Moving careers forward

By Brian Ayers

The workforce development initiative at a Nebraska college helps local employers grow, train and retain talent through continuing education and work-based learning.

Elizabeth Martinez repeatedly sees the “aha! moment” light up the eyes of program participants, when feelings of self-doubt are overridden by the recognition of possibility. It’s a feeling some haven’t experienced in a long time.

Martinez is a career skills coach for students with an interest in getting their commercial driver’s license, an industry with soaring pay due to high demand for drivers. She works with participants in Metropolitan Community College’s Career Forward program, which guides students from education to employment in living-wage careers.

What makes MCC Career Forward different from typical workforce development programs is it connects students to employment opportunities and provides training stipends that give participants the flexibility in their lives to focus on learning and their futures.

Martinez said she recently helped a man who hadn’t participated in the workforce in 20 years build a working résumé.

“There are things he’s done during that time that he could put into that résumé. He thought he had nothing, and we were able to create a great résumé for him,” Martinez said. “We help [Career Forward participants] value what they have done and value themselves.”

Through the 2025-26 academic year, the Nebraska college is directing $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to support this workforce development program, which can be a game changer for people who have the ability and desire to upskill, but have life circumstances that don’t always make pursuing opportunities to do so accessible. Offered through MCC Community and Workforce Education, the program aims to extend MCC noncredit and credit programming to 4,500 unemployed/ underemployed individuals impacted by COVID-19 in the College’s four-county service area.

With 85% of program completers obtaining jobs paying more than $19 per hour, the program gives participants the window they need to pursue education and job training, as well as the support services to complete it.

“What really excites me about this program is that it’s using education as a tool and resource to bridge people out of poverty and into sustainable wages,” said Tammy Green, MCC executive director of community and workforce education.

The quick pace of change for the skills needed in today’s employment landscape can impact people whose past education and training makes them vulnerable to the swings of the economy. Career Forward highlights the important role community colleges play in developing the workforce for jobs that are in local demand now and in the future. Employers across the country are challenged by a two-fold shortage: the number of available workers to fill open positions and a skills gap in the workforce.

The national unemployment rate in January 2023 was 3.4%, the lowest since 1969, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many in the small pool of available labor lack the training and resources to pursue in-demand careers. In Nebraska, employers face an even greater challenge because the state unemployment rate (2.6%) is nearly a full percentage point lower than the national average.

Career Forward is a unique approach to maximizing the skills of the regional workforce because it makes education more accessible to individuals and is able to respond to the needs of local employers. MCC faculty and staff get to know students, learn about their employment goals and guide candidates to successful completion. Participants receive workforce support resources and career placement services along the way.

Career Forward provides $16/hour stipends for students enrolled in the program with focused job training in “H3” careers (high-wage, -demand, -skill), developing the skills and earning certifications needed for entry, often in one year or less. Industries include transportation/CDL, pharmacy tech, construction, automotive, phlebotomy, industrial maintenance, medical services and more. Starting wages within all industries outlined in the program start at $17 per hour or more.

Looking long-term

Dominic Arthur, 37, works as a lube technician for Baxter Toyota Lincoln. At the time of publication, he was just days away from completing his Toyota T-TEN certification. The national certification provides specialized training for careers working at Toyota and Lexus dealerships.

As a lube technician, Arthur holds an entry-level automotive position, but with the completion of his T-TEN certification, he gains the ability to do more sophisticated, technology-driven diagnostics and repairs, which bring better earning opportunities. When he first enrolled in the program, he said he was struggling financially.

“This was an opportunity to improve myself, and it helped me a lot,” said Arthur, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana in 2009. “I only did oil changes before, but this will help me grow by doing bigger jobs. It’s a great program for someone my age.”

Career Forward provides Arthur with mileage reimbursement for driving from Lincoln to Omaha to receive the training. He said the financial support made a significant difference in his ability to complete the program. Finishing was never a matter of effort.

Since working on the training since November 2021, Arthur only missed one class. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to make sure he has enough time for the commute to the South Omaha Campus, arriving by 7:30 a.m. (a half-hour early) Monday through Thursday. After doing his training, he drives back home and dives into his homework, often not going to bed until midnight.

Arthur, the father of a 4-year-old boy, Jeremy, and a 2-year-old girl, Nana Abenaa, said he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish. He said he’s looking forward to spending less time on the road, having evenings free to spend with his family, earning greater pay and and having a broader skill set for future employment opportunities. “I have to drive [to Omaha] every day. I have a family, and I have to do my homework. It takes a lot, but I know what I want, and I’m glad I did this,” Arthur said.

Lyndsie Gibbs, MCC director of Workforce Career Placement, said the program creates conditions for household earners, who often have to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, to focus on their long-term employment goals.

“When you’re doing the best you can just to take care of your basic needs, things like education and planning can take a back seat,” Gibbs said. “Those pressing financial responsibilities make it tough to stop working at a job to gain the skills to pursue a better one. The stipend makes it possible to help overcome the loss of income while going through the training program.”

“When skills don’t match the role, that is when you see employees start showing up late for work, becoming disengaged and difficult to work with, but when they match, all of a sudden you have great retention. Our career coaches have mastered that alignment,” Green said.

MCC career coaches work with students to connect their learning to real jobs from ready-to-hire partnering businesses. They work with businesses to understand their industry and specific employment needs. Through their exploratory discussions with incoming students during the career placement process, participants determine the job training program that matches their interests.

Typical accelerated job training programs experience around a 50% retention rate, Green said. Career Forward participants have an 87% employment rate after completion of the program, with 94% maintaining their employment six months after securing a job.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in MCC’s Community magazine

Brian Ayers

is the features editor and copywriter at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.