EASTON — After 20 years in the same line of work, Matt Slater of Preston “just needed a career change.”

“What I’m doing just seems like it’s a dead end,” he said.

“I’ve been in the loss prevention/security field for over 20 years, and it seems like everywhere you go, there’s a chance for promotion, but you always get passed up,” Slater said.

His dilemma: What to do next, and how to pay for training to embark in a whole new direction.

John Earle of Denton was in the same boat. “I got let go of my last job,” he said. A building engineer taking care of commercial properties on the western shore, Earle and his wife had just built a house on Matthewstown Road. Nevertheless, he managed to get across the Bay Bridge and take care of emergencies as they arose. His employer had a different take.

“They said I was too far away, “ Earle said. “It just didn’t make any sense why they let me go.” He said it came down to his making too much money. “It is what it is. With Maryland an at-will state, they can let you go for any reason.”

Following a friend’s lead, Earle signed up for a class at Chesapeake College that will teach him how to drive a tractor trailer in six weeks. Hopefully, with his CDL Class A license in hand, he will find a new job — and a new career.

Earle and Slater are classmates in the CDL class that began Aug. 26, but they have one more thing in common: They walked through the doors of one of five American Job Centers located in each Mid-Shore county seat. And they found scholarships for retraining as well.

Job help — all under one roof

American Job Centers were previously known as One Stop Career Centers, and that’s what you still may find on the sign outside. In Denton, it’s still called the OneStop Job Center. The AJC in Easton is called Talbot Career Center. Some students in the CDL class called it WIB, which stands for Workforce Investment Board.

Regardless of the sign on the door or the old and new titles, once inside, job seekers can find an abundance of information and help. That’s because the “one-stop” shop is just that — a place for job seekers can find the help they need from an assortment of government agencies and other partners, all under one roof — and connect with businesses and organizations who are hiring.

“AJC is where all the partners — Department of Labor, Social Services, Division of Rehabilitative Services, Scholarship, Adult Ed — come together. You can go in and talk to anyone,” said Joanne Gannon, program director of the Upper Shore Workforce Scholarship Office. “Normally, you would go to the county (AJC) where you reside, but it doesn’t matter. Just walk in — no appointment is necessary.”

“An individual may walk in and need multiple agency help or just one,” Guido DeLuca said. He is Director of Job Development and a career counselor at Chesapeake College.

Just about anyone can benefit from a trip to an American Job Center. You don’t have to be in dire straits. You may just need help updating your resume or figuring out how best to post it online.

According to Dan McDermott, executive director of Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board (USWIB), “The American Job Centers are a coalition of 13 federal funding streams, but five or six actual organizations. It’s not like we all came together because it’s a good idea. We came together because the law said, ‘You’re gonna work together now.’ So we did everything we needed to do to get that in place.”

“The Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board is required by law to have a workforce board in each jurisdiction — ours is five counties,” McDermott explained. “The board itself is appointed by the county councils and commissions of the five counties.”

“USWIB has to coordinate the entire system of all those partners, but (it) actually receives Title I training money. The implementation of Title I is done by Joanne Gannon and the people who work with her. The board itself doesn’t deliver services; Joanne and her people deliver the actual services. They’re in the AJCs, they’re the ones who determine if you’re eligible to fit into one of the federal categories and they’re the ones who say ‘Yes.’

Hearing that “yes” were Slater and Earle who each, along with about 75% of the new CDL students, are in the process of being put in the driver’s seat on the road to success.

And that success isn’t a pipe dream.

A robust job market

“There’s a huge shortage in both trucking and schoolbus driving industries. I’ve got every county calling me begging for schoolbus drivers. They can’t fill the positions,” said Bill Gilbert, Truck Driving Program Coordinator at Chesapeake College.

“Some people come through here who are going to work for Walmart, starting at $82,000 a year plus benefits. UPS is up around $90,000 for their doubles,” Gilbert said. “A lot of people don’t realize the money that is there. I mean, you can get the $10 an hour job if you don’t want to go to too much effort. But if you want the $82,000 a year job, that’s absolutely possible. It really depends on the individual. And there’s such a shortage in this industry; everybody’s begging for drivers. Everybody. So they come in here and get a CDL license, [pass the state test], and they leave here and don’t get a job? It’s because they don’t want one.”

“(USWIB) has one of best programs going in the state,” Gilbert said. “It puts (unemployed workers) back in the job market and makes them tax-paying citizens. It’s a great program, not just for truck drivers, but nursing, welding and electricians. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to go to Chesapeake College, (but) you’re putting people back in the job market, and that’s always a good thing.”

