Mary Ann Kelso hadn't worked for quite some time when she first met Rashad Byrdsong, executive director of Community Empowerment Association.

Her job skills were few and her lack of work experience was an obstacle to entering the workforce. She was alone and losing hope.

But now Kelso has moved from dependence on public assistance to a newly furninshed apartment in Lawrenceville, and steady work in Point Breeze.

Her progress is primarily due to an employer-centered job training program instituted by the Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association.

"If it wasn't for the program, I dont' know what I'd be doing," said Kelso, who now operates a Food For Thought snak bar ath the Lexington Techology Park in Point Breeze. "It's hard for people like me...I feel blessed."

The program links businesses in need of workers with owrkers in need of jobs. It also gives employers access to a large and predominantly untapped pool of labor that they can train to their own specifications.

Workers learn specific skills about their particular field and general job skills such as communication, professionalism and responsibility.

"Labor's the hardest thing in the world to find," said Bob Wasserman, owner of Food For Thought.

Three of the 11 people Wasserman currently employs in his Regent Square deli and Point Breeze snack shop participate in the program. This summer, he expects to open a large cafeteria at the technology park when construction there is complete. When the cafeteria opens, Wasserman expects three managers there to be program graduates.

"In order to stimulate the economy of our community, we need to have jobs," Byrdsong said. "We've seen other renaissances and we don't feel the talents of African-Americans were fully utilized."

Now is the time for African-Americans to assume roles in the workforce, Byrdsong said, because of the wealth of development about to be underway in the city. He said current and future downtown construction projects mean billions of dollars in economic development initiatives.

"There should be some provisions put in place that ensure more than a good-faith pledge," he said. "None of the opportunities are really available."

Welfare-to-work requirements are mandating that people find employment or lose their benefits, but there is concern that there are not enough unskilled positions to fill the pending demand.

Byrdsong hopes to address this by establishing a network of partnerships with the private sector and a government clearinghouse for jobs and contracts.

The response from the private sector has been strong. For employers have hired 15 workers so far. Byrdsong remains involved with all of the workers, helping solve problems between employer and employees.

Shawn Ware, owner of Ware Communications in Lexington Technology Park, joined in the program in an effort to give back to the community. Four of his seven employees are from the program.

He teaches his workers the fundamentals of telecommunications wiring for telephone and computer systems in the office and then sends them on the job "to get them to understand what we need and what we want.

"In a training environment, you just don't get experience with all the things you experience out on the job," Ware said.

Dale Lloyd agrees.

"It opens up your mind about a lot of things as far as the workforce and the workplace," said Lloyd, who lives in Penn Hills and works for Ware.

Though he always had a knack for wiring and the like, Lloyd never had a true opportunity to become involved in the field until now.

"This is something you can learn and you can have forever," Lloyd stated. "There are jobs out there. They're there but there's no connection to them...There's a lot of things you don't read about in the paper." Despite the program's success, there has been little support from city and county government. The program is one part of a holistic approach Byrdsong and CEA bring to the community in an attempt to heal the entire family. They provide mentoring and after-school programs for children and various forms of assistance for parents.

New Pittsburgh Courier

May 6, 1998

by Deepak Karamcheti
Courier Staff Writer


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