Marne Harris has a job to do, and if she does it well, it means you will have a job too.
That's because Harris and her cohorts at Southwestern Community College have made it their mission to help the community's residents and students secure employment through the SCC Employability Lab and several additional workforce training programs. Despite the struggling economy and poor job market, they're committed to increasing job prospects for both the unemployed and underemployed throughout the region.
As an Educational Opportunities Instructor in the Human Resource Development Program at Sylva's Southwestern Community College campus — one of four Employability Labs located in SCC facilities in nearby counties, including Macon, Swain and in Cherokee — Harris assists job seekers in realizing their full potential, to "be all you can be." She and the other instructors teach individuals how to stand out from the crowd of applicants and sell themselves and their skills to prospective employers.
"For people that are out of work or struggling with low wages and part-time jobs, it's a depressing time," said Harris. "But I encourage people to come in and let us help them find something better, or pursue further education that will open doors to a new career." Harris said that it's a very difficult time for many still suffering from the economic recession, and with long-term unemployment benefits being cut off by the state's General Assembly, it's more important than ever. "I don't understand how people are going to live, much less prosper," said Harris. "But I think teaching employability skills is crucial right now for helping people to get hired and earn a living wage."
Hope and prepare
For those who have felt lost in today's turbulent job market, either unemployed or simply trapped in a dead-end job with little room for advancement or salary increase, the Employability Labs offer a lifeline to self-improvement and future success in their career.
The Human Resource Development Program (HRD) is designed to help young and older job seekers alike to secure the best available jobs for which they're qualified, by increasing their employability and job skills through education and training in several fields. The Employability Labs offer assistance and instruction in building resumes, writing concise and effective cover letters, interviewing skills, job search applications, career exploration and assessments, educational opportunity assessments, basic computer training to navigate the Internet, setting up email accounts and using Microsoft Office applications, and assessing one's skills, interests and personality to find the perfect career path for an individual.
Many of the computer skills taught at the Employability Labs, which are absolutely necessary to secure gainful employment in the modern job market, are overwhelming and intimidating to older job seekers that may have lost jobs they've held for years in manufacturing or production. But the instructors in the HRD Program have become adept at bringing older job seekers up to speed. "It's never too late," said Harris. "There's a 73-year-old that found a new job recently here at SCC."
Harris has been with the HRD program since March 2012, and has kept a long list of people who have become successfully employed through the program. Seventeen people were hired through the program's efforts during the spring semester of 2012, ten over the summer, and that's just the lab at SCC's Sylva campus. The program is on track to increase those figures in the coming months as more people discover this relatively new resource.
Harris explained that like most things in life, people get out of it what they put into it. She urges those looking for work to treat searching for a job as a job in itself. Assistance is there when people need it. "One of the best parts about the Employability Labs is that they are open-entry labs during the regularly scheduled hours. People can show up whenever it's convenient for them," said Harris. "It makes the job search and preparation more easy and accessible, rather than having to schedule appointments."
The HRD Program is a free service provided by a fee waiver through SCC by state funds available to promote economic development, and stands to benefit the regional economy by increasing the net income of the workforce in Western North Carolina. That's the big picture. But to Harris and the other instructors, it's more personal as they determine the needs of each individual and how to help them best. "When they first come in, we do a short evaluation to find out a student's background, work history, skills and qualifications," Harris explained. From that point, "The program is customized for each individual, so that we can offer help for whatever level a person is at in their education or career."
Building career skills …and confidence
Tiffany Bloodworth, an occupational therapy student at SCC, has been coming to the Employability Lab for the past two months. "I've been working with Marne on developing my resume, writing effective cover letters and building on my career readiness skills," she said. Bloodworth just started the occupational therapy program this summer, and won't be entering the career field for at least two years. But she's taking full advantage of the services offered at the Employability Lab in the meantime so she can hit the ground running when she graduates. It's already made a significant impact in her life.
"What impresses me the most about Marne is her enthusiasm," said Bloodworth. She explained that Harris has really helped her to better understand her potential. "Marne has already taught me to be more confident in my abilities. She brings out things in you that you didn't know you could do, and the person in you that didn't know you could be," she added.
Heather Carnahan agrees wholeheartedly. Carnahan was attending SCC until life's troubles knocked her off track, as it sometimes does, and she had to withdraw from the medical assistance and medical administration program in which she was enrolled. She said she is trying to enroll again for the spring semester, and that Harris has been a tremendous help in attaining her personal and professional goals. "Right now I'm just trying to find a job that I can work at while I'm in school," said Carnahan. "Public assistance is keeping me with food and shelter at the moment, but hopefully all that will change as soon as I find a good job."
For now, Carnahan has been focusing on getting back into school, and the instruction at the Employability Lab has already helped her to do just that. "The instructors here at SCC, and Marne, have been a huge help getting all the forms and paperwork together," said Carnahan. Harris doesn't limit herself to just helping her students find work, but goes above and beyond to offer assistance with enrollment and financial aid. "With Marne's help, I'm working on composing my appeal letter to receive financial aid again," Carnahan said. "I feel confident that I'll be able to come back next semester."
