Despite a strong work ethic and adequate educational foundation, the cost of job training coupled with the scheduling and expense of quality childcare keep many New River Valley families struggling to break out of unemployment and underemployment.
Recognizing this double problem, the Department of Labor’s ‘Strengthening Working Families Initiative’ launched the pilot project called SwiftStart administered through Roanoke-based Total Action for Project, or TAP, and Radford-based New River Community Action.
Now, a year in, that program is paying off and it may be that SwiftStart’s approach recognizing that, for parents to boost their skills training and care for their children at the same time, a “two generation” approach is necessary, has been the key.
For Radford native, Rebecca Walker, even though she had finished a year of university, escaping low-paying, confidence-grinding jobs and keeping her 4-year-old child in good childcare all while trying to make ends meet looked impossible.
“I considered going back to school, but, financially, that was never going to happen,” she said. “Everyone would always say I needed to go back to school, but I came up with so many excuses and I had such low self-esteem that I always talked myself out of it ‘I’m not smart enough to go back’ or ‘I couldn’t do it the first time, I sure can’t do it now.’”
David Moore, senior research faculty at Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance who directs the program through TAP confirms Walker’s plight.
“Too often, low-skilled, low-wage jobs don’t pay enough to cover child care, leaving parents unemployed and the whole family languishing in poverty,” he said.
“By helping parents [who are] past that bottom rung of the employment ladder,” he said, “we help give their family a chance at being self-sufficient.”
SwiftStart is designed specifically to prepare unemployed and marginally employed parents to complete short-term training opportunities in valuable jobs like healthcare, information technology and advanced manufacturing in 2 to 18 months, providing quality childcare during classes, helping with job placement after graduation and, throughout, there is support from NRCA mentors and cheerleaders like Carolyn Fisher and Misty Cox-Henderson.
“We are offering an ear to listen and a push in the right direction,” said Fisher in an earlier interview. Above and beyond program administrative duties, Fisher and Cox-Henderson tackle problems like transportation, a constant challenge in the rural NRV program, shuttling students in carpools and once orchestrating the collection of twins when their Mom was late at school.
While connecting childcare to a parent’s work training seems both innovative and obvious, this is the first time DoL allowed so much of the project funds to be spent on childcare as training support.
To construct an efficient program, they coordinated SwiftStart with the already-well-established program HeadStart, the national child development program for children from birth to five that has been providing services to promote academic, social and emotional development for income-eligible families since the 60s.
It’s not a requirement, but more than two-thirds of SwiftStart participants are HeadStart families. Head Start is also built on this strong, “two-generation” approach, caring for children exposing the whole family to what a high-quality educational program looks like for young children.
“Head Start helps them understand child development and to grow as positive parents,” Moore said.
Linking the work program to the child care program seems to have been a missing link: Head Start doesn’t have time to focus on employment, and few work programs provide childcare or subsidies because it’s expensive.
“The workforce system, with which we are partnered in this program, can pay for childcare, but they seldom do because of the cost,” Moore said.
For Rebecca Walker, who was already working with New River Community Action’s child health program, found out about Swift Start, filled out all of the paperwork and, because of her previous education, she passed an entrance test and was accepted into the 16-week, $3000 Certified Clinical Medical Assistant program. SwiftStart covers those impossible-to-manage training and certification expenses – even gas to get there.
“A stethoscope and blood pressure set, nursing scrubs and shoes, and even my glasses,” she said. “The best part though was that they paid for gas to and from class and the childcare I needed. They also paid for my CPR and National Medical Assistant Certification,” she said.
Urban Roanoke and rural NRV SwiftStart programs face unique challenges. While participants in both regions have difficult family dynamics, criminal histories, or substance abuse problems in their lives, says Moore, because of NRV’s rural nature, participants particularly struggle with transportation
In addition, the number and timing of training programs is far fewer in the NRV and childcare, especially for infants and toddlers is in very short supply, so in the NRV the program is more dependent of finding private unlicensed sitters than in Roanoke.
The employment market is also different. There are fewer large employers and the jobs are spread around to many smaller employers and new opportunities come up less often Moore said.
But over the year the pilot has been running, 58 people have started training, 29 have completed the training already.
Last week, five more women finished their CMA training and began their externships. Rebecca Walker was one of them.
“By the end of the course, I bloomed into a completely different person. Almost unrecognizable to the shell of a person I was before. It’s all because I took that first step into the SwiftStart office,” Walker wrote in a graduation speech.
She says now she can help provide for her family and not wonder how to put food on the table or whether she’ll be able to pay the light bill for the month.
Over the four years of the grant, SwiftStart aims to have 350 participants. About one-third will be in the NRV and two-thirds in the greater Roanoke area.
While the grant is adequately funded to do what TAP and NRCA plan to do, but since it is just a pilot program, it’s unclear whether it will be renewed in June 2020. “We are currently exploring strategies for how to sustain the effort, but perhaps at a lower level. Or, we may find that DOL learns enough from the pilot to make childcare an integral component across their portfolio of job training programs.” Parents interested in participating in the program should contact Carolyn Fisher at 633-5513, ext. 453, or [email protected]