Historic spikes in unemployed workers has been one of the biggest stories to come out of the pandemic. Indiana was no exception to the trend. In response it’s doubled down on a program that helps workers not just recover their jobs, but maybe even get a better one. The state is now enlisting the help of community leaders to reach people who could benefit from the program most.
Helping build the template for the state's community outreach is Pastor Terry Webster of Nu Corinthian Baptist Church in Indianapolis. Each weekend in October, he welcomed people, waiting in long lines of cars, to a USDA-sponsored food distribution. Brandishing a megaphone, he’s also sure to point out, they have more than just food.
"[There's] career development from the governor’s office," he shouts through the megaphone. "They’ll tell you about $25 an hour jobs. They’ll tell you how to get connected."
While people get boxes of food placed in their backseats, people from Indiana’s Office of Career Connections and Talent and Ivy Tech stand ready to tell people about Next Level Jobs, a state-funded program that pays for job training.
Next Level Jobs consists of two grant programs. Employer Training Grants are given to companies that have costs associated with training existing employees. The other, Workforce Ready Grants, are meant for Hoosiers who need a certification to get a job in a field the state deems as being in "high demand."
It’s existed for more than three years now, but Webster said with massive job losses due to the pandemic, people at his church need programs that connect them to job opportunities more than ever. So they’re trying something new. He called some connections and got leaders in workforce development to come out and spread the word.
"I'm hearing ‘Where do I find hope?’ ‘Where do I find a job?’" Webster said. "A lot of businesses are not coming back. They are gone. So it leaves a level of apprehension."
Chris Lowery, senior vice president for workforce alignment at Ivy Tech, helped staff the information booth one weekend in early October. He said it’s kind of a big experiment to figure out how they can reach people where they already are.
"Various of us here today, we know about Next Level, got all that in my head, employer training grants, workforce ready grants, what the programs are, how it’s covered, this that and the other – [but] not enough people know," he said."Not enough people know."
Since Next Level Jobs launched in 2017, almost 18,000 people have completed a job certification program eligible for the state’s Workforce Ready Grant. And this fall alone, close to 6,000 Hoosiers enrolled in training programs for the first time at Ivy Tech campuses statewide where they could get the state to pay for the fees.
A lot of that is thanks to the state opening up eligibility for the grant to more people during the pandemic. Agencies like the Department of Workforce Development have also worked to target people on unemployment benefits to get information about Next Level Jobs.
But Lowery said in-person outreach, at places like food pantries and churches, can help reach some people that could use help the most. That's especially important when considering research from the National Skills Coalition suggests many workers coming out of fields like manufacturing and construction have little to no digital skills.
"We’ve got to do more of this," Lowery said, about in-person outreach. "The people doing the marketing and advertising stuff, they’re great ... but we’ve just got to reach more people."
National job recovery has lagged the most in communities of color and data from enrollments in the Next Level Job Workforce Ready Grant last year show that Black men are overrepresented in the programs. That may mean they find the training more useful than other demographic groups.
Pastor Webster said that as a Black man, well-known and respected in his community, he might even be more effective at delivering information about Next Level Jobs than a stranger representing a government agency.
"I can say some things to my congregation and my culture that others can't say," Webster said. "All I ask for amongst my congregation, amongst my community, amongst African Americans … is a fair chance at going and competing for a $21 an hour job."
One of those people in his church looking to compete for a job is Tela Ruth. She was laid off before the pandemic, and hasn’t found a job since.
"The job market has really changed since I looked for a job 37 years ago," Ruth said. "So I know there are some skills that I need to enhance."
Ruth said she knows she’ll need to learn how to use Microsoft Office. But she didn’t know that one of the two programs under Next Level Jobs would pay for her to learn those skills until stopping at the information booth. Now that she knows about it, she said she’ll definitely take advantage of it.
Blair Milo, secretary of Career Connections and Talent, said by November they hope to have a bit of a formula that can be copied and pasted by other community leaders around the state who want to connect Hoosiers to jobs that suit them.
"[We'll learn] things that we want to keep doing, things that we don't want to keep doing and who else we want to maybe bring to these experiences and go from there," she said.