Carnahan has been impressed with how accessible the Employability Lab has been in the short time she's been utilizing the service, "especially for people with no transportation of their own," she said. Within just a little over a month, Carnahan has gone from feeling down to seeing a bright future ahead of her.
Harris has that effect on people, apparently. Steven Alexander, a student at SCC who recently turned to the Employability Lab for guidance, was having a difficult time finding a job. "I have been unemployed for a year and four months," said Alexander. But Harris' efforts to help him find a job have already paid off. "I heard about the lab through a friend so I decided to try it out. I attended the lab twice and have already gotten 'my foot in the door' at Dollar Tree."
Alexander gives credit where it's due. "It is really all thanks to Mrs. Marne Harris," he said. "If it hadn't been for her help, I would still be unemployed."
Career Readiness Certification
In addition to attending her regular classes, Bloodworth is pursuing her Career Readiness Certificate (CRC). While it's not required for those attending the Employability Labs, the CRC is a national certification that can benefit job seekers on several levels.
First, as is the case with Bloodworth, the program increases an individual's confidence in their own job skills, especially if they have been out of work for some time. Secondly, it reinforces and increases job skills that an individual may lack, making them more employable. The Career Readiness Certificate curriculum evaluates and instructs students in a variety of employment-related subjects, such as applied mathematics, reading for information, and locating and researching information. The CRC program provides a format for individuals to practice being evaluated in each field in an online test. Each section is 55 minutes long, and of the subjects evaluated, students can earn various scores — bronze, silver or gold — which indicate their level of proficiency in each category. The Career Readiness Certificate can be added to one's resume to help them stand out from the large numbers of other applicants, signifying a stamp of approval that assures the employer of the caliber of worker they are hiring. By doing so, "It improves the match between employer and employee," said Harris.
Harris takes her job of finding other people jobs seriously, so she's added a unique element to the program. Every Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., "I switch gears and teach classes on life skills to accompany the lessons on job searching and employment. I have some people that come to the life skills classes only," said Harris, "because they are so fun and interactive, as well as effective."
Life skills classes include such topics as setting goals, teamwork, improving communication and customer service skills, problem solving, managing money, leadership skills in the workplace, and one of the most important in the modern electronic era with all its distractions, time management. Harris explains that work-related, social skills are vital for one's success, both personally and professionally.
The life skills classes are designed to be engaging and inspiring, and are filled with activities and assessments that can pinpoint one's strengths and weaknesses a person can improve. And of course there's always room for improvement. Upcoming classes include "Career and Skill Exploration: A New Career and a New You" scheduled for Sept. 27, "Enhance and Update Your Computer Skills" scheduled for Oct. 4, "Resumes and Job Applications" on Oct. 11, and "Mastering the Interview" on Oct. 25, to name a few. The classes are held each week in the lab at SCC's Oaks Hall, Room 104. A full schedule of upcoming Friday life skills classes through Dec. 13 is available through the Employability Lab.
Who is eligible for the program?
Anyone that meets the guidelines for the program receives a fee waiver if they meet one of the following criteria:
Anyone who does not meet the above criteria can still utilize SCC's area Employability Labs, but would be required to pay $175 per semester. To enroll, individuals must be either 18 years of age; 16 and 17-year-olds not enrolled in high school also are qualified to enroll, but the HRD program is not available for students enrolled in high school.
Pathways to Success
Darlene Anderson, Educational Opportunities Director at Southwestern Community College, oversees the Human Resource Development Program that encompasses the Employability Labs, along with a program geared toward undereducated job seekers called Pathways to Success. She has been very pleased with the progress the labs have shown in finding jobs for students and community members. "Marne and the other instructors have been doing a wonderful job," said Anderson. "The students really respond to the passion and energy she brings to the job."
She said the college plans to continue providing the labs for the foreseeable future, and administrators are looking at ways to expand employability programs in the coming years. Anderson points to the cooperation between SCC employability services, her department, and Harrah's Cherokee Casino recently establishing the new educational curriculum for teaching gaming as an example of what can be accomplished by working closely with area employers. Harrah's is one of the largest employers in the region, and this level of cooperation, unprecedented until now, could lead to employment for hundreds of additional area residents in the future as Harrah's expands.
Pathways to Success is designed for individuals who lack their high school diploma, whether due to dropping out of school or immigrating to the United States. The program offers instruction and testing for individuals to receive their High School Diploma or GED, or pursue curriculum certificates and career readiness certification. The program also offers English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum and certification.
The Pathways to Employment Program which, according to Anderson, "ties all of these programs together to create more opportunities for area residents and students." Anderson explained that it's something new altogether. "Pathways to Employment helps students gain employment and then follows their progress for about six months, reviewing their status with the employer and the employee to see if there are any areas in which the Employability Labs can improve," said Anderson.
While the Employability Labs were established over two years ago, and Pathways to Success has been around for about a year and a half, Pathways to Employment was just established this fall, bringing the two departments to work closely and effectively together and to teach the "soft skills" that can often make the difference between being employed, or not.