New Haven Independent by MARKESHIA RICKS | May 24, 2018

Rochelle Bolton has been unemployed since July 10, 2017. Thanks to a program that helps those experiencing long-term unemployment get back to work, she’s confident that she’ll be employed again soon.

Bolton and 50 of her fellow students in a mid-life Platform to Employment (P2E) program gathered at Gateway Community College’s downtown New Haven campus Thursday to celebrate their completion of the five-week course, which helped them rebuild their confidence after being out of work for more than six months.

There were dozens of empty seats to honor those who graduated from the program but couldn’t attend the ceremony because they had to work — a good reason to be absent.

Former New Haven mayoral aide Joe Carbone started not-for-profit WorkPlace, which administers the P2E program, to help people who can’t find employment because of a combination of age discrimination and the impact of long-term unemployment. (Read about a previous graduation here.)

Carbone said the program’s success rate is unmatched: Some 80 percent of graduates take part in a trial-period of work where P2E covers the costs of wages. Of those graduates who take that second step, nearly 90 percent end up getting hired.

Graduates also learned Thursday that the average annual salary for program graduates has risen from $47,156 to $48,123, reminding them they could be headed for employment that helps them do more than just get by.

“It’s up to you to believe in yourself and not settle,” Carbone told the graduates Thursday.

For the lawmakers in the room, including New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney and State Rep. Toni Walker, Carbone noted that the program is revenue neutral and that when graduates get jobs at these higher wages, they put more money into the government’s coffers.

“We don’t cost Connecticut money,” he said. “We’re making Connecticut money.” That drew a cheer from Walker, House chair of the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee cheer.

Looney, a childhood friend of Carbone, praised the program as an “entryway into the middle class.”

“This is a model that needs to be replicated in so many other places,” he said, encouraging graduates to be ambassadors to others.

Sharon Gibson Ellis said she’d only just learned about P2E when she took the helm of the Valley United Way nearly two years ago. She has since hired three program graduates because she was looking for a mature pool of potential employees who knew how to work and had an attitude conducive to working.

It has been a good decision, Gibson Ellis said.

“I didn’t have children naturally,” she said. “I don’t want to have to parent in the workplace.” That line drew a chuckle from the audience filled with people looking for a second or third act in their professional lives.

Gibson said that today young people just entering the workforce know how to get a job, but not how to work.

“It’s not about skill level,” she said. “It’s how you fit in with the team. It’s your body language and your attitude. Skills can be taught; attitude cannot.”

Walker shared her history of having gone from working in a bank to becoming a social worker and member of the legislature. She reminded the graduates that changing careers might not have been what they signed up for but by completing this program they can weather the change. She encouraged them to go out and tell others about their experience.

“I beg you to do it with the idea and compassion that says, ‘I did it and you can do it too,’” she said.

The biggest encouragement came from an April graduate of the program named Cletus Fusco. A former business owner who had also worked in the banking industry, she was unemployed almost a year and over 65 when she came to the program. She said she had started experiencing some of the symptoms common to those who have been looking for work that long: depression. The program helped her regain her confidence.  Fusco is now employed by Cardinal Health.

“Maybe you will be rewarded with a compliment from your new boss like I’ve received, saying, ‘You’re the best hiring decision I ever made,’” she said.

Bolton, who is from New Haven, said she’s ready for that kind of compliment. She previously worked in health education and has her sights set on possibly returning to the health field, specifically in behavioral health, mental health and substance abuse. But she said she’s open to anything.

“This program has given me hope and confidence, and actually got me out of my isolation,” she said. “I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who has been unemployed long term.”