Regina Wilson and Samantha Raines are Anoka County moms who were homeless at various times in 2014 and 2015. Yet they find themselves, as 2016 begins, not only with good jobs at last, but also with some pretty clear ideas about how they might advance next in their new careers.

Wilson, 40, enjoys her work at an assisted-living facility for the elderly in Columbia Heights, earning better pay and benefits than she’s ever had. She also has a beginning foundation of five college credits, on which she intends to stack more. She declares: “I’m in love with health care and I love helping people.”

 

Raines, 25, is beginning to thrive as an administrative accounting assistant for the National Sports Center in Blaine. She is earning more than $30,000 a year, half again as much as she was paid in a series of entry-level jobs for big-box retailers. She’s already thinking about the next rung, relieved to be self-sufficient.

Wilson and Raines are justly proud of their own pluck and hard work in overcoming adversity. But they agree that they almost certainly would not be in this happier place were it not for Anoka County’s innovative Career Connections program. It’s one of dozens of programs emerging in Minnesota as examples of a relatively new “Career Pathways” model — a holistic approach that braids together existing services and funding, combines specialized occupational training with more basic adult education and college credits, blends in social services support, and partners closely with local business organizations and employers.

These new Career Pathways models emphasize working fast to show immediate results, meeting the pressing needs of prospects and putting them in the right jobs at the right level. Raines and Wilson express amazement at the fact that they got through their programs and into their new jobs in a matter of months, after years of frustration trying to get ahead through more conventional avenues.

There’s a moral to their compelling stories of overcoming odds to find a pathway — a moral for the 2016 Minnesota Legislature, and for all employers and policymakers who are looking for solutions to Minnesota’s two biggest problems.

These problems would appear to be made for each other. The first is that Minnesota is home to tens of thousands of underskilled and underemployed adults, and the state suffers some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in workforce outcomes. The other big problem, as our economy continues to recover and grow, is a labor shortage driven by a mass wave of baby-boomer retirements and an economy that increasingly requires specialized skills and credentials.

Wilson was at her wits end just a year ago, living in a shelter in north Minneapolis with her daughter LaShae, now 12, who was feeling threatened at her school and unsafe in their neighborhood. Wilson had worked in various health-care settings and had received some training for the field from her church, in which she had been very active when she lived in Chicago. But she had no actual college credits or credentials that satisfied employers and could not qualify for jobs that paid a livable wage. She was working part-time for a department store chain.

“I knew that I wanted some change for the better and to be financially secure and not depending on government,” Wilson recalled. “My family was upset; my daughter was suffering. And then I met the people at the Anoka County WorkForce Center. It was like a new family.”

Raines, who grew up in the outer-ring suburban community of Ham Lake, endured a hard childhood and lived for a time with foster parents. But she was an honors student in high school and actually had earned a postsecondary credential that had been hyped as a ticket to a good career. But her degree in criminal justice from a for-profit college turned out to be nearly worthless, leaving her not only with unanswered job applications but also deeply in debt with college loans. With two young children — daughter Taylor and son Micah — and some health issues, Raines was drifting between low-wage retail jobs and unemployment, and even a brief stint of homelessness. She was, she said, “at the end of her rope.” Like Wilson, she was receiving welfare benefits when she was referred to the Career Pathways program by social service workers.

Both began their programs in 2015. Both were soon working new jobs they didn’t imagine were possible just a few months earlier.

• • •

Wilson attributes her success to the fact that her Career Pathways program combined all of the things she needed in one package. Not only did she get refresher courses in what is often called “adult basic education” or “soft skills,” but she also got help with transportation to and from her apartment in Fridley and the training center in Blaine. And she continued to receive food assistance.

One of the policy challenges facing human development professionals has been shortsighted restrictions on public assistance for people who also are in school or workforce training programs or in the early stages of employment. The Career Pathways model overcomes those obstacles.

Wilson and Raines both went through an initial “Career Assessment & Exploration” course that evaluated and instructed them on soft skills such as time management and communication, goal-setting, tips on how to be a successful student and on workplace expectations, and including tours of the places they might be working.

Wilson recalls with a laugh a set of lessons in which students talked about “how to be professional” and “how to avoid drama.” There were sessions about personality types — “Agreeable Amy” and “Negotiable Nancy.”

Wilson said her introductory course was a revelation. “What was most useful to me was the website showing jobs I didn’t know existed in health care, that they made so much money and that they were near where I lived. … I was excited, and it got me thinking about what I really wanted to do.” Wilson mastered the college-level courses she was assigned and, partly because of previous experience in health-care jobs, she breezed through the practical certification exam for a nursing assistant.

Raines took the Office & Administrative Technology track, completed 80 hours of Microsoft training, got certified in Excel and Word, then was quickly off to a paid internship at the National Sports Center in Blaine. The sprawling complex of soccer fields and other sports venues has a $14 million annual budget and is billed as “the world’s largest amateur sports and meeting facility.” Raines finds it an exciting place to work, and her employers have been impressed by her.

“Samantha stood out for us,” said Robert Lodge, the marketing coordinator and graphic designer for the Sports Center who tends to the Career Pathway program. “We had a good experience with the way she interacted in the office. She finished projects on time and asked for more.”

Samantha says she gets “ridiculously excited” when bank statements reconcile perfectly with her spreadsheets.

• • •

Thousands more adults like Wilson and Raines, disproportionately persons of color in Minnesota, could benefit from more state and local investment and partnerships for Career Pathways. Lucky for us, these models already are proliferating — in Greater Minnesota from Itasca County to Rochester, but also in suburban counties and in the urban core.

A Nov. 17 front-page Star Tribune story headlined “Hennepin County finding new ways to fill rash of upcoming job openings” revealed one of the more successful examples of Career Pathways training. The article described how Hennepin County, realizing that half of its 7,461 employees would be eligible to retire by 2025, decided that many positions actually did not require four-year degrees and that employees could be trained quickly and specifically for those jobs.

The county has since moved dozens of previously hard-to-employ adults, most of them people of color, into mostly human service office jobs. Officials have been so impressed by the results that they are expanding Career Pathway opportunities to other kinds of training and job classifications.

Costs have been reasonable, program architects say, because Career Pathways makes use of existing funding streams, including federal workforce training funds. The rare bipartisan congressional accord that produced a breakthrough agreement on workforce funding under the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) enables and expands Career Pathway models.

A review of national Career Pathway literature indicates that Minnesota’s progress toward Career Pathways is more advanced than in most states, with growing bipartisan support in the Legislature and from Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, as well as from some of the sharpest philanthropists, economists and business minds in the state and region.

A case in point is a scholarly volume entitled “Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century,” published last year. A chapter entitled “A New Way of Doing Business: The Career Pathway Approach in Minnesota and Beyond” is co-authored by five top state government workforce officials and leaders of foundations.

The bottom-line advice called for “policy changes across federal and state agencies that support the career pathways approach, such as allowing student financial aid for shorter-term programs” yielding “marketable credentials.”

Regina Wilson and Samantha Raines would agree. But they won’t have much time to lobby for Career Pathways in 2016. Wilson is preparing to study for the certification she needs to dispense medication, and Raines is looking for more training in accounting and finance.

 

Dane Smith is the president of Growth and Justice, a public-policy organization that seeks to reduce economic and racial inequality in Minnesota.