Growing up in a single-family, single- income home in Camden, Corey Thorpe faced a lot of adversity. “A good portion of my life I saw things that no one should ever or would ever hope to see,” he says. “I saw destitution, murder and homelessness.” In an attempt to turn his tough childhood into triumph, he went off to college in Connecticut to achieve his goal of getting a higher education. Unable to find a job to help pay the bills, though, he quickly acquired debt and soon had to return home to South Jersey.
On the flip side, President of Mount Laurel-based AJM Insurance and chairman of Burlington County Workforce Development Board, Tony Mahon says that his company is often looking to hire, but individuals with the right skills are hard to find.
With unemployment rates at a nearly all- time low since the Great Recession (both nationally and in New Jersey), why couldn’t Thorpe find a job? And, with people like Thorpe actively looking, why can’t employers like AJM find the people they need?
These local organizations are working toward solutions to both these problems.
Workforce Development Institute at Rowan College at Burlington County
In 2013, recognizing a disconnect between academia and business, Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) and the Work- force Development Board had an idea: What if they used input from local employers to provide students and job seekers with more relevant training and education?
“It’s an interconnected ecosystem,” says Anna Payanzo Cotton, vice president of workforce development and lifelong learning at RCBC. “Education, workforce development and business development go hand-in-hand. You can’t develop a strong economy without strong businesses, and you can’t develop strong businesses without an educated workforce.”
Two years later, they opened the Workforce Development Institute (WDI) at RCBC. In addition to providing career pathway resources like access to employment counselors and professional development training, WDI teams up with area businesses to gather feedback that informs their approach.
Cotton points to Virtua Health, a “premier business partner,” as an example. WDI worked closely with Virtua to understand the type of talent they seek in employees. From there, they analyzed RCBC’s health science division and made a recommendation to improve curriculum, creating a mutually beneficial situation. Students are better prepared for their career in health care and Virtua has a pipeline to confidently find and hire the employees they need.
Cotton says it’s this collaborative effort that makes their solution innovative, but she also knows there is more work to be done. “We recognize we speak a different language and we’re working to transform that by being responsive to what businesses tell us they need. We’re listening.”
Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce Education Partnership
Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Les Vail says the chamber can be a bridge between education and business, especially when employee satisfaction is at stake.
“People often think individuals seeking employment are just looking for the highest paying job,” says Vail. “But really that’s lower on the list. They’re looking for a great culture, a great work environment and an employer who cares about their needs.”
After a 2015-2016 survey conducted by the chamber’s Education Committee re- vealed local businesses needed employees with an associate degree or higher, Vail and his team embraced the opportunity. Working with Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC), they created the chamber of Commerce Education Partnership (CCEP) to make higher education more accessible and affordable. Through CCEP, Chamber members can now offer employees looking for growth opportunities a 33 percent discount on tuition and per credit fees. A CCEP cost comparison chart shows that for one year of tuition this adds up to more than $1,300 in savings.
Vail says affordable education is also key to boosting the economic vitality of the region. “Students are graduating with huge amounts of debt. So, what do they do? They live at home with mom and dad. They don’t go out and buy a new home. They don’t go out and buy a new car. And, this means they don’t have an impact on the economy.”
Hopeworks ‘N Camden
Education-related debt is a significant hurdle for students like Thorpe, making nonprofits like Hopeworks ‘N Camden all the more important. Through education, technology and entrepreneurship, Hopeworks teaches trainees skills to work toward a sustainable future.
Looking for new opportunity after his failed attempt at school in Connecticut, Thorpe took advice from a friend to try Hope- works. “I was a bit overwhelmed at first because you see [coding] on TV and it looks really difficult,” says Thorpe. “I wasn’t getting the hang of it and I wanted to leave. But the staff helped me stay. They told me, ‘It’s not a race. Take your time.’ They gave me a lot of support.”
According to Executive Director Dan Rhoton, employment training for youth who’ve faced adversity involves more than just job prep. “We’ve figured out that to really get these young people ready for work, résumés and mock interviews are great but we also need to help them heal.” In addition to teaching classes on computer coding and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, staff help trainees like Thorpe work through their trauma.
Each day the Hopeworks team gathers for a “huddle.” During this time, everyone in the circle (including senior leadership) answer three questions: “How are you feeling?” “What’s your goal for today?” and “Who are you going to ask for help?” The exercise helps trainees recognize and be comfortable with their emotions, even the negative ones. It also encourages them to ask for help when they need it because, ultimately, they still have to get to work.
Modern Workforce, Viable Economy
According to a recent survey by The Wall Street Journal and executive-advisory group Vistage International, nearly two-thirds of small businesses are spending more time training workers than they were a year ago. As businesses, schools and community organizations collaborate to invest in developing a modern workforce, the more they’re investing in the region’s vital economy.
Today, Thorpe has an internship with Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and is a freshman at Camden County College. He says without employment training, he wouldn’t be where he is now. “Hopeworks prepared me for my future, and now I’m meeting it on the horizon.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 7, Issue 2 (February, 2017).
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