
Heather McKay, executive director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said that a paid HSED “can be a step out of poverty and into higher education.”
In an age when literacy funding in New Jersey has been cut dramatically and only one adult high school remains in the state, programs like the Jersey City ETP and organizations such as Project U.S.E. and the National Career Institute are more important than ever.
Barriers to employment remain high in the state, not only because many jobs are more complex now and require specialized training or advanced education, but because the number of unemployed and underemployed people is so high that employers can be more selective. Many jobs today may be overvalued, said McKay, citing a study on job postings for administrative assistants. “A very high number of administrative assistants do not have a higher education degree, yet a lot of the job postings ask for one,” McKay said. “I do think the labor market needs some education on this, and employers need to think a little bit about the skills they’re asking for. Someone with a HSED can do a lot of jobs but they’re not being considered.”
Equally important is to evaluate programs and continue those that work. But right now, many programs are too heavily reliant on grant funding. “They all change what they’re doing to fit the profile of the grant,” McKay said. “They do it, it happens, they meet the goals, and when those three years are over, the program ends.”
McKay said that while WIOA helps to fund programs throughout the state, “It’s minimal, very, very small compared to what the need is.”
Much of that need stems from the school-to-prison pipeline. Both NCI and Project U.S.E. educate students who have been through the court system, with NCI working alongside the NJ Re-Entry Corporation, which helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter society.
Increased access to the HSED may help because more people are taking the test than ever before; some places are starting to offer the program to incarcerated prisoners.
Former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey, executive Director of the Jersey City ETP and Chairman of the NJ Re-Entry Corporation, said that strong bipartisan support in New Jersey politics has led to better ETPs, particularly for those returning from prison or jail.
“The alternative is the cost of incarceration, which is upward of $55,000 per year. This training program is literally less than a tenth of that cost,” McGreevey said. He said that while the value of a HSED is high, it’s a jumping-off point, and a “baseline” for aptitude.
“And that baseline in itself won’t secure employment,” he said. “As with anything, there needs to be a strong foundation from which to build necessary skills to gain employment.”
It remains a challenge to make qualitative evaluations of ETP programs. “It is really important for these projects to be evaluated, and outcomes are not always measured the same way,” McKay said. “A really high-quality outcome sometimes gives a person confidence. If they get confidence, that could be the best outcome in the world.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.