Happy New Year! United Way of Steele County accomplished A LOT in 2018, some things were new like our CommUnity Tables intentional social interaction events and our Volunteer Connect website, and we had great outcomes with ongoing programs like Incent to Save, Boots to Work and Steele Co Works.
It’s the last one in that list that I want to talk about today – Steele Co Works. This program has been known by several names: Workforce Coordinator, Job Readiness Program, and Career Center but after 3 years of work and a couple of different funding models we now call it Steele Co Works.
I recently had a community member ask me why United Way was involved in “the workforce program” as it has come to be known colloquially to program insiders and employers. I was taken aback by this question because to us it is obvious why we’re involved (in fact we started this program) but because the program is multi-factorial with several points of community benefit I can understand the confusion. Let’s correct that.
UWSC created the program in 2015 when we were awarded a Blue Cross Blue Shield of MN Foundation Healthy Communities grant to support workforce and education counseling for low-income high school students and develop student connections to local employment opportunities. Our goal was to make sure every young person leaving high school had a job or a plan. We partnered then with the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce, and Workforce Development, and had cooperation with Owatonna Schools to have a “job counselor” with office hours at the high school to help kids who may not be attending post-secondary education to make a plan for after they graduate. After the student made their plan he or she would be networked with local employers for internships, job shadowing, plant tours and other means of mutual connection and knowledge. The two year grant ran out in the summer of 2017 but the program was beginning to gain traction for both students and businesses so the partners agreed to self-fund the staffing portion of the program so costs were split evenly between the Chamber, Workforce Development, and UWSC.
As you know, United Way has a focus on Income, Education and Health. For the Income component we generally seek to help those who are experiencing financial hardships through our Partner Agency programs that support basic needs. But the other side of the work we do in the Income arena is financial stability and we build or support programs which elevates individuals and families from poverty or PREVENTS them from entering poverty in the first place. This is why United Way of Steele County is involved in this program – because it is a direct human service which aids young people in finding work with local companies preventing them from needing other services or spending years playing video games in their parents’ basements. As a secondary benefit this helps local business who are needing employees. I think this is where the confusion has come in because when we talk with business and civic groups we often tout the benefits to our local business community. But this program began with young people in mind and it is changing the lives of the youth in the program.
The three main partners have discussed one entity taking full responsibility for the program solely but so far we’ve dismissed that idea because each of the partners work with different constituencies in different ways. The Chamber is involved because they are looking out for the interest of businesses in the work. United Way is involved and influences the work of the coordinator so that the needs of the students are taken care of not only in career counseling but also in being matched with other needed services, like Boots to Work or Clothesline for interview or work clothes, or for help with transportation, housing, or food, if necessary. Workforce Development provides training courses or paid internships which UWSC or the Chamber can’t offer. If UWSC was the sole manager of the program, then the businesses might get overlooked. If the Chamber was in charge then the individual might not be served as well and if Workforce was alone in this then they might not have access to the relationships the other partners bring.
No doubt it is a little complicated because the full Steele Co Works program has grown to include several components – a website, a magazine and a full-time workforce entry coordinator (aka Job Counselor). In its current iteration it reflects a formal partnership with the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce, Workforce Development, and United Way of Steele County in cooperation with Owatonna School. Owatonna Peoples Press is responsible for the magazine. It has become a successful model of collaboration between organizations with very different missions that other communities have been seeking to duplicate.