OROFINO — The worker shortage has gotten so intense in Clearwater County that business owners often feel lucky when eight men and women show up for a job they’ve hired 10 to complete.

That is just one example of the difficulties employers have shared with Chris St Germaine, director of Clearwater County Economic Development in Orofino.

“There’s a gap in our labor force in Clearwater County (of people) between the ages of 24 years old and 45 years old,” St Germaine said. “That gap is in part due to some of the alcohol and drug addiction problems that we have.”

The severity of those issues spurred the creation of a workplace readiness pilot project, an initiative that, in a different environment, might have been dismissed as too ambitious.

St Germaine and two other organizers launched the project to give people deemed ineligible for work by some a second chance. If successful, it has the potential to benefit recovering addicts as much as employers.

The participants in the workplace readiness pilot project are individuals facing felony charges who have been chosen for Clearwater County’s problem-solving court. Those who complete that program may have their charges dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

As part of problem-solving court, the individuals have to meet a variety of requirements such as holding down jobs, undergoing drug and alcohol treatment and being screened routinely for drugs and alcohol.

What the pilot project offers goes beyond that. It gives participants a chance to develop references and guidance to pursue living-wage jobs that mesh with their strengths.

“A lot of the people we have come into the program are either unemployed or underemployed,” said Dorothy Pollman, Clearwater County’s drug court coordinator and a project organizer.

“This is focusing on that aspect and trying to look at what they want to do. A lot (of them) haven’t even had a chance to think about (that).”

Organizers are encouraged by the initial results, even though they had hoped to serve more people in their first year.

Four people participated in the first round, and another six are expected to take part in the pilot project later in the year. Organizers originally estimated 30 would participate this year.

Of the first four, one held internships before landing a full-time job. Another is employed and is in the initial stages of starting a business. A third plans to pursue an associate degree at Lewis-Clark State College. A fourth dropped out.

The participants met once a week for two hours for six months. They learned about the basics of being an employee, such as the importance of showing up on time and showering before work. They honed their math skills and developed computer expertise on commonly used Microsoft programs such as PowerPoint and Word.

The instruction was provided on a shoestring budget of less than $15,000, with four grants. (See information box.)

St Germaine, Pollman and the other organizer, Jessi Noah, a peer support specialist with Idaho Health and Welfare adult behavioral health, donate their time. Lewis-Clark State College provided access to computers and classroom space at its Orofino center.

St Germaine and her colleagues paid attention to what worked and what didn’t to make the project sustainable. The original thought was that by focusing on math and computer skills they could help participants land manufacturing jobs. They realized, however, that the cookie-cutter approach wasn’t helpful for individuals who had other interests.

Now they plan to start with an assessment to identify possible careers and, as much as possible, offer individualized curriculums.

They also discovered that computer access outside the times when the pilot project met was an issue, since the participants didn’t have their own. They found 11 laptop computers at a deep discount through Idaho’s equipment surplus website, which will be loaned to participants in the future.

Being flexible, St Germaine said, will be one of the keys to sustaining the project.

“The funders are very supportive of the concept of the program and are thrilled at the results we are getting,” she said. “I’m confident we’re going to be able to continue this.”

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

Grants funding the workplace readiness pilot project

$7,418 Idaho Workforce Development Council, an Idaho state agency

$2,500 Idaho Community Foundation, a not-for-profit that funds projects in Idaho

$1,000 Kessler Family Foundation, a fund within the Idaho Community Foundation

$3,200 U.S. Bank

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