“People sometimes just don’t know where they can do for help when they’ve been laid off, or their company closes up, or they want to be retrained,” Gilbert said. “A lot of them tell me they don’t even know about AJCs and what they offer, or what steps to take when something like that happens to them. And you’re pretty devastated when you’ve been working somewhere for 20 years and you find yourself unemployed. We’ve seen a lot of that. You think you’re going to stay with a company until you retire and all of a sudden you’re faced with unemployment. We’re their second career.”

Originally from the Bay Hundred area of Talbot County, Alicia Higgins of Denton was a tank truck driver for 14 years in a Colorado oil field. She let her Class B (single body unit) license go when mom got sick in 2015. Now she’s studying for her Class A license so she can drive a tractor trailer.

“That way I can go to Denver and see my son, and go to Arizona and see my mom. I just can’t stay put,” she said, laughing.

Higgins hopes to get a job for $1,500 a week through a friend who’s an over-the-road driver. Her boyfriend wants to get his Class A license so they can team-drive and double their income.

The course content is familiar to Higgins, but “my big thing is, I just need to learn how to back up (the trailer),” she said. Her plan is to get on the road “in October or November.”

Money for training

All but three of the 12 CDL students walked into an American Job Center which is where they met with a representative of the Upper Shore Workforce Scholarship office. “Someone’s not going to come see us if they haven’t been to AJC,” Gannon said. “You need to go through the steps first, and you have to go to the AJC to start the process.”

The steps can seem daunting. And swimming in a sea of alphabet soup of acronyms like AJC, WIOA and USWIB can make your head swim. But AJC representatives are trained to help job seekers navigate the process and be better equipped to find a job or get the training needed to switch careers.

“When somebody walks into the AJC, (the Upper Shore Workforce Scholarship staff) treats them as an individual who wants to go to training,” Gannon said. Our main goal is to get people back to work and we only fund training that has a credential that goes with it.” You’re not necessarily limited to a training vendor in the 5-county area, either. USWIB has funded students who wanted to get their training at Del Tech, Wor-Wic Community College and Salisbury University.

The scholarships are geared towards training that isn’t covered by traditional funding like Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) or Pell grants to students in degree programs.

“You can’t get federal financial aid for training for anything under 16 hours,” DeLuca said. “So they’re either (paid for) out-of-pocket or sponsorships or the scholarships that they (the Upper Shore Workforce Scholarship Office) provides.”

USWIB is funded through the Maryland DOL, which in turn gets its funding from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment & Training Administration (ETA). The ETA’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law on July 22, 2014, by a wide bipartisan majority.

“WIOA is designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy,” according to www.doleta.gov/wioa/.

WIOA (pronounced we-OWE-ah) was “the first legislative reform of the public workforce system in 15 years,” the website states. One of its “three hallmarks of excellence” is “One-Stop Centers (or American Job Centers) provide excellent customer service to jobseekers and employers and focus on continuous improvement.”

“The sole purpose of WIOA is to help individuals get back into the workforce and sometimes that requires the training ... which isn’t covered through FAFSA or Pell programs,” Gannon said. “That’s where we come in. Our goal is help people. We want to say yes to as many as we can. That’s what we like to do. We like to say yes when nobody else has.”

“The nice thing about (AJCs) is, if you have a bachelor’s degree and just want to have your resume looked at, you can do that. If you need a Quickbooks class to enhance your job, you can take that class and move on. Or if you’re a young person and need some direction, you can get help. There’s a whole spectrum of individuals they can help,” DeLuca said.

“The Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board (USWIB) scholarship staff works in the AJCs,” Gannon said. “Anyone can walk in the door with just an idea of the kind of job they need training for. “A staff member will begin a conversation and ask questions: Are you a displaced worker or homemaker? Are you on public assistance? Underemployed? Are you an older youth (18 to 24 years old)? It’s federal money, so documents have to be produced — birth certificate, unemployment documentation, etc. There (are) very few people who walk in the door that we can’t assist in some way.”

“Scholarships depend on type of training with a cap of $4,500,” Gannon said. Scholarships are awarded based on the cost of training, the job seeker’s need and the amount in the scholarship fund.

“Not many people who are receiving food stamps can afford $4,500 for CDL or $1,495 for CNA,” Gannon said.

“With a fiancée and kids and a mortgage, where’re you gonna find five grand?” Matt Slater asked, rhetorically. “It’s pretty tough.”

