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For some job seekers, reading and math classes must come first

Keith Jones was like a lot of those trying to enroll in the Northland Workforce Training Center. The 30-year-old fast-food worker wanted a career in advanced manufacturing. But when he took the center's test for reading and math, he scored below the level of a high school sophomore.

About 70 percent of the 600 people who tried to enroll in Northland last year couldn't pass the test, which measures whether people can read and write at the industry standard.

The applicants know the letters of the alphabet and how to sound out words. They can do basic addition and subtraction. That’s not the problem.

But they struggle to comprehend technical instructions and blueprints, to use formulas to solve problems and to fill out complex forms.

“It was a little bit discouraging,” Jones said of his test result.

Across the Buffalo Niagara region, but especially in Buffalo and Niagara Falls with their high rates of poverty, thousands of people would love to have jobs in manufacturing and health care – good paying jobs with benefits and a career path. Many look to Northland as a way to a better life.

“I can’t support my kids working in a kitchen,” he said.

At the same time, some 3,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing and energy need to be filled, according to the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance. State labor officials estimate more than 3,500 jobs will be available over the next five years in health care support occupations alone.

But many don’t qualify for the jobs because they don’t have the reading and math skills or a diploma.

Overcoming barriers to better job

“Here’s what I see as the issue,” said Jeffrey M. Conrad, director of Workforce Development and Education at Catholic Charities of Buffalo. “We’ve made substantial investments in Buffalo to bring in industry. Tesla is hiring. We have the Buffalo Billion. We expanded the footprint within the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor. Whether you’re in health care or manufacturing, both those industries require minimum standards.”

But companies can’t find enough workers who meet those standards.

“So, all that money we’ve invested in economic development could go away tomorrow,” Conrad said.

To keep that from happening, job training programs in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and throughout the region are trying to find ways to prepare people for the tests they’ll need to pass to get into the training programs and then find the jobs that can uplift their lives. Jones got into Northland through a program designed to help those who show promise but struggled on the assessment test. Students can also earn their diplomas while getting the training in manufacturing and health care fields at programs like Literacy Zone at Orleans/Niagara BOCES.

“These are pathways out of poverty,” said Charles Diemert, the Literacy Zone coordinator.

"All that money we’ve invested in economic development could go away tomorrow,”says Jeff Conrad, Catholic Charities Workforce and Education Services director. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

‘Go the extra mile’

To get into training programs like the Northland Workforce Training Center, applicants must have a diploma. They must also take the TABE, or Test for Adult Basic Education, a standard test to determine education levels.

Most applicants the first semester didn’t pass the TABE, said Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of Northland.

Those who don’t pass but show promise are allowed to enroll through a program the center developed called the Academic Advancement Support Program. Students are offered tutoring, and they are picking up the reading and math skills as they progress through their classes.

“They just have to show they’re willing to go the extra mile to be successful,” Tucker said.

“Our goal is not to exclude people,” Tucker said. “Our goal is to make sure people are prepared to be able to successfully complete the training. This is college. We want to make sure they have the foundation of academic skills that’s required to complete college.”

Jones just finished his first semester at Northland. He’s in the electrical construction and maintenance program. He was nervous at first. He had never been good at math in school. Right from the first day of class at Northland, there was a lot of math.

“I was panicking. I was frantic,” he said.

Keith Jones, 30, a student in the electrical construction and maintenance program at the Northland Workforce Training Center, stands in front of the sculptural installation by artist Dennis Maher in the lobby. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

But his instructor encouraged him to keep at it, and he did, often staying up late to do his homework, even texting his classmates and teacher late at night to ask questions.

“I’ve learned more since Sept. 10 (his first day of class) to now, in that little bit of time, than I did in high school,” Jones said.

The assessments serve a purpose, Tucker said.

“When you’re in advanced manufacturing or energy, you’re working on mission-critical components,” Tucker said. “Meaning, if something fails, someone can die.”

Northland works with a network of organizations to help students succeed, among them Catholic Charities, which opened its new Workforce Development and Education Center in the former American Axle plant on East Delavan Avenue. The center helps students get their high school equivalency and prepare them for the workforce.

“Programs like this need to exist so that we can at least offer the opportunity to bring those levels up,” Conrad said.

