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Still Struggling with Budget Cuts, Area Career Centers are Being Entrepreneurial

Kevin Lynn

Kevin Lynn of FutureWorks said proactive programs and business strategies are one way to offset the effects of funding cutbacks.

Sometimes, when David Gadaire, executive director of CareerPoint one-stop career center in Holyoke, talks about the center, it sounds like he’s describing an emergency room.

“When people lose their jobs, they go into panic mode,” he said. “Often, people are frantic. They walk in off the street, and we work to help them as best we can. At the same time, the phone is ringing, sometimes 300 calls a day, and everyone has a specific, important question that needs to be answered. To succeed, it becomes part of our jobs to cut through the bureaucratic system, which we are — very — and focus on being as customer-driven as possible.

“It’s like triage.” CareerPoint and its Springfield counterpart FutureWorks, have been serving Western Mass. as the only one-stop career centers in the area for 10 years, and upon this anniversary, Gadaire and others are reflective of the challenges of the past that have been surmounted. However, they’re also mindful of the challenges to come.

In those 10 years, career centers across the country have faced mortal wounds to their budget, while the job-seeking community remains in constant supply, and more in need than ever to enter the job market armed with increasingly sophisticated skills.

Rexine Picard, executive director of FutureWorks, has been at the center since its inception in 1996, and has seen the changes to the market firsthand.

“It has been an intense journey,” she said. “I came on board as a career counselor and made my way up to my current position. This was the first one-stop career center in Massachusetts, and I saw it as a great opportunity to do things out of the box.”

Center Cuts

According to Picard, that’s exactly what happened — FutureWorks thrived in its first year by focusing on the development of individual career skills, education, and strong employee-employer matches. And despite budget cuts that have necessitated some downsizing over the past 10 years, she said FutureWorks has managed to remain on an even keel in terms of services, although there have been stormy periods.

At one point, for instance, state funding was virtually eliminated in the middle of the year for a program called Next Step, which provides work opportunities for welfare recipients. The slash necessitated the lay-off of 14 people, and although funding was eventually restored and all 14 employees returned to their posts, it’s surprises like those that can rock the boat.

As can a little controversy. Several years ago, Picard explained, FutureWorks be-came the site of protests, as some local groups called the center’s private standing – at the time, the organization functioned as a private, for-profit venture – into question.

“Some people in Springfield saw issues surrounding the idea of private industry managing a government entity,” she said, noting that FutureWorks rechartered as a private non-profit in 2001, forming a local board of directors. “The local board of business professionals has given us a much stronger hold in the community.”

Despite their private status, however, FutureWorks and CareerPoint (also a private non-profit) still glean the majority of their funding from state and federal sources, and have suffered the same financial dire straits as many career centers in the Commonwealth, public and private. Kevin Lynn, manager of business and youth services at FutureWorks, said that while unexpected hits like the loss of the Next Step funding can have a profound effect on the center’s bottom line, it’s the steadily diminishing stream of funding that has an even greater impact.

“For career centers, funding has declined every year for the last 10 years,” said Lynn, noting that fiscal year 2007 is expected to see a $900,000 cut. “The high-point was really that very first year, when money was rolled out for this new concept.

“The loss in federal funding is due in part to the state’s loss in population,” he continued. “There are occasional grant opportunities, but not all are of an appreciable amount, and grants also usually have a dedicated purpose, and that doesn’t allow you to solidify your core mission. So in many ways, career centers are limping along.”

In Business

To address that fiscal need, though, many career centers have turned to new, profitable service options, in order to gain greater control of their finances.

Gadaire explained that CareerPoint’s business division, which provides training classes for companies across the region for a fee, was a response to the need to serve several specific populations on a shoestring, and the realization that funding just wasn’t going to stretch far enough.

“What has changed the most for us is the sheer volume of people coming through the doors,” said Gadaire. “The first year we were open we served 4,000 people. Last year, the number was 14,000. That, paired with the fact that we’re currently receiving less funding today than we were in that first year, has prompted us to keep a close watch over how we do business, and what services we provide.”

Gadaire explained that at the outset, CareerPoint’s central mission was to provide as many job-related services as possible to the greatest number of clients as possible.

“We were set up to serve as a one-door, access-for-everyone career center,” he told BusinessWest. “When we acknowledged the fact that we didn’t have the resources to serve everyone, including special populations such as the disabled, ex-offenders, those who speak little or no English … that’s when we became more entrepreneurial in our thinking.”

He said CareerPoint’s business division was created to tap into funding sources outside of state and federal programs, and in turn to serve a greater number of people more completely.

“The largest population of people we serve is still people who want to change or expand in their careers, or who have been dislocated from their jobs,” said Gadaire. “The problem there is that when the population of people in need gets too big, the specific populations get lost.

“We’ve been able to expand our capacity over the last five years by $1 million,” he continued, “by tapping into three key areas: grants, partnerships with other businesses, and through fee-for-service offerings. We want to become even more self-contained … we’re not there yet, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to be fully free of state and federal funding … but we do need to be more flexible.”

And beyond expanding revenue, the new funding streams have also allowed CareerPoint staff to expand their knowledge base. The center’s partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, for instance, has allowed CareerPoint to conserve time and resources by tapping the Sheriff’s Department for assistance with ex-offender re-entry to the job force.

“The Sheriff’s Department goes for grants for ex-offender re-entry which in turn benefit us through the partnership,” said Gadaire. “That also allows us to grow our area of expertise. It allows us to have people on the payroll who are truly experts in one or more of those sub-groups of people, and those groups begin to add up.
“We still believe in the universal access model,” he added. “And expanding our expertise helps us ensure that people with specific needs don’t get lost in the crowd.”

The business division will continue to play a major part in CareerPoint’s strategic planning, said Gadaire, especially in light of the news that funding is expected to drop substantially in 2007.

“We’re taking some fairly draconian hits,” he continued, noting that the center is expected to lose 22% of its federal funding. “They’ve necessitated some layoffs and some hours cut, which is ironic, because now some of our staff members will be using our services. That really drives the point home that everyone is a customer.”

Stitch in Time

And while not every case is an emergency, there is a wide gamut of clientele to be served – some, arriving just hours after losing a job, need wounds healed, while others are looking to improve the overall health of their careers.

Either way, said Gadaire, whatever the fiscal year brings, FutureWorks and CareerPoint both have waiting rooms that are perenially busy.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]