On a recent Monday morning, Aireyuna Dumas knelt on the ground and carefully hammered a nail into a wood floor.
She was three weeks into a three-month construction program at the St. Paul-headquartered Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, where she spends five days a week learning the trade.
Dumas, a mother of two young children, learned about the program from a friend a couple of months ago, when she decided to leave behind a dead-end retail job for a career in construction. “I love working with my hands,” she said. But she also knew that she would make good money if she becomes a unionized construction worker, a job she hopes will provide a better life for her children.
Similar calculations have long drawn thousands of people from around the Twin Cities to Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota in search of career opportunities in automotive services, medical office, building trades and banking and finance.
Recently, the organization was one of seven organizations nationwide to receive the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services first-ever “Employer of Excellence” designation for providing individuals from underserved communities with career training and job placement.
“The recognition that came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reflection of the quality of services that we provide,” said Andrew Freeberg, director of community programs at Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. “Our overall goal is really to understand individuals and help them overcome whatever barriers they are facing.”
Unique training model
One thing that makes the Goodwill-Easter Seals job training program stand out among its peers is its focus. It’s aimed at individuals from underserved communities who are unemployed or underemployed and are facing barriers to improve their economic situations, and it concentrates on certain industries: construction, automotive services, medical office and banking and finance. Then, within those fields, program participants choose from various occupations. They can train to become patient representatives, insurance specialists, medical receptionists, tellers, personal bankers, mortgage processors, carpenters or general laborers.
What’s also unique about Goodwill are the locations where the organization offers training. Take the banking and finance program. All the classes of the program take place at a U.S. Bank branch, where students gain a real-life, hands-on experience by working alongside employees and managers — and serving customers in various capacities. “That has been really instrumental in students being able to walk into a bank environment every day,” said Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota Program Director Becky Brink. “They are able to hear the language of the industry … and get to see what professionalism looks like.”
The program is accredited as a career school, so graduates can earn college credits that will allow them to advance their careers in the future if they decide to pursue the traditional college education. “What we’re really trying to do is help people [find] employment as quickly as possible,” Brink said. “But we also focus on training them, getting them work experience, and promote going back to college.”
Finally, the organization invests in making sure that participants have the means to be able successfully complete the training programs, whether that’s childcare service to parents with young children or bus fare and clothes to those who can’t afford them.
For all of that, program participants like Dumas say that the program’s job placement services are as important as the training process itself. That’s because certificates don’t always translate into jobs, especially when people don’t have much prior employment experience.
With that in mind, Brink said, Goodwill has an entire department that places graduates into jobs in their chosen fields, thanks in part to the hundreds of its employer partners who are in the market for skilled workers.
Moreover, Brink said, the curriculum for each of the organization’s training programs was developed in partnership with business leaders who know the kind of in-demand employment skills and what participants should know about today labor market.
“Those employers also help students learn about what the requirements are for job interviews,” she added. “They share information about the hiring process and do the mock interviews with students.”
Another key to the job placement process, says Brink, is the experience of program instructors, most of whom have spent decades working in the fields they teach, which helps students to be more connected to the industries.
Dumas has already seen that. On Aug. 8, when she joined Goodwill, the only person she knew in the construction industry was an old friend. By the time she graduates in December, though, Dumas she’ll have met a number of construction leaders through her program.
Because of those networking opportunities, she’s optimistic about life after graduation. “Construction work is something that I love doing,” said Dumas. “After graduation, I plan on joining a union … that would allow me to make good money and take a good care of my kids.”