STEPping Up

IMG_4633Dubbed the “queen of all trades” because she has had so many different jobs over the years, Natasha Ford thought she was beyond learning anything new.

She was encouraged by a friend to sign up for Coalition for a Better Acre’s STEP (Supported Training Education Program) workforce development program and jumped at the chance when she learned graduates receive free transportation to and from work for one year.

“Transportation was a big issue I had,” said Ford, who moved from Boston to Lowell two years ago. “I didn’t expect to learn a lot; I thought they cannot teach me anything I’m an old dog.”

She was pleasantly surprised.

“I learned a lot about myself – I’m a challenger and a collaborator,” she said. “I learned about teamwork and how to raise my credit score. I learned a lot of tricks from Doc at Eastern Bank to help me out.”

Natasha was one of 10 who graduated from the fifth cohort of STEP on Friday March 30.

She said the experience made her feel “rejuvenated and reinvigorated,” ready to take on new challenges in the workplace and the classroom.

“I am going to go back to school in September,” said Natasha, who will begin working at Sterilite Corp. in Townsend this week. “I don’t want my kids (two in college and one in high school) to finish their bachelor’s degrees before me.”

STEP, launched in November 2016, is a six-week, 150-hour soft skills job training program for people 18+ with a high school degree or equivalent. Participants practice basic skills like verbal and written communication, active listening, and teamwork and complex life skills like conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking. STEP also addresses barriers to employment, financial education, the guarantee of job placement, a graduation financial bonus, free shared transportation to and from work for one year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management with wrap-around services.

No other job training programs in the region provide guaranteed job placement upon graduation.

In 2017, STEP graduated 27 people, placing most in entry-level jobs in medical manufacturing companies in Devens, MA. Seventy-six percent of those placed continue working full-time.

To provide participants a large pool of career opportunities, we are focusing on the manufacturing field, which remains the 5th largest employer in Massachusetts. The sector employs over 250,000 workers, according to a 2015 report from Jobs for the Future. Yet, the sector is also greying; the average highly-skilled manufacturing worker in the state is in their 50s. STEP will stop the cycle of poverty in many families while providing a career-track field with new, skilled workers.

Employers with whom we currently have relationships include Nypro, SMC Ltd., and Sterilite Corp.

The Winter 2018 cohort included participants from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and ages, including three immigrants with college degrees from their home countries who needed training in American workplace culture and a step up into the workforce.



“It is a struggle to get education (from other countries) recognized and they have to start over again,” said CBA Workforce Development Program Coordinator Will Ren.

Bochanna Kheng, who was an elementary school teacher in Cambodia, has a college degree in Education and Hong Chey, also from Cambodia has a degree in accounting and management.

Shannon Zukas, a single mother of four, said the program provided the support system she needed to find a new career after a recent layoff.

“I do all I can for my family by myself, I don’t have a strong family support system,” she said, adding Workforce Development Director Sako Long and Ren helped her work out some childcare issues so she could attend STEP.

“(STEP) was a positive environment where I felt the support to not fear taking the next step,” Shannon said. “We believed in the program and were motivated to gain new skills we will use to be successful in our careers.”

Shannon compared the graduation to her and her classmates all being in an airport terminal, boarding different planes.

“Once we depart each of us will soar far, fast, and high with our luggage and carry-on filled with tools and new found confidence to succeed wherever we land,” she said.

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