Lonna Szczesny has helped thousands of women gain skills and move from unemployment to work or a better job. Now she's retiring after 23 years at the nonprofit Resource, most recently as director of women's programs at the nonprofit's Employment Action Center.

She recently received the inaugural "lifetime achievement award" of the Minnesota Women's Consortium. Szczesny joined Resource in 1990.

Q What is the Women in Transition program, one of three you run?

A We serve low-income, unemployed women who need jobs. About 95 percent are single women, some with children. About 75 percent can't access welfare-to-work programs. They come to us because we're the safety net. They have been working, but maybe piecemeal, a couple part-time jobs, and they rarely have a logical career path. They are just hanging on and they are getting older. The median age is 40 or 42. About 25 percent are 55 to 65. They often are stuck and scared.

The other segment we serve is low-income employed single mothers who need to make more or they will turn to public assistance. About half of them, in 20 some years of that program, came from welfare-to-work and they do not want to go back, but they need to make higher wages.

Q What kind of money do your clients make?

A Last year ... the average wage was $8.50 an hour, $17,680 a year if they are fulltime. That's about 400 women a year. About 80 percent of them went through our job-search program, including mentoring and training. A year later they earned an average of about $28,000.

The women coming to us really undervalue their worth in the job market. They may not have had strong positive role models. Many come from struggling families ... often very low-income families. The group most likely in poverty is single women with children. They are the caretakers and care-givers. And there is never enough money to make everything work. They come to us when they want a change.

Q You've worked for years to help get women off of welfare. What are the biggest barriers to economic independence for working-poor women today?

A We really strive for pay equity and stopping discrimination, particularly against women of color. In the Twin Cities there is a large disparity [in pay] between African American and white women. And half the women we work with are women of color. We try to pair them with women who've come through the program to discuss career paths or do mock interviews. These women have skills. Other barriers are affordable, quality child care and flexible hours. We try to help them get that first job and build support through mentors. Once they recognize, "I can do this job" ... they learn new skills and they tend to be loyal and proud of their companies.

Q What's a recent success story?

A One 57-year-old woman came to us, an African American, and she had done piecemeal work, odd jobs, temp jobs, seasonal work, always minimum wage. She didn't feel she could even handle training. But she went into health care training. She was so surprised to do well in the classroom, including computer skills and she moved to a part-time job that became a full-time job with a health clinic where she is the front-line receptionist and assists the nursing staff with appointments and equipment. She makes $12.50 per hour with benefits. These people mostly have worked hard. They just don't know how to package themselves and present themselves. We have people coming to us in their fifties because they have no retirement savings and little promised from Social Security.

Q What's the challenge of moving from hands-on counselor to running several programs?

A Funding. I build strong partnerships with corporations, foundations, the United Way and Hennepin County commissioners. Our [women's program] budget is about $550,000 to serve about 400 women annually and it comes from United Way, Hennepin County, Wells Fargo, Ameriprise, Thrivent, TCF, the Phillips Foundations, women's networking associations and individuals.

Q What do you want policymakers and critics to know?

A These women want better lives for themselves and their kids. At first, we often hear from them a story and maybe some tears. And we say, "Let's make a plan and do what we can do." It's about training, credentials and a better job. We try to close the skill gap ... move low-skilled women with work histories into a higher-paying, middle-skill job. And the fastest growing [careers] are administrative support in health care and financial services. We want to move them to an administrative assistant or accounting assistant at $13 or $14 or $15 an hour. And benefits. It's about asset-building.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 nstanthony@startribune.com