United Way initiative in Norwich aims to align curriculum with workforce needs, connect partners

Norwich — The United Way of Southeastern Connecticut wants to see the share of financially stable households in Norwich increase to 66 percent over the next decade through aligning the education system with workforce needs and creating a more interconnected community.

And it plans to do that through a project called New Capacities, which was touted in a "pep rally-type atmosphere" at Norwich Free Academy on Wednesday morning.

Sandwiched between drumline and dance performances, United Way — along with its public sector and nonprofit partners — spoke about the history of the initiative, what it has achieved so far and next steps.

In November 2016, the City of Norwich asked United Way to take the lead on the Connecticut Working Cities Challenge, a grant opportunity for cities with low median family incomes and high poverty. Community partners developed a plan, but Norwich ultimately didn't get awarded the implementation grant.

But on Feb. 9, 2018, the UWSECT board of directors voted unanimously to fund the effort. The name changed from Working Cities Challenge to Norwich Project to New Capacities, said Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact. The latest logo and the "learning, earning, growing" tagline came from Miranda Creative.

United Way committed $300,000 over three years, Sears-Graves said. But she told The Day that United Way will either be able to expand the timeframe or accomplish more, considering Norwich Free Academy and the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board stepped up to the plate with their own money.

EWIB has helped address a reality that many cited in speeches Wednesday: Not everyone is going to go to college, and that's okay, so long as they're prepared for employment or something else.

Expanding on the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative began in April 2016, EWIB ran a pilot program in June and July 2018 in which 17 people who had just graduated from NFA participated in a five-week training program on manufacturing and carpentry.

After, 15 students were offered jobs at Electric Boat and two at other Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance employers, said Linda Farinha, head of the career and technical education department at NFA. This year, another 19 students are starting the program two days after graduating.

Additionally, Guidance Department chair Jessica St. George said 45 students will take a new senior seminar course in the fall semester. Students will focus on three areas for six weeks each: personal finance, Microsoft Office and workplace readiness.

This came about, St. George said, because employers voiced a desire for soft skills like communication, time management and problem-solving.

NFA is also adjusting its 11th grade English class to weave in employability skills, and next year, some students will participate in a certified nursing assistant program through Three Rivers Community College. St. George said they'll take a shuttle from NFA to Three Rivers twice a week, get 60 clinical hours at a rehab center in the second semester, and then be able to take the CNA exam.

Farinha said that in addition to the CNA program, NFA is looking at creating clusters for other medical fields, hospitality and banking.

"Letting students know earlier and earlier what's out there for them is so critical," Norwich Public Schools Superintendent Abby Dolliver said.

Lee Ann Gomes, director of human services for the City of Norwich, gave some hard truths for why this is important: Norwich's unemployment rate is above the state average, many people pay 70 percent of their income toward rent, the average two-bedroom rent in Norwich is $1,190, and single, childless people each need to make $12.34 an hour to provide for themselves.

She said that what her father had — an ability to work in a trade at the same company his entire working life, get good benefits, send his kids to college and retire at 55 — barely exists anymore.

Gomes said of New Capacities, "This program will make it easier for people to build assets and build wealth and grow access to credit."

Other New Capacities partners include Otis Library, Backus Hospital, Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, seCTer, Freeport-McMoRan, banks and more.

Those who want to get involved, such as by attending community conversations, can contact project specialist Lindsay Poulos at lindsay.poulos@uwsect.org or 860-464-3338.

e.moser@theday.com

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