Maine DOL, DHHS collaborate on welfare-to-work initiative

Joint effort provides ASPIRE program participants with training needed for successful employment

AUGUSTA— Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Services have launched a program designed to successfully transition those on welfare to meaningful employment.

Through its programs for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment (ASPIRE), DHHS is working with DOL’s CareerCenters on this joint initiative to develop an individual’s skills that are essential for employment.

“I commend the staff of both DHHS and Labor for collaborating to provide people on welfare the opportunity to get work experience,” said Governor Paul R. LePage. “This is a critical step in ending the generational poverty that welfare dependence feeds. I encourage Maine employers who are concerned about welfare to provide work experience for one of these participants. Everyone benefits when Mainers join the workforce and are able to support themselves and their families.”

Work experiences are planned, structured learning experiences that take place in a workplace for a limited period. The placement of participants in work experiences is based on an individual worker’s vocational interests and focuses on developing employability and occupation-specific skills. The TANF program requires participants to work or be engaged in a defined work-related activity.

The work participation rate is monitored by the federal government.
Governor LePage has submitted legislation to eliminate Maine’s lengthy list of state rules that exempt TANF recipients from meeting this work requirement because failure to meet the federal standard leads to significant financial penalties.

“The primary goal of this work experience is the development of participants in meaningful and lasting ways that prepare them to enter the workforce,” said Commissioner of Labor Jeanne Paquette. “Each CareerCenter will have a staff person working with local businesses and non-profits to identify worksites and assist the business or non-profit in providing the work experience.”

A team of professionals will work together to provide the environment required for this learning experience. Core team members include the participant, the ASPIRE program specialist from DHHS, the worksite development specialist from the CareerCenter and a worksite supervisor from the business or non-profit offering the work experience. ASPIRE program staff will provide the coaching and support required for participants to succeed in the workplace, while the worksite supervisor will play a critical role in the work environment.

The joint program is just one of the positive developments in a two year-long effort by Maine DHHS, DOL, adult education and other local and regional partners to help transition TANF recipients to the workforce. Now, each TANF recipient receives a vocational assessment to determine the individual’s skills and work-readiness. Barriers to work are identified and eliminated, then staff works with each individual to clear a pathway to employment.

“For many participants, this work experience may be their first chance to test their abilities, learn about their career preferences and understand what must be accomplished to achieve their employment goals,” said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “ASPIRE participants will have the opportunity to gain confidence and practice the basic skills common to almost all jobs. These include workplace behaviors, expectations, work standards and problem-solving skills, along with marketable occupational skills.”

With nearly 7,000 job listings already on the Maine Job Bank, 2014 looks to be a strong year for hiring and creating thousands of opportunities for welfare recipients to transition to employment.

“Some of our participants are ready to return to work almost immediately; others will take some time to learn the behaviors and expectations involved in working,’’ said Mayhew. “We encourage both participants and worksites to celebrate the small victories along the way and to recognize that not everyone will be successful on the first try.”

Commissioner Paquette asked worksite supervisors to remember his or her first job and the mistakes they may have made due to the unfamiliarity with the job or workplace expectations. “We should avoid associating inexperience with age, and we must focus on readying the participant for work,’’ she said.

Before being placed, ASPIRE participants will be assessed to identify their knowledge, skills and career interests as part of the development of their individualized employment plans. The participants will then be referred to the resources or workshops that will provide them with the training or other skills they need to be prepared for their work experiences.

Work experiences with participating employers may last up to 26 weeks. Employers who choose to hire their participants for permanent positions may be eligible to claim federal tax credits.

For more information about this new welfare-to-work program, visit
http://www.maine.gov/labor/bes/aspire/.

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