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Consortium works to put young people to work

August 22, 2009|By ARNOLD PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN -- Overrun this summer by youths from low-income families seeking jobs, a Hagerstown-based agency is trying to squeeze out enough dollars to do more.

The Western Maryland Consortium, which was granted federal economic stimulus money to help youths, hired 144 of them in Washington County for seven weeks this summer.

Now, it's focusing on about 30 of the young people who had no school, training or job plans for this fall, but are willing to try, said Peter P. Thomas, the consortium's executive director.

"What we're trying to do is steer as many out-of-school kids as possible back into education or skill training so they can profit from this not only with a paycheck, but that it would lead to something that would increase their skill base," Thomas said.

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"We're seeing just a severe need in the eligible population," he said. "There are just so many kids that really need the financial support that this can provide."

The consortium, which works for the Washington, Allegany and Garrett county governments and is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, has for decades helped the unemployed.

Its services include assisting with job résumés, and ensuring people know how to market themselves and understand interview techniques. It also can improve academic skills and connect people with job-training programs, Thomas said.

In March, shortly after Congress passed an economic stimulus package, the consortium landed nearly $1.55 million in extra money. The amount, higher than in some other parts of Maryland, was based on U.S. Census data for Western Maryland and its poverty and unemployment rates, Thomas said.

Nearly $900,000 was to be spent on programs to help the increasing numbers of unemployed adults in the state's three western counties.

To use the remaining $661,533, the consortium was challenged to create a separate summer program to help teens and young adults ages 14 through 24, Thomas said.

So his agency launched a massive effort, contacting social services and community action agencies, school systems and several area nonprofit organizations to find eligible youths, he said.

The offer was seven weeks of work at $7.25 per hour.

But to be eligible, the teen or young adult had to come from a family whose total income was "basically at or below either the federally published poverty guidelines or the 70 percent of the lower living standard, which is pretty low," Thomas said.

"The reality is, to be eligible for our program, the family's income is lower than you would need for welfare," he said.

For a family of four, Thomas said, the poverty guidelines allow a total income of $22,050. For the lower living standards, he said, the maximum, at the 70 percent limit, is $22,500.

"You have to ask yourself, how do people survive when they have incomes below that?" Thomas said. "It's pretty scary, pretty scary."

On the job

So Thomas, who has headed the consortium since 1978, was a little surprised when applications began pouring in by the hundreds.

"Just in Washington County, we were approaching well over 350 kids when we had to freeze recruitment," he said. "We could only hire 144 kids in Washington County, so there were 200 kids more than we could serve."

The situation was similar in Allegany and Garrett counties, Thomas said.

"I've heard that consistently from all three counties, that they're kind of taken aback with the high level of need from all the people they've been talking to," he said.

Are these families ones that have suddenly become poor because of the recession?

"Overall, probably no," Thomas said. "But that's a guess. I think we're seeing maybe some people who were just above the (poverty) line, who have now dropped just below the line."

So the jobs were welcome.

In all, the consortium was able to hire 277 youths in the three counties for many different jobs at many organizations. The consortium paid the salaries, but the organizations did their part, too.

"They understood the purpose was not free help, but experience for the kids," Thomas said.

"For many kids, this was their first job," he said. "So, teach them how to work, responsibilities with being an employee such as being respectful and being on time and coming every day. And teach them skills that everybody needs to have."

In Washington County alone, "we had 72 separate work sites involving 89 different supervisors because most work sites had one or two kids," Thomas said.

Those taking more than two youths included the Boys & Girls Club of Washington County, Western Maryland Hospital Center, Clear Spring Middle School, City of Hagerstown, Hancock Middle/Senior High School, Memorial Recreation Center, North Hagerstown High School and the Town of Hancock, he said.

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