Career centers help people reach goals

Do you or someone you know need a job? Do you or someone you know need to enhance his or her skill set? Whether age 16 or 60, a veteran, an ex-offender, or a business in need of labor market information, NCWorks is at your disposal.

A sizable sign announcing NCWorks is on the outside of the Conover building that also houses the city’s library. Until a few days ago, I didn’t realize how important it is that people coming from all over Catawba County, including women and men unfamiliar with Conover, be able to see the sign and know they’re in the right place to possibly change their lives for the better. Such signs also exist in Alexander, Burke, and Caldwell counties.

NCWorks offices, which are overseen by the Western Piedmont Workforce Development Board, are federally-funded career centers. From all that WPWDB director Wendy Johnson told me, it’s clear that “career” and not “job” or “employment” is the best descriptive term for a place that aids folks of all ages in preparing for, stepping onto, and walking lifelong career paths for which they are well prepared and well suited.

Speaking of well suited, Wendy told me about a young woman named Lakaishia Swint who thought she’d like to work in a medical office. Through NCWorks’ NextGen scholarship and training program for 16- to 24-year-olds, Lakaishia began medical office classes at Catawba Valley Community College and “was connected to a paid internship to help her ramp up her customer service and office skills,” said Wendy.

The office experience paid off, but not in the way you might think. The internship gave Lakaishia a generous taste of office life, and she didn’t care for it. “She discovered she wanted to be more hands-on,” Wendy explained, “so she decided she wanted to do truck driving.”

Fast forward to the present: Lakaishia trains truck drivers as well as drives and makes $2,000 a week!

Lakaishia’s what’s known as a success story. There are many more – and not just among young people who participate in NextGen. NCWorks is for all ages.

Wendy said the general goal of the WPWDB, which operates under a federal law known as The Work Force Innovation and Opportunity Act, is “to help employers fill their talent pipeline with a skilled workforce.”

With federal funding, education scholarships — especially to community colleges — are available for people who’ve been laid off, lost jobs due to no fault of their own, or been out of the workforce to care for aging parents, for example, and now want to return to work. “They also get support services such as transportation and child care if they qualify,” said Wendy.

Additionally, there’s Upskill Western Piedmont, an initiative that provides an employer with funding to train its current workforce. This means, for instance, that workers can become supervisors, leaving openings for new employees to come in and take the jobs the new supervisors vacated. Wendy explained that during the recession, many people left the area to look for work, resulting in a lack of mid-level, skilled employees. “Through Upskill, people already there are trained,” said Wendy, pointing out that across the county – the country, really — are “we’re hiring” signs in front of businesses.

And then there’s the already mentioned NextGen program. “Young people need guidance,” said Wendy, saying there are so many career possibilities that it’s hard for a young person to know which direction to take. Besides education support and internships, NextGen offers intensive career counseling in such areas as career exploration, leadership development, and financial literacy, as well as assisting clients in math and reading if these skills are lacking and earning GEDs or high school diplomas.

Wendy said counselors “sometimes work with people three to six months just helping them work through barriers” before setting them on a potential career course. A barrier can be transportation, lack of basic skills, or family responsibilities.

Participants receive guidance from day one through a year after completing their education, training, and/or internship.

All the while, NCWorks career advisors are “keeping up with in-demand job opportunities in the area,” said Wendy. “We don’t want to set someone up for failure. For example, putting too many cosmetologists into the workforce, and then they can’t find work.”

Furthermore, “our partnerships with the community colleges are imperative to the success of the whole workforce,” Wendy continued. “As we watch the workforce change to reflect increased digital and automation skills, postsecondary education is critical.”

“We’re here for people who don’t know what they want to do,” said Wendy. Two things they emphasize are that career seekers need to investigate companies’ cultures, and they must look beyond job titles when considering employment. Job hunters should zero in on what people with certain titles actually do at the places being considered. For example, the duties and work life of a shift supervisor at one manufacturer are likely very different at another business.

Finally, recruitment events occur a few times a week at NCWorks centers, making them not only places to go for guidance, but also for connections with employers.

“We’re the connectors,” said Wendy.

There are no fees for NCWorks services. For more information, including available jobs and upcoming recruitment events, go to or visit the NCWorks career center in your county.

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