By Christina Lee Knauss
Terry Pressley didn’t expect much a few months ago when he heard about a job-training program called Back to Work.
The Kingstree native came to Columbia after falling on hard times and becoming homeless. He went through other job-training programs in an effort to get back on his feet, but didn’t see any concrete results.
“All that happened was they basically sat you down in front of a computer and told you to search for a job,” Pressley said. “That was about it. So I was skeptical about what one more program could offer.”
This time, his experience proved to be completely different.
On Oct. 11, five weeks after trying one more time, Pressley stood with eight other Back to Work graduates in an auditorium, ready to pick up his diploma and begin work with a local construction company.
The men and women were the sixth group to complete the intense “boot-camp” style program run by the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce in conjunction with sponsors from around the Midlands.
Back to Work focuses on helping homeless men and women develop basic skills they need to get and keep a job. They learn interview techniques, how to write a resume, conflict resolution and other tactics to enable them to make the transition to the workplace. The classes include role-playing activities where students go through mock interviews and learn how to handle various situations that can come up in a work environment.
DEW started the program in 2016. The agency works with Transitions, a Columbia facility that helps homeless people make the move to permanent housing, to find students for Back to Work.
Main Street United Methodist Church downtown provides classroom space. Palmetto Health’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team offers case management and referral services for participants.
The students get help every step of the way in looking for a job, including with their appearance. The Columbia Suit Program and Dress for Success provide appropriate business attire.
Graduates are also paired with a job coach who mentors them and helps them with their job search until they find a position.
The hiring process gets a jump start with a special job fair held for each graduating class on site at the agency’s Hampton Street facility. Local employers meet one-on-one with the graduates for interviews.
With the current crop of graduates, 84 people have completed the program and 58 have found work, including Pressley and one other member of the current class. Back to Work graduates are currently working around the Midlands in retail, food service, construction and light manufacturing.
That success rate prompted DEW to establish a second Back to Work program in the Greenville area in the spring, focused on helping people who have recently completed drug rehabilitation find jobs. A third program is in the works for residents of the Catawba Reservation near Rock Hill.
What makes Back to Work more successful than other job-training programs is the intense focus on people skills, said Kisa Grant, program coordinator. This is especially important because some participants have not been in the workplace before or have gone many years without holding a job.
“We help them learn how to function in a diverse workplace and how to work with people who are different from them,” Grant said. “That is especially important to help them maintain employment once they find a job.”
Col. Craig J. Currey, CEO of Transitions, said clients at the facility volunteer to take part in Back to Work. Only about a third complete the program because of its intensity, he said.
“This is truly a boot camp to help get them ready for employment, and that is why it succeeds,” Currey said. “The focus on people skills is important because they learn how to talk to people, how to present themselves and how to get hired. They also learn about courtesy and respect, which is vital because that is something that has been lost in a lot of society today. Courtesy will help them get hired and keep a job, because that is what employers and customers want and expect.”
Pressley said Back to Work gave him a different kind of job-training experience because of the emphasis on people skills and personal connections. He said previous training programs didn’t work for him because he was asked to begin a job search without any previous experience.
“The program coordinators with Back to Work actually contact potential employers and connect you with them,” he said. “They are with you every step of the way. That opportunity has paid off for me. This program is important because there are many more people out here like myself who need this opportunity.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 print edition of The Columbia Regional Business Report.