Say one thing for the women packing an airless classroom in East Harlem: They’ve mastered call-and-response. “You have skills and education, what else do you need?” asks Angelo Rivera, who is teaching this career development class to a group of about 30 public assistance recipients, all female. “Experience!” comes the answer.

A few minutes later, Rivera throws another one at them: “Ready for the question?”
It’s actually a quote, and he wants to know – “Who said that?”

There’s silence, then someone ventures: “Abernathy?”

The life and teachings of the civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy are not usually on the curriculum for job training programs targeted at women on welfare. But then, the programs run at the New York office of the nonprofit Strive, where Rivera is chief operating officer, are not typical workforce development fare. Intended to provide not just an immediate job but a start to a permanent career in a growth field, these classes join other programs, such as those run by groups like Nontraditional Employment for Women and Brooklyn’s Hope Program, in driving a continuing debate over how best to get welfare recipients into work that will raise them out of poverty.

The old model, says Rivera, an Air Force vet with a background in career development for college students, was to get people into low-wage employment, and figure they could work their way out of minimum wage from there. “It worked for 24 years for the economy that they were in,” he says, but a few years ago it became clear that “the model was broken”: There were fewer low-skill jobs available, and more degrees and advanced training required.

Strive’s latest offering began last month: three training tracks in computer technology and office operations for women roughly 18 to 40 who are eligible for public assistance. The job skills, Rivera says, were culled from those required for the fastest-growing professions in New York state. (Though there are exceptions: “I’m not interested in home health care,” he notes, referring to a job known for paying so poorly that some health care aides live in city shelters.)

Transformation first

Before they begin learning computer skills, though, students start with what Angelo calls a one-month “transformational process.” This has included guest speakers ranging from city councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito to Rev. Kanyere Eaton of the Sister Fund, as well as a day-long civics lesson focused on the history of the civil rights movement. In this day’s career development class, based on a course Rivera used to teach to graduating seniors at Columbia University, he uses a motivational speaker’s patter to sell his students, all of whom have come dressed in business attire, on how to approach the job search process. Experience, skills and education become the “three moons that need to line up” to make an applicant attractive to employers – which, he underlines, is all that matters when looking for a job. “It’s them, them, them, them!” he stresses at one point. “Nothing in this process is for you!”

In discussions afterwards, at least some of those enrolled clearly feel they’ve been transformed. “It’s more than just a class,” enthuses Stacey Hamilton, a recent parolee from prison who was laid off in December from her job at the Center Against Domestic Violence. “It was like two weeks of therapy. I’ve been in a lot of programs, run a lot of groups, and I’ve never thought about job readiness where you have to renew yourself first. It made me like, ‘Wow, what took you so long?'”

Nancy Cintron calls it “a cleansing process.”

“It’s not treating us like children, but showing us that this is how the real world is, and if you can’t function with these abilities, then there’s the door, and go out,” Cintron says. “This is life: Either you deal with it, or you’re where you’re at.”

Programs like Strive’s that provide intensive skills training targeted to specific job sectors are an increasingly popular model, says Rebecca Brown, deputy director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, which represents 200 training programs run by nonprofits, community colleges and unions. “We’re seeing more and more the jobs that are being created require a couple of years of training after high school or a GED,” she says. “We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years in terms of really being able to track labor market information more closely, and where job opportunities are going to be.”

This would represent a reversal of a decade-long trend away from access to education and training for welfare recipients. Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a workforce development analyst for the D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, says as the result of welfare reform laws and the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, there’s been less and less education and training available for the poor, especially as funding has dwindled. A recent study by her organization found that the share of people in WIA programs who’d received education or training services fell from 84 percent in 2000 to 54 percent in 2006.

In recent years, though, says Duke-Benfield, there’s a growing recognition that “placing someone in a low-wage job after they’ve come out of the welfare system is a dead end, because there’s no ladder.” For example, Kentucky’s “Ready to Work” program provides work-study jobs in students’ chosen field of study – and all caseworkers in the state are required to inform welfare recipients about their education and training options.

“What Kentucky found,” says Duke-Benfield, “was that this program found much greater earning gains at the end of the day than any of their other work activities.”

Going somewhere

Strive’s results have been excellent as well: It claims a national job-placement rate of about 70 percent, earning it recognition from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project as one of the nation’s most successful workforce programs. Yet getting its latest programs off the ground was an uphill battle: While Strive’s program is funded by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance with federal welfare funds, and is approved as a welfare “work activity” by the city, the city Human Resources Administration (HRA) at first balked at referring its welfare recipients there. This inaugural class, in fact, was delayed two weeks while Strive scurried to recruit its own clients. Part of the problem, says Strive development director Jill Poklemba, is that HRA isn’t set up to refer people to anyone but the contractors for its own “Back to Work” program, which has been heavily criticized as unable to provide jobs in significant numbers.

HRA assistant deputy commissioner for employment services Raymond Singleton notes that the city runs several programs to help welfare recipients find work, including not just Back to Work, but others such as Business Link, which makes referrals directly to employers, to move people into the workforce depending on what HRA determines are their individual needs. (The city also operates a pair of more intensive “career ladder” programs via its new Center for Economic Opportunity.)

“It’s case by case,” says Singleton. “We offer a variety of programs to ensure that whatever people’s situations are, they’re going to be successful.” He adds, though, that HRA intends to “work very closely with” Strive to refer clients; Rivera says after more recent discussions with the agency, he’s now hopeful of a better working relationship with the city.

As far as the Strive students who’ve experienced both programs are concerned, those run by HRA pale in comparison to what they’re getting now. “It was supposed to be a training program, but they did not do any of that,” says Cintron of her time in the Back to Work program. “They had people sitting in the classrooms with the newspaper open in the classified sections, writing down the jobs and the phone numbers and we’d hand it in. I used to do that every day for two years straight.”

Violet Smith, who had to stop working and turn to public assistance due to a high-risk pregnancy, is equally dismissive of the Back to Work program. “It may help some people who are used to working in a factory, or just want to work in a store,” Smith said. But for someone with her work experience, it felt like a waste of time. “If you came dressed, then you could go out on what they call a job search. And that’s where you go out and check out about 10:30, you have to report back in by 2:30, and you have to have at least three business cards of places that you went to, and a card about employment.”

After a few months of fruitlessly collecting business cards, says Smith, “I just couldn’t deal with it” and left, ultimately finding Strive after being handed a flyer on the street while on a break. “There were many women there who were frustrated like I was, that needed jobs that maybe were in office work, things like that, which they didn’t carry. I feel like they want to make sure you’re accountable for the money that they give you, but they’re not willing to help you get off of public assistance so you don’t have to take their money.”

Told of these criticisms, HRA deputy commissioner Seth Diamond is skeptical. “Those contracts are only paid when people get jobs, so they don’t have any incentive to do what you’re describing,” says Diamond, referring to the contractors providing Back to Work programming. “So I find it hard to believe that they would not be providing services that are aggressively trying to move people into the market.”

Back to Work can’t be directly compared to programs like Strive, he adds, because the city’s programs serve much larger numbers of people, and take all comers: “Strive is a bit of a boutique compared to some of those programs. So you may have a slightly different environment because people want to be there.”

For Strive student LaToya Clark, all she knows is that she walked in looking for a class that would help her develop the computer skills to open her own store, and ended up with “a life-altering experience.” In Back to Work, she says, “It was just a constant reminder: ‘You’re messed up, you’re messed up, you’re messed up.’ Here the reminder is: ‘You’re going somewhere, you’re going somewhere.'”

– Neil deMause