Success Stories

Landing a Job (or Employee) in a Tight Market

On-the-Job Training grants help both workers and employers. Add in community resources, and job creation happens.

By Sally Treadwell

It’s incredibly hard to lose your job to the recession. It’s even harder when you’re sole breadwinner for two little girls.

So when Billy Lowery was laid off in 2009, he grabbed every temporary job he could find—even when that meant hours of commuting. Still, work was sporadic and Lowery’s bank account was running dry.

Job-seekers can take heart from his experience. Because Lowery now has a full-time, permanent job again, and his story is a perfect example of how the local and larger community should work.

His own efforts were crucial. What made all the difference, though, was an On-the-Job Training (OJT) grant administered by the High Country Workforce Development Board, a determined JobLink crew, a community college that opens doors, an employer willing to teach, and an innovative ‘green’ company.

Job creation at its finest, in other words.

“I’m very thankful,” said Lowery, now working with Davis Godwin Associates in Spruce Pine, NC. “I couldn’t have found a better situation.”

Godwin is equally thankful. He had been preparing for a large project with Highland Craftsmen, a local company that has thoroughly modernized a century-old chestnut bark shingling technique. The resulting ultimate ‘green’ product, poplar bark shingles, is used nationwide, but greater production efficiency was important. Godwin had previously designed a system for kiln-drying shingles in half the time—“we never thought he could do it,” said co-owner Chris McCurry, “but our new kilns work fabulously!”—and now needed to renovate three older kilns for the company.

“I’d have had to hire temporary unskilled labor,” said Godwin, “so when John Greene asked if I’d be interested in an apprenticeship program, with most of Billy’s salary paid by the program while he was training, I jumped at it.”

He hasn’t been sorry. “Well done is better than well said, and Billy’s quality of work is excellent.”

Lowery was inexperienced but far from unskilled. He had previously worked installing gas piping, so he’d enrolled in electrical and welding classes at Mayland Community College. A decade or two of watching local furniture industry jobs get outsourced to China has taught Mayland to adapt to changing students and a changing job market.

“We take students wherever they are, and help them get wherever they want to go,” said Dr. John Gossett, Vice President of Student Development.

That can entail being sensitive to the diverse scheduling, career development and tutoring needs of students returning to school. Mature students often need to refresh and update skills like math, so the college has beefed up its core classes while keeping an eye on job market demands—healthcare is huge, and so are remodeling industry skills like those learned by Lowery.

Meanwhile, JobLink case manager Carrie Stewart had been impressed by Lowery’s determination to find work. She referred him to John Greene, JobLink’s Business Services representative, as a candidate for On-the-Job Training (OJT). OJT is a learn-and-earn program for long-term unemployed workers and it’s funded through a grant to the High Country Workforce Development Board by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Training is a tremendously expensive proposition for most employers, who are often reluctant to take on new workers. The OJT grant subsidizes this expense by as much as 90 percent so that companies can hire now instead of waiting, and Greene, once he knows what work interests a program candidate, pitches likely employers.

There are strict rules.

“I had to tell them what I would teach Billy and stick to it. John checked in on us frequently and there was quite a bit of paperwork and follow-up,” said Godwin, who was impressed by the dedication of everyone involved in Lowery’s new career.

Lowery is happy in a job he clearly loves and is good at. “I’m learning a lot of new trades,” he said, reeling off information about hydronic systems and the new kilns.