The total cost of the CDL program is $4,700, “but that’s peanuts compared to what they’ll be making as a truck driver, said Frannie Phillips, administrative assistant for Skilled Trades at Chesapeake College. “It’s the upfront money that’s the killer.”

“We have different pots of funding; for example, dislocated worker, adult funding for those unemployed or underemployed and youth funding and in-school youth funding (to help kids) who have a disability get through high school,” Gannon said.

“Of course, (scholarships) don’t just pay for anything,” Gannon said. “It has to be something you can train for in your area. There have to be jobs available in your area. Prospective scholarship recipients (are required) to collect five job listings for what they want training for, for which they would be eligible,” Gannon said.

“And that’s helpful in the end because when they do get their training, they’ll know how to do a job search,” DeLuca said.

Soft and hard skills help

“We’re teaching them the skills that they’ll need up front. Sometimes they don’t always like it,” Gannon said.

Regardless of the kind of training needed, DeLuca said that taking a class, taking the test and getting credentialed can lead workers on a path to “stacking credentials.”

“They can return (to an AJC) for additional credentials, perhaps to increase their salary or employability,” DeLuca said. “When they get trained, hopefully they’ll want to build on that by coming back to college and getting the traditional degree.”

While not pursuing a degree, Sheretta Jenkins of East New Market is seeking one more credential to diversify her abilities and help her aunt to retire after 58 years driving a school bus for Dorchester County Public Schools.

A private duty nurse, Jenkins has her CNA, CNN and phlebotomy certifications. “I do a little bit of everything,” she said. But her aunt is a school bus contractor who wants to retire next year and hopefully transfer her contract to Jenkins, who is enrolled in the CDL class at Chesapeake to earn her Class B license.

Jenkins will be helping to meet the critical need for school bus drivers on the Shore.

“Our goal is to train people to help the economy and help the employers in the area who have job openings,” Gannon said.

“Even if they don’t meet any of our eligibility, we still have some things to help them with,” Gannon said. “Monthly workshops (free and open to public) are held, either at the northern or southern end of the 5-county area. They cover dependable strengths, which are transferrable skills; how to sell those skills to an employer; resumes; cover letters and job applications; goal-setting; and interview skills. Those in the program are required to take the workshop unless they’re working full-time; the staff will determine if they’re eligible.”

In the AJC workshops job seekers begin recognizing skills they already have and affirm them. “Light bulb moments” occur and “I get it” expressions light up their faces. “They go from that person who thinks they have nothing to offer to understanding that they do have something to offer,” Gannon said. “It’s a good experience.”

The final step before going into training and getting a scholarship is meeting with a career navigator who does a practice/coaching interview with the prospective trainee who is dressed for success and brings a resume, cover letter and job application. “It’s a lot of one-on-one time spent with them at that point,” Gannon said.

“What is unique about (USWIB) — and this is where (the) taxpayer comes in — you can’t just walk in there and get money to go get retrained,” DeLuca said. “You need to do steps, and — if you follow through and do those steps — at the end of that is your pot of money for retraining. And the nice thing about the steps is the things they ask you to do on the front end become valuable on the back end after training. You may not see it at first, but at the end of your training you’ll fall back on that knowledge and hopefully get the job that you want. The way it works is just an excellent process.”

In fact, among the 12 Maryland Workforce Development Areas, USWIB consistently exceeds state WIOA and Labor Exchange Title I performance measures in all five categories.

Gannon said the process itself prompts job seekers to list the skills they already possess so that they can gain the confidence and context to go the next step and train for the job or career they desire.

“A lot of times what happens is they go through the beginning process and get the job and say, ‘I don’t need the training now. Because of what you’ve done, I’m back in the workforce,’” she said.

“We tell them up front, we’re not a training program, we’re a jobs program, and you just need the training to get the job you want,” Gannon said.

“If you need training to qualify, we’ll help you find a scholarship. Scholarships cover the cost of classes, uniforms, fees and other expenses associated with training, including a possible $15 a day stipend,” Gannon said. “Everything we do for you is completely free.”

“If you’ve worked 20 years in a company and that’s the job you did, and the place closes or you’re laid off, you haven’t done an interview for a long time. Sometimes, that kind of help can be enough to get you a job,” DeLuca said. “You don’t need retraining, you’re looking for a job and sometimes that can help.”

Those who are already employed may visit an AJC to seek training to move up the career ladder.

