Transportation. Child care. Finding a new career. Reentering the job market after facing struggles many of us can’t imagine. Lorain County organizations and employers have banded together to strengthen and engage the workforce in ways that work for everyone.


Recovering and Reentering the Workforce

Wendy Caldwell, executive director of Place to Recover (P2R) in Elyria, understands the rough the road ahead for people in recovery and those recently released from incarceration. In 2000, the former parole program specialist with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction founded P2R, a nonprofit training and resource center that provides a safe place where underserved and marginalized populations can receive wraparound services.

“One of our guiding principles is to help individuals recover from all of life’s circumstances through strength-based case management, evidence-based programming and mentorship leading to a better quality of life,” she says. “We tell our clients it won’t be easy but it’ll be worth it.”

Connecting them to potential employers is at the forefront of Caldwell’s work. Before sending clients out on job interviews, she makes sure they’re ready to reenter the workforce. Some are recovering from substance abuses that involve alcohol or the recent surge in opioid addiction that put a blemish on their employment record. Others must learn how to reenter society after being serving time in prison.

They are, she adds, from all walks of life, and no profession is immune. Above all, no one is turned away. The executive director recommends resources that will help people achieve stability and, after proving they’ve achieved sobriety for 90 days, they turn to Caldwell to help them put their life back together. During her first year of operation, she assisted 217 clients with making a fresh start.

“We focus on attitude, aptitude and attendance,” she says. “The people who come to P2R must have a desire to change their behavior and have things in place that will help them maintain a sober lifestyle. You need that in order to be successful at any job.”

Caldwell and her team help potential jobseekers sharpen their computer skills, provide appropriate clothing when needed and feel at ease with the interview process.

“The individuals we see range in age from 34 to 55,” she says. “They’ve had success and wins in life, but have lost their way or gotten into a lifestyle of criminal behavior that has taken them away from the morals of society. As a result, they need to be retrained. relearned and reeducated on how to conduct themselves properly on the job. Our goal is to walk beside them so they’re never alone on this journey.”

Since 2020, 15 employers have reached out to Caldwell, asking for referrals. She’s grateful for their support.

“Statistics show that a person who’s in long-term recovery is a valuable employee who has a sense of gratitude that makes them work harder than their younger counterparts,” she says. “We’re proving that data is true.”

Since 1981, Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Inc. (LCADA) has delivered customized approaches to recovery for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. For the LCADA Way President and CEO Dan Haight, his chosen profession is more than a job. It’s his passion.

“Every time I see somebody return to our center and ask them why they’ve returned, the answer is often that they couldn’t find employment,” he says. “Sometimes, they’re laborers who developed backaches and began taking pain medications that became addictive, or perhaps it’s a nurse who lost her license and can’t return to the career she had before.”

The LCADA Way’s Vocational Rehabilitation program is dedicated to helping clients find sustainable employment and eliminate barriers to it that often include transportation, clothing, earning a GED or passing a driving test. Haight has also joined forces with the Lorain County Manufacturing Sector Partnership — a network of manufacturing companies working together to promote manufacturing and grow a skilled workforce — to identify what he calls “recovery-friendly workplaces.

“Employers know that candidates are probably going to pass the drug test,” Haight says. “But they worry so much about background checks. And if it comes back [less that stellar], the employee won’t be hired. It’s time for employers to overlook that and say, ‘I need widgets made. I’ve got somebody who can pass a drug test. I know they’re working with LCADA and are in recovery. Let’s give them a chance.’”


Being Able to Get to Work

The conundrum is one Lorain County has been grappling with long before the word “pandemic” became part of our vocabulary: How do residents travel to other parts of the county to get to work when they don’t live on fixed bus routes?

The solution is in sight. Launched in January, the Shared Mobility Transportation Pilot Project provides van transportation to employees living in Lorain and Elyria who work at Thogus Products and Avient Corp. in Avon Lake. The transportation service uses software from the Columbus-based Share Mobility platform and is connected to vehicles provided by LifeCare and Safe and Reliable for all shifts. Employees can sign up on a tablet or smartphone and meet their ride at a centralized location close to their home.

During the pilot project, the service is being offered for free and is provided in partnership with organizations that include United Way of Greater Lorain County, Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, OhioMeansJobs and MOVE Lorain County. Beginning in September, riders will pay $2 per trip.

“The service is something we’ve all been talking about for awhile,” says Ryan Aroney, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Lorain County. “It essentially operates like Uber or Lyft, activating idle vehicles in the community to pick up people needing to get to work. The idea is to do that efficiently through routes so that the vans fill with people who live in the same neighborhoods and travel to employers who are in close proximity of each other.”

To launch the project, a heat map was created that depicted the neighborhoods where existing Thogus and Avient employees reside. Currently, seven workers use the service to travel to jobs at both manufacturing firms.

“The Shared Mobility Transportation Pilot Project program has helped us touch base with a population we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach,” says Erin Hlaven, director of human resources at Thogus. “It removes the barriers of folks being late or calling off because they don’t have a ride
to work.”

Hlavin adds that shared transportation also reduces the carbon footprint, which makes it a win-win-win for the employer, employee and the environment.

Aroney applauds the way Thogus and Avient have stepped up to the plate to make the program a success.