Why they can’t pass a test

Many reasons explain why so many people can’t meet basic education levels. People drop out from school. They grow up in unstable homes. Substance abuse and domestic violence can also disrupt education. Many have learning disabilities.

“It’s a million reasons,” said Diemert, the Literacy Zone coordinator. “At its core is poverty.”

It’s harder to go back to school if you’re poor.

Every day, Diemert and his staff at the Literacy Zone in BOCES' new Workforce Training Center in the Falls help students overcome barriers. Sometimes, it means connecting students with transportation and child care. Other times, it means helping them find food and housing.

“If you’re worried about where your kids are sleeping tonight, you’re not learning,” he said.

Organizations throughout the region are coordinating their efforts.

“There are now more opportunities than ever for people seeking job training, said Tara Schafer, executive director of Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara, whose 200 volunteers help provide free one-on-one tutoring to about 350 people. "We're really excited by what we see with all of the workforce development."

But, she said, "there still remains unequal opportunities because of their personal challenges.”

Kenetria Maddox is among those getting tutoring. She used to panic when a letter or a form would arrive in the mail. She’d open it and look at the words, but she didn’t always understand what it said.

Northland Corridor project

“It would be really, really hard,” said Maddox, 27, who lives in Lackawanna with her three children and husband.

Maddox went to South Park High School but dropped out.

“I wasn’t taking school seriously,” she said. “It wasn’t something I was comfortable with.”

Not having a diploma and not having good reading skills made it hard for her to find work.

“I tried to find a job in retail, anything,” she said. “But when you work, you have to have the skills.”

A few years ago, she went back to school to get her high school equivalency and was connected to Literacy New York.

Maddox enjoys reading now, especially dramatic stories and poetry. She also makes sure to take time to read to her children.

Kenetria Maddox, 27, and her 2-year-old daughter Lianna Bess, Maddox is a student, being tutored through Literacy New York at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, in Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Back to school

About a year ago, Dorothea “Cookie” McDonald’s 8-year-old daughter asked her a question that stopped her in her tracks.

“Mommy, do you have a diploma?”

She didn’t. “Girl, hush,” McDonald told her daughter.

Her daughter, Desire, had a suggestion: “Mommy, you could go get more learning.”

“I said: ‘You know what? I’m going to do that,” McDonald said.

McDonald, who grew up in Buffalo and lives in Niagara Falls, decided to get serious about getting her high school equivalency. She attended classes through Orleans/Niagara BOCES.

It was scary for her. She had always done terribly in school. Her mother would keep her home when she was as young as a 11 to help care for her older sister’s babies. But at 45, as a mother of five and a grandmother, she was finally ready. She told her teachers at the Literacy Zone that she may need to be in a special education class.

“I’m slightly dumb,” she said she told them. “I didn’t believe in myself. I wasn’t told that I was smart. I don’t think I’ve ever heard those words.”

McDonald would go on to be named a student of the year for New York State.

Dorothea McDonald, who just earned her high school equivalency at Niagara BOCES Workforce Training Center, now tutors math at the location in Niagara Falls. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

When McDonald earned her diploma, all her children and grandchildren came to her graduation ceremony in Lockport.

“I heard my kids screaming, ‘Mommy!’” she said.

The Adult Education Division of Buffalo Public Schools offers an array of classes at 30 sites around the city, many of them to help people earn their high school equivalency, what used to be called a GED.

“They come in at all different reading levels,” said Lester Leopold, director of Adult and Continuing Education.

Looking to succeed at Northland

Ivan Bork, 18, who has lived all over Erie County, always struggled in high school.

“I didn’t have the best grades,” he said.

He enrolled at Northland to learn welding. He likes that he’s learning through hands-on work.

“It’s a lot less stressful than going to six different classes and doing a bunch of homework in a bunch of different classes,” he said.

Students Ivan Bork and Tyshawn Jackson talk shop between welding sessions at the Northland Workforce Training Center. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Bork hopes to start his own welding business, as well as use his welding skills to make sculptures.

Jones, too, looks forward to what's to come for him at Northland and beyond.

He’s ready to learn and eager to support his children, he said.

He hopes that when he’s done, he’ll get a job working commercially or maybe even start his own business.

“I’m very excited to be a part of this,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to see how everything is going to turn out.”

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