City’s job training program eyes expansion after early successes

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Early graduates of the city’s GO Driver program, which trains workers for positions employers need to fill, are now working for Charlottesville Area Transit. Photo courtesy City of Charlottesville Early graduates of the city’s GO Driver program, which trains workers for positions employers need to fill, are now working for Charlottesville Area Transit. Photo courtesy City of Charlottesville

Last year, George Davis was struggling to make ends meet. The 47-year-old was working as much as possible as a private home care attendant, landscaper and maintenance man. But the work wasn’t steady, and he didn’t always get his paychecks on time.

“The money wasn’t what I needed to sustain my rent or food costs,” said Davis.

So last fall, Davis and a friend walked into the city’s new Downtown Job Center, where he discovered a city program about to launch called GO Driver. Davis applied and, along with 11 others, went through 80 hours of training to become Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) bus drivers, receiving instruction in everything from customer service to the technical skills needed to pass the rigorous Commercial Drivers License (CDL) test. Now Davis and his fellow GO grads work as many as 40 hours a week, making about $15 an hour driving city buses.

The GO Driver program is one of several the city has designed to place out-of-work and underemployed people in jobs while fulfilling workforce needs: Workers get trained for specific employer-outlined jobs with the expectation that those employers will hire them. GO Driver is now in its second iteration, and the city has begun accepting applications for another dozen candidates, who will land jobs with CAT and other public transit services. The city is seeking outside grant funding to support an expanding set of programs now in the works. There’s GO Office, aimed at training and finding jobs for office administrators; GO Electric, which will partner with local corporation Design Electric Inc. to create an apprenticeship program for electricians; and GO CNA, which will train certified nursing assistants in connection with the UVA Health System.

Hollie Lee, the city’s chief of workforce development strategies, is spearheading the GO programs, which are part of a larger project in the city that’s beginning to use what Lee calls a “job-driven workforce development” model.

“It used to be that people would get trained in a profession and just hope to get a job somewhere,” said Lee. “But with this, we train the person based on what employers say they need, so that once they get through with the training they know they’re going to get a job.”

The programs were part of a series of recommendations made in a 2013 report called Growing Opportunities: A Path to Self-Sufficiency in Charlottesville that was completed by representatives from five city departments. The report identified common barriers people face in finding and keeping a job—a lack of technical training, unreliable transportation and unaffordable child care, among other things—as well as steps the city could take and the partnerships it should forge to help eliminate these hurdles.

GO Driver was the first job training program born from the report. It started when Lee and her coworkers spoke with John Jones, the transit manager for CAT, who told them he’s had difficulty retaining good drivers. It takes a certain type of personality to be able to handle the vast array of situations that come up while driving a bus full of people through the city, he said.

“If you can give me somebody that can serve the customer, that can deal effectively with people and in a courteous manner, I can teach just about anybody how to drive,” said Jones.

And so Lee and a cohort of people throughout the city carefully screened and selected 12 candidates, and then worked with CAT and Piedmont Virginia Community College to create a curriculum. Jones said he frequently gets compliments about the set of drivers working with CAT now thanks to the GO Driver program. And while the new hires are considered relief transit operators, they’ll be the next in line as full-time openings become available with CAT.

For its first round of GO Driver, the city paid about $11,800 through its workforce investment fund to train six of the 12 drivers last year, according to Lee. The other six participants had their training paid for by Goodwill Industries—the national nonprofit group that runs Goodwill thrift stores and other efforts to reduce unemployment—which used federal money from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Separately, the WIA also gave CAT an employer wage subsidy to help ease any financial burden incurred during the training.

Lee said the city will be reducing its funding amount for this next round of GO Driver training set to begin June 1. “We know it can’t always be local dollars,” said Lee. “So we’re trying to leverage whatever’s out there.”

In addition to the WIA funds, which may cover the training for more than half of the participants during this round, Lee said the city recently received a grant through the Virginia Department of Social Services that will help pay for people’s training if they are on food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Lee said almost all of the first round participants would have qualified for this funding.

Davis and Lee emphasized a deeper level of the program as well, which goes beyond the curriculum. Without the program’s built-in support network, they said, some drivers never would have made it.

For instance, one woman in the program was facing an eviction notice, so Lee worked with MACAA to get her emergency rental assistance. Another man failed his vision test because he didn’t have the right prescription glasses, so Lee reached out to Ridge Schuyler, who heads the Charlottesville Works Initiative and was able to buy him a new pair.

“We want to give them every chance,” said Lee. “We don’t want someone not having glasses to be the thing that stops them from getting through this program and making $15 an hour.”

Davis said he tells everybody who will listen about how GO programs and the Downtown Job Center can help them, and how vital the support network is that they provide.

“They give people the resources they need to get a good, decent paying job that will allow you to live comfortably,” said Davis. “If you are willing to work and apply yourself, they’re willing to help you.”