“The process of working with the manufacturing companies has been heartwarming,” says Aroney. “And I choose that phrase carefully. They were deemed essential through the pandemic and their businesses are successful — and yet they’re losing money every moment they don’t have people to fill jobs they have open. There’s an urgency to those companies to fill those jobs. And with that urgency, they’ve started to think outside of the box in terms of how to fill those jobs. But they’re doing it with empathy, seeing an opportunity to not only fill open positions, but also do it in a way that transforms our community, that reaches into neighborhoods that have a higher poverty level, and gives access to living-wage jobs to people who might not otherwise have that access.”

The Shared Mobility Transportation Pilot Project concludes at the end of August, but Mike Longo, director of the Lorain County Workforce Development Agency — the organization that provides oversight to OhioMeansJobs in Lorain County — explains plans are in the works to ensure the transportation continues. Known for providing services to employers and job seekers, OhioMeansJobs manages a program in which companies become eligible to receive funding for on-the-job training dollars. Thogus has committed to using the funding to find transportation solutions for employees.

“We’re seeing interest from other employers who have heard about the project,” Longo says. “As long as they see that it’s a means to attract qualified employees, I don’t see why they would want it to end.”

Sharon Pearson, one of the founders of MOVE Lorain County — an advocate for mobility solutions that improve the economy and quality of life for residents — serves as Lorain County’s mobility manager based out of United Way of Greater Lorain County. Pearson works with civic leaders to increase awareness of transportation options. She collects transportation data, coordinates educational training programs and develops pilot projects designed to improve unmet needs and gaps in transportation services.

“Employers need to look at transportation as a benefit, not an afterthought,” Pearson says. “The reason is that younger workers want to move where they have transportation options. In order to get people to work, to school, to child care or to the grocery store, Lorain County needs transportation. When you strip it all away, that’s the key to everything.”


Addressing the Need for Child Care

For women returning or preparing to return to the workforce, finding stellar child care often heads their list of stressors. Jennifer Dodge, executive director of the nonprofit Child Care Resource Center in Lorain, has made it her mission to ease that burden. The center offers myriad ways to help families connect with the child care programs tailor-made for their situation and location.

“Oftentimes, we find families need many services other than child care,” Dodge says. “So we create plans that provide them resources that can connect them to what they need, including funds, to bolster them.”

Free services for everyone, regardless of income, include a 24/7 online database; a parent hotline phone referral service that helps families find care that meets early leaning options; and help from parent and community services.

Dodge admits COVID-19 has made the search for quality care a challenge. A shortage of personnel in the child care community has forced many centers to close because they couldn’t meet the required staff-to-child ratio. Compounding the issue is the fact that mothers who have gotten used to working at home for the last several years are reluctant to leave their children.

“I liken it to the day when I took my infant daughter to day care for the first time,” Dodge recalls. “That first week was traumatic. We’ve had babies born during this pandemic who are already recognized, through screening tools, to have less language capacity because they did not have the socialized experiences most children learn in school. Employers are also grappling with what to do.”

Dodge sees a shift in the way many businesses are designing the work day. She hopes they’ll also address the Child Care Resource Center’s new initiative to help ease the transition: Dodge and her team are meeting with local employers to encourage them to think about innovative ways to solve the child care dilemma.

“Employees know they can be just as productive at home as in the office because they’ve had to do it,” Dodge says. “The employer is now trying to catch up with that way of thinking. Some have embraced the idea of not requiring their staff to be in the office, and others have nixed the environment completely or have offered hybrid situations.”

The Child Care Resource Center is working with the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce to define where child care deserts exist and find ways to eliminate them.

“Child care has been identified as one of the top three barriers employers face when they’re either recruiting new employees or maintaining them,” she says. “We’re connecting directly with businesses to say, ‘There might be a child care center 10 miles down the road. What you need is to [honor] the heightened expectation of child care being near your site or on it, or purchase slots in one. It’s time to take it to the next level and say to your employees, ‘We know your family is super important. They’re important to us, too, because [that philosophy] will make you a happy employee.’ This is what we need to start focusing on.”


Getting the Training They Need

Lorain County Community College (LCCC) is at the forefront of helping job seekers find new careers through training and placement that benefits local businesses and leads to job growth. Through the Training Recruitment Acceleration Innovation Network of Ohio Learn and Earn program, LCCC and local companies have created pathways to early hands-on experience and on-the-job training in high-demand and high-skill industries.

Students enrolled in the Earn & Learn program earn a certificate or associate or bachelor’s degree in fields that include automation engineering technologies, CISS software development, cyber and information systems, digital fabrication data, analytics, blockchain and Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS).

“We reach out to human resources managers to understand the kind of positions they are looking to fill and their ability to hire student workers,” says Kelly Zelesnik, dean of LCCC’s Engineering, Business and Information Technologies Division. “Then, we work with our faculty to embed work-based learning as a requirement to graduate.”

Students attend college full time, two days a week and work at a sponsoring company three days a week. During the program, they earn a livable wage while completing their education and gain early exposure to the hiring process, including creating a resume and job searching, interviewing and employability skills.

“We keep employers at the table throughout the entire program and get their feedback on these degrees,” says Courtney Tenhover, LCCC’s Earn & Learn program developer. “This ensures we’re producing students with the knowledge and skills employers need. We’re also building those important personal student-to-employer connections to make sure it’s the right fit.”