Anwer Alkuhaly emigrated from Yemen in 2015 and like many new arrivals, he navigated an unfamiliar culture in Minnesota to find a job that matched his skills. He contacted Project for Pride in Living, a nonprofit social service organization that partners with Hennepin County's Pathways employment training program.
Now, less than three years later, Alkuhaly, 29, is a data analyst for the county's Public Works Department and a poster child for the Pathways program's success at retaining workers and diversifying the county's workforce.
Pathways is an important part of Hennepin County's goal to lower income disparities with jobs that pay a living wage — the county years ago mandated a minimum wage of $15 an hour for internships as well as jobs — and to knock down employment barriers for minority candidates.
The program started in 2014 with a $250,000 investment, which was used mainly for building infrastructure, internships and salaries. Since then, more than 365 people have graduated from Pathways, and 300 of them have been retained by the county with full-time jobs and benefits. More than 1,100 people in all have had internships through the program.
Alkuhaly arrived in the United States with degrees in English literature and accounting. After a slew of testing and a month of training with Pathways, he landed an internship in facility services and soon moved to the Sheriff's Office as a records clerk. He's working on a master's degree in data science from the University of St. Thomas as part of the county's tuition reimbursement program.
With his current job, he supports relatives here and overseas.
"I could have had a job working at Pizza Hut, but that would have been a waste of the skills I had to offer," said Alkuhaly. "Not that there is anything wrong with Pizza Hut. But because of the Pathways program, I never needed to go on public assistance."
Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said he would like the program to branch out and partner with the private sector. The county now is incorporating Blue Earth and Olmsted counties into the program, and several other counties are asking Hennepin County how to model their own Pathways program.
Pathways also works as a pipeline to help Hennepin County retain high-quality employees. The county expects that 43 percent of its current staff will retire by 2025, while the county as a whole is expecting to add as many as 120,000 new jobs by 2020.
Pathways offers jobs in areas such as telecommunications, health care, construction, forestry, human services and policing. Jobs in purchasing and property tax appraisal are being developed for the program.
The county recruits minority, veteran and disabled applicants; more than half of Pathways graduates have been people of color and a majority were women.
In 2016, the county did a "return on investment" study on the Pathways program, following its 66 graduates for a year. The county hired 82 percent of them, and 88 percent continued to work there after a year.
Dependence on public assistance dramatically decreased after graduates were hired by the county. Before joining the program, 89 percent of Pathways participants used some cash, medical, food or housing assistance. Graduates saw an 82 percent annual wage increase.
"This was a modest investment for great results," said McLaughlin. "The county is a major employer and we can use that position in the economy to solve some problems in the community. With these jobs, people are paying taxes and have housing stability. These aren't just jobs but careers."