Although the region is relatively affluent, Charlottesville, Virginia, has pockets of significant poverty. Almost 6,000 families in the area struggle to meet their basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, child care and transportation.
As a district director for a local congressman in 2009-10, Ridge Schuyler identified a root cause of the problem. “Employers needed workers and workers needed jobs, but the two couldn’t seem to meet,” he says. “It seemed so fixable — we’re a fairly small town.”
In 2011, Schuyler was hired as the sole employee of a poverty-focused nonprofit affiliated with the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. While there, he helped create the Charlottesville Works Initiative.
Today, Schuyler is dean of community self-sufficiency programs at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC), where he’s expanding the initiative.
Making connections that lead to jobs
Schuyler and his team know there are quality jobs that don’t require a college degree and have an annual salary of $25,000 or more. To help connect employers with potential employees, the initiative takes a three-pronged approach, using interpersonal relationships to align these three groups.
Employer Network: The University of Virginia Hospital needs nurse’s aides; the Transportation Authority needs bus drivers; manufacturing companies need skilled workers. These organizations are connected to the Chamber of Commerce and to the Charlottesville Office of Economic Development, but they don’t know the best way to find qualified workers, Schuyler says.
Job Seeker Network: There are leaders at the local level — a priest, a neighborhood activist or a social worker — who know the people who want and need jobs. The initiative aims to identify these well-known, respected community leaders. “We’re building a ground game into which we can inject job information so that well-connected people in the community can identify the people who would be left behind and take them to the job where they fit,” Schuyler says.
PVCC: Once a person is matched with a job, PVCC can provide the training, usually a combination of soft-skill, workforce-readiness and technical training, Schuyler says.
But training is often not enough. “A single mom with training but no child care is not going to be successful,” Schuyler says. The Charlottesville Works Initiative also helps people find child care, in addition to counseling services and transportation.
“We figure out what the job seeker needs and then bring specialists in to make sure those needs are met,” Schuyler says. “Then we can turn to the employer and say, ‘We’ve got that person, and they’re going to be a good person for you because they have all their needs in place.’”
Schuyler is hiring a peer-network coordinator to formalize the job-seeker network and identify high school graduates, for example, who aren’t college bound but can be doing more than working for minimum wage.
“We want to help people break out of the low-wage/no-wage economy that grinds them up and spits them out,” Schuyler says. “Flyers on a bulletin board don’t work. Human contact and relationships are what make people change their lives.”