“We have a lot of individuals who come back and want a second training,” Gannon said. “(They may say) ‘I’ve been a CNA for two years, and I’d like to go forward and get my phlebotomy (certificate) so I can move up.’ Or ‘I’m coming back and I want to get my clinical medical assistant, so I can go to the next step.’ We have them come back sometimes two and three times … to go up the career ladder, but they’re not quite to the point where they’re ready (to be an) RN. Or they just want to work in a doctor’s office instead of an assisted living facility. Sometimes it’s to get your confidence up that you can do it.”

Barriers to overcome

There are plenty of jobs out there. In fact, there are more jobs in the Mid-Shore area than people to fill them.

According to the Maryland Workforce Exchange’s June Monthly Labor Review issued on Aug. 2, Queen Anne’s County has the lowest unemployment rate, 3.4%, or 945 people out of a labor force of 27,657. Dorchester County has the highest unemployment rate at 5.5% or 854 people out of 15,513 in the workforce. In the middle are Talbot at 3.6% or 714 unemployed out of a workforce of 19,579; Caroline, 3.9% or 702 unemployed and a labor force of 18,021; and Kent at 4.2% or 426 unemployed and 10,143 in the labor force.

According to an Aug, 16 press release from the Maryland DOL, the state’s overall unemployment rate remained at 3.8%. “Maryland continues to be in its longest stretch of unemployment below 4% since 2008,” the release stated.

DeLuca, who has published a comprehensive job listing of Mid-Shore jobs for the past dozen years, said that his list has quadrupled since 2008.

“My 2008 jobs list was six to eight pages; now it’s 24 to 30 pages long,” DeLuca said. “Very unique to Chesapeake College,” the popular, free list is updated every Thursday, sent to 900 addresses and posted on the college’s website. “And if I miss it, I hear about it. People just love that listing,” DeLuca said.

“It is a job seekers market, but you’ve got to have those skills, and you’ve got to be able to present yourself on your resume so you can get in the door and talk,” DeLuca said.

Home health care workers are the fastest growing occupation in Maryland. According to the Shore Region WIOA Regional Plan for eight Eastern Shore counties (not including Cecil), “the largest employment sector is health care an social assistance (15.3%), followed by accommodation and food service (13.4%) and retail trade (12.9). These second quarter 2018 figures in just three categories account for almost half of the jobs on the Shore.

So why isn’t everyone employed?

“One of the things we need to think about in our line of work is labor force participation rate, more so than the unemployment rate, and who’s participating, and more importantly, who’s not participating, and why,” McDermott said.

“The work force participation rate of people in the prime working age of 16 to 65 and how many of those folks are participating in the labor force — how many have a job: That’s where (AJC partners’) work is focused — to try … to understand why people in the prime working age aren’t working,” McDermott said.

“The biggest thing that we see … is people with barriers, and those barriers could be child care, transportation, a criminal record, disability. I think engaging those folks in the labor force is more challenging than (for) someone who doesn’t have a barrier, and those are the folks we need to get off of the sidelines and into the work force,” McDermott said. Another barrier affecting workers on the Eastern Shore is child or adult care issues.

“By the very nature of saying we need to engage people with barriers to employment, basically we’re saying it’s going to take more work on the job seeker’s part, the employment training system’s part and the employer’s part,” he said.

“We’ve been attacking those (barriers) for a long time,” McDermott said. “I think we are making a difference, and we’re making a difference because every time we have a success, it makes us more willing to try harder. I think the successes we’re having beget more energy and effort.”

Saying yes to all

One of the successes McDermott points to is a young man who wanted to be a welder.

“Almost every AJC partner touched that guy’s journey,” McDermott said. “He’s almost done and he’s already working. The efforts included the Division of Rehabilitative Services, Adult Education when he worked on his high school diploma, (USWIB) with employment and training funds for him to go to school, Chesapeake College’s foundation funded some of his training. So it was a whole array, and — I might as well use a cliche — it took a village.”

“One thing about that kind of success is you go, ‘Hey, I understand what my (AJC) partners do. I understand their role. I understand what they can do to help in this situation. And it was a success. So, hey, we can try that again,’” McDermott said.

“In the American Job Centers, the whole idea is to say yes,” McDermott said. “Can you help me get a diploma? Yes. Can you help me find a job? Yes. Can you help me get the training? Yes. I have a disability — can you help me? Yes. I’m a veteran — can you help me? Yes.”

“So the whole point is, get a bunch people together in the same place ... and see how many ways we can say yes when somebody comes through the door (of an American Job Center),” McDermott said. “That’s what we like to do. We’ll help anybody. We will figure out a way. We think we have something for everybody.”

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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