Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'I'm not scared to learn anymore'

Innovative program gives single moms the confidence, support and skills to get off social assistance and into a job

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The province is finding a carrot works better than a stick when it comes to urging single moms on social assistance to get a job.

Starting last August, the government began to invite single parents -- mainly women -- on Employment and Income Assistance (EIA), who have young children, to small group sessions where it explained skills upgrading programs and training allowances.

The printed invitations were a marked departure from the usual cold, harsh and bureaucratic missives from government to those on social assistance.

These were the size and shape of wedding invitations. On the cover was the message: "The power to change your life is within you. Look inside."

Many of them did.

The first session was held in an Osborne Village community centre. The event drew 15 welfare recipients with young children. Child care was provided. Officials and a peer counsellor -- someone who had been in the invitees' shoes -- explained the programs available for skills improvement and training. They explained training allowances pay more than basic welfare and dental and prescription drug benefits are maintained as folks transition to full-time work.

At the end of the presentations, nobody left. They asked questions. They also lined up to sign up for the first step in the program -- an employment-training readiness assessment.

-- -- --

Lydia Kettler, 28, a single mother of a five-year-old daughter, attended a session in October that drew about 40 people to the Nor'West Co-op Community Health Centre on Keewatin Street.

The former Tec Voc High School student had no idea what to expect. She had received an invitation in the mail she thought was "kind of unique."

"I thought I would try it out," she said.

At the outset, the mood in the room was mixed between those, like Kettler, who were keeping an open mind and those who were guarded and suspicious.

But the group "started to become more and more enthusiastic" as the session proceeded and the opportunities became apparent.

Kettler had been "on and off" social assistance since her daughter was born. A high school dropout, she later completed her course work as a mature student.

After undergoing a weeklong skills-assessment process, she received help enrolling in an accounting and payroll administration course at CDI College. The nine-month program began in January.

Her interest in bookkeeping began when she took an accounting class at Tec Voc that counted as a math credit, but she always considered a post-secondary program to be beyond her reach.

"I knew that I could get a job flipping burgers or serving coffee, but something that needed a diploma -- I knew it wouldn't happen."

Her outlook changed rapidly after she accepted the unique invitation. "I was shocked. It was honestly a shot in the dark, in my eyes," she said.

Child care was an obstacle, but Kettler "lucked out," getting her daughter into a before- and after-school program at her school.

Now, she's looking forward to entering a field that appears to have considerable employment opportunities because of a wave of retirements. She also recently landed a morning job in a downtown coffee shop, close to CDI, where her classes run all afternoon.

-- -- --

Jobs and the Economy Minister Theresa Oswald said the government is convinced its new game plan for getting single parents off welfare and into the workforce will pay big dividends.

Rather than writing threatening letters, the government is enticing EIA recipients with programs and the promise of a better future.

"It's a new approach and a new attitude," she said in a recent interview.

The new attitude is reflected in the fact the Department of Jobs and the Economy (formerly Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade) has taken over responsibility for EIA from Family Services.

A variety of federal and provincial supports are in place to help those on EIA take the leap to job training and then to full-time work. These include everything from a small "get started" benefit of $250 for folks who land a job, to $2,760 a year in rent aid and the $840 Manitoba Child Benefit. Training allowances also pay several thousand dollars a year more than EIA.

Oswald said the province recognizes there is a tight labour market in Manitoba. Demand is high for jobs in industry, construction, information technology and the trucking industry.

"We saw that single parents on social assistance with young children under the age of six have a lot of capacity, and they're a group that we haven't really focused on previously," Oswald said.

After conducting focus groups, the government found these parents don't want to wait until their kids are older to enter the labour force, she said. They just need help.

Many need to brush up on essential skills, such as language, the ability to fill out certain forms and the ability to work individually or with others before they can apply for work or post-secondary training.

Jan Forster, an assistant deputy minister with Jobs and the Economy, said while the initiative -- it still lacks a formal name -- is in its infancy, it's already "showing quite a bit of promise."

Since last summer, 74 single parents on EIA who enrolled in the program have come off the province's welfare rolls. Of those, 51 are working and 23 are on training allowances. The numbers have not been updated since the end of March, so they're expected to be higher. More than 400 have received employment and training readiness assessments -- the first step to independence. Of these, 376 have been referred for essential skills assessments and supports. They will remain on social assistance while this is done.

The government also plans to target two other underemployed groups in the months ahead -- people with disabilities on social assistance and youth in care of Child and Family Services who are reaching adulthood.

-- -- --

Kimberley Bray, 42, has been on social assistance for much of her adult life. She has an eight-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son.

She's embraced the opportunity she's recently been given to upgrade her skills and have a career.

Over the past several months, she's brushed up on her math, literacy and computer skills. She's learned how to fill out a proper job application.

She's now an "on call" employee at a local services agency and plans to enrol this year in Red River College's Applied Counselling program. She hopes to work in health and social services as a support worker or community worker.

"I'm prepared for full-time work because the (essential skills and work preparation) course was amazing," Bray said. "And I just don't want to sit still."

She said many women on social assistance lack confidence. The pre-work, pre-training courses the government offers help to build up that confidence in a "safe environment," she said.

"I watched shy women be able to get up in front of a class and do a presentation," Bray said.

Though she described herself as "the blurty one" in class, that lack of confidence also applied to her. But not now.

"I'm not scared to learn anymore," she said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 A6

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