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Workforce training initiative earns state certification

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Reese Murphy and Chris Sardelli/The Lancaster News

A Lancaster County effort to prepare unemployed workers for future jobs and make the county more attractive to new business and industry is well underway now after earning its state certification last week.

In a related development on, Feb. 19, Lancaster County Council also approved a permanent home for the initiative and funding to employ a full-time coordinator.

Lancaster County’s new Lancaster SC Works initiative is one of 34 county-level initiatives certified Feb. 22 by the S.C. Workforce Investment Board as a S.C. Work Ready Community In Progress.

The local initiative, which  started in January, is a part of Gov. Nikki Haley’s S.C. Work Ready Communities initiative.

Like the state-level initiative, Lancaster Works’ goal is to create an ongoing public/private alliance aimed at developing a workforce qualified for the demands of modern employers.

“Our local partners are a vital part of our team’s focus to recruit jobs for our citizens,” Haley said in an press release announcing the certifications. “These 34 counties’ commitment to raising the bar is another reason why South Carolina is the new ‘it’ state when it comes to economic development.”

Lancaster Works’ certification represents the initiative’s attainment of several specific benchmarks signifying the community’s seriousness of intent. The “In Progress” certification means the initiative now has two years to reach goals necessary to become a Certified Work Ready Community.

Carolinas Literacy Network Executive Director Kathy Wilds, whose organization acts as the local coordinating agency for the initiative, said she was excited to hear the news that Lancaster Works’ application for certification had been accepted.

“I felt fairly certain that the application would be approved, but now that it is, the hard work is just beginning,” Wilds said.

Lancaster Works is an outgrowth of an April 2011 workforce study commissioned by Lancaster County Council that drew on data from interviews and meetings with jobseekers, major employers, local organizations and government officials.

The findings of that study showed a need for increased workforce training for industry-specific jobs, access to computer-skills training, job placement and collaboration among public and private entities.

The Lancaster Works effort started taking shape in 2011 with the creation of a workforce action team and an October 2011 job fair, which drew more than 900 participants.

Participants’ names and resumes were added to a Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. database that would be used to notify jobseekers about new jobs or training and create a baseline of the county’s workforce readiness.

County Council later approved $10,000 for LCEDC to create the website www.OneWorkforceSC.com, which provides information about jobs, jobseeker registration and evaluations to match workers’ skills with job opportunities.

At the heart of the workforce training effort are classes covering basic skills.

Among the classes that will be offered are reading and math, GED preparations and online study, HSAP study, basic and intermediate computer use, virtual high school, job transition services, ASVAB military preparation and college entry preparation.

Nearly a dozen students are currently participating in the first round of training focusing on “soft-skills” such as resume writing, dressing for success, interview and interpersonal skills. A new cycle begins Monday, March 4.

All students involved in the Lancaster Works training program will receive ACT WorkKeys training and testing, which determines a worker’s suitability for a range of jobs,   counseling and job placement services.

In completing each level of WorkKeys training and testing, workers earn ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC).

The credentials indicate the skills a potential employee possesses, such as applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. In aggregate, the number of NCRCs in the county indicates the skill levels of its workforce for new employers.

“Though the NCRC credentialing that effectively measures workplace skills, counties are positioning themselves to have an economic advantage in being able to showcase the capability and quality of their workforce,” said Robert Barnett, associate vice president of workforce, education and manufacturing policy for the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Program goals 

The goal of Lancaster Works is to train 400 clients by January 2015, and in the process produce 50 clients with NCRC credentials by June 2013; 55 more by December 2013 and an additional 125 by January 2015.

Wilds said Lancaster Works’ services are extremely important to a county with nearly 11 percent unemployment.

“If we’ve got 5,500 adults between 18 and 64 who are unemployed, about 3,400 of them will not have finished high school,” Wilds said. “But then you’ve got another 2,400 who have a diploma, or a GED but have been out of work for some time and need some coaching and guidance in ‘How do I take my existing job training and skills and translate them to new skills?’

“Helping them sort through it all and put them through a short term and impactful training program is important,” she said. “It’s going to take all levels of the community to come together and rally around this to make this work.”

To date, there are more than 2o public, private and non-profit organizations involved in the project representing the county’s governmental, educational, business and non-profit sectors. Several individuals, including government officials, are also involved.

Significant donations from three local businesses in particular have helped get the initiative rolling: $75,000 from Duke Energy for workforce training, $25,000 from BI-LO Charities for the training program’s furniture and equipment, and most recently, $30,000 from Walmart for the GED initiative.

Former County Council Chairwoman Kathy Sistare serves as the “Workforce Champion.” 

Sistare compared Lancaster Works to a football quarterback. She said the effort brings all facets together, including education, workforce training and economic development.

Sistare said if the initiative’s community-wide participation is any indication, Lancaster Works will be a huge success in putting the county’s unemployed back to work and drawing new business and industry.

“I cannot imagine, having all the players in place that we have, that it would not be successful,” Sistare said. “You have an air of excitement that I’ve never seen before.

“The air of success is there,” she said. “I think for the first time in a very, very long time, we have a team effort working towards a team goal.”

Council approves building, funds

Lancaster County Council approved a training facility for use as the county’s Workforce Development Center, as well as startup funds for the training program and plans for a potential new hire, during its Monday meeting, Feb. 25.

Council voted 6-1 to approve use of the former Founders Federal Operations Center on Charlotte Highway as the training facility. The county’s Agribusiness Center is also housed there. 

They also voted to allocate $65,800 for the training program’s budget and to investigate hiring an employee to manage the training program. Citing location and program structure concerns, Councilman Bob Bundy cast the dissenting vote.

The vote came soon after Wilds, Sistare and Keith Tunnell, LCEDC president, spoke to council about the need for a Workforce Development facility.

“We’re getting notes from companies wanting to sign on,” Sistare said.

County Administrator Steve Willis had initially recommended using the county-owned building at 3888 Chester Highway, which was both the former Springmaid-Wamsutta store and temporary courthouse. 

However, several council members, including Bundy and Councilman Larry Honeycutt, instead recommended using vacant space at the U.S. 521 building.

Council also decided on the need for a central figure to coordinate the training program and voted to hire a workforce development coordinator. 

The employee would be responsible for organizing training programs, working with multiple agencies and achieving measured goals. Council voted to “scrutinize” the employee on a one-year trial basis.

Approved startup funds would cover estimated costs for the coordinator, as well as for classroom instructors, furniture and office equipment.

“There’s a need for a quarterback that can take all the bits and pieces and craft a plan on what really needs to be done, how it can be done and who can do it,” said Council Chairman Larry McCullough.

Councilman Brian Carnes also urged the team to continue focusing on matching training to the appropriate employees.

“Some comments I’ve heard is we’re training people, but we don’t know what we’re training them for,” Carnes said. “If that’s one of the top jobs here, then I support it.”

 

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151 and reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416