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Training helps people, region recover from storm

Lamarcus Craft of Gulfport sees the free courses being offered by community colleges in the state to Mississippi residents affected by Katrina as a ticket to a livable wage.

“The main value of it was giving me a skill so I won’t be underpaid,” said Craft, who recently completed a carpet installation class and has signed up for another class on installing telecommunications cables. “Getting certified was my main goal, and also to get a livable wage with a skill to add to my toolbox. What more can I say?”

Craft is one of hundreds of state residents who have taken advantage of free training provided by Project Outreach at community colleges to help meet workforce needs in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The classes are free to eligible participants, and cover areas such as carpentry, electrical, masonry, drywall, painting, plumbing and OSHA safety.

The intent of these free programs is to provide unemployed or underemployed people the opportunity to upgrade their skills necessary to find employment in South Mississippi. More than 200 individuals have already been trained at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC). Many of the graduates immediately gained employment in local industries on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

In addition to Project Outreach, Project Retrain is a four-week specialized training program that teaches individuals skills in particular areas such as plumbing, residential heating and air conditioning, electrical and telecommunications cabling. Skills in both programs include specialized safety, theories, applications, codes and a 10-hour OSHA safety training session. When finished, students receive OSHA and certificates of training.

“Recognizing the need for skilled construction workers, two innovative programs, Project Outreach and Project Retrain, were developed by MGCCC in partnership with Twin Districts Workforce Area, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation,” said Anna Faye Kelley-Winders, vice president, Community Campus, Applied Technology and Development Center, Gulfport. “These construction-related training programs, delivered in short-term, flexible formats, were a rapid response to Post Katrina and have continued to be a vital part of the recovery efforts. The college’s workforce development efforts have meant more than recovery, for helping individuals learn new skills or change careers means making a positive difference for a lifetime in communities.”

Unique opportunity

Shannon Campbell, director of the Career Resource Center at Jones County Junior College (JCJC), said the grant that allowed the college to offer the training free was a unique opportunity.

“Even in the midst of bad circumstances, this has given people new career opportunities,” Campbell said. “They have a chance to advance in a career now they wouldn’t have had before. Anyone who wanted a job who successfully completed training had jobs offered to them because there are so many jobs available.”

After the hurricane the college responded more quickly to workforce training needs than ever before. The demand was great on both sides. Employers quickly needed trained employees, and many people who had lost their jobs needed to find work.

In addition to the people trained at MGCCC and JCJC, training has also been offered in other areas of the state where hurricane victims evacuated after losing their homes. For example, approximately 150 people have graduated from various programs offers at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) in Mayhew, which is located near Starkville.

“We have run through three or four training cycles in areas such as basic construction skill projects, putting up framing for houses, roofing, basic electrical, heating, ventilation and AC, welding, blueprint reading and residential and commercial wiring,” said Raj Shaunak, vice president of workforce and community services, EMCC. “These were all added after Katrina and were set up just for dislocated Katrina victims. Just in the immediate vicinity, there were 700 to 1,000 people dislocated from the hurricane that I know of.”

Graduates of the programs were in luck because local hiring has been brisk. Shaunak said a lot of people who got trained have gone to work doing construction work for SeverCorr, the large steel mill being constructed in Columbus.

“It is a good thing we are in a boom area as far as industry is concerned,” Shaunak said. “A lot of these people have gotten jobs here already. They are now gainfully employed at sustainable wages instead of being a burden to the taxpayer. A lot of construction folks went immediately to work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, making $1,400 to $1,500 week. They are making between $15 and $20 per hour. The good part is before Katrina a lot of these people never thought of retraining to become more desirable workers. The training has been a blessing for us in our area and those individuals. We are proud these individuals can now partake in this experiment we call the American dream.”

MGCCC continues to offer job training in its four-county district through Project Retrain and Project Outreach. The training programs, which vary from 120 to 160 hours in length, will be offered through 2007. More training is planned in the construction-related trades and will be offered on a rotating basis at the college’s various campuses and centers. The H1B Pathways to Construction grant training programs will include carpentry, electrical, HVAC, heavy equipment operations, sheet metal, plumbing, carpet installation and telecommunications cabling.

The training has been expanded to include programs in other high-growth areas such as healthcare, commercial truck driving, hospitality and customer service.

Participants are required to pass a drug screen, and must understand that the ultimate goal of the training is to prepare individuals for employment upon graduation.For more information, see the Web site www.mgccc.edu or call (601) 928-6271.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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