Six months ago, Steven Jordan lived in survival mode. As the sole provider for his unemployed mother, young sister and himself, the 19-year old scraped together whatever he could to pay the bills with part-time work at Burger King, painting houses and other odd jobs. On knowledge tests, he rated below high-school level. Although he managed to enroll in a few Lower Columbia College classes, thinking about the future wasn’t easy.
“It was terrible. I was constantly going,” said Jordan of Longview.
Then Jordan got a big break: he landed a paid internship with Northwest Motor Sales & Services, a Longview company that repairs, maintains and installs electric motors. For Jordan and two other interns, Tanner Willman and Jessica White, the internship offered something low-income, at-risk youth don’t often get: mentorship and a launch pad into a new career and way of life.
“For years, I’ve just been kind of winging it,” Jordan said. Now he’s a paid employee at Northwest Motor and he’s thinking ahead at least a few years, he said. He moved into his own rental house and recently bought a new a car. He hopes to build a career around industrial sales, and his co-workers are encouraging him to get a college degree.
The recently-completed pilot program organized by Goodwill Industries and Workforce Southwest Washington proved to be so successful, Northwest Motor agreed to host the 10-week internship three times a year. It’s inspired a similar program in Clark County and an industrial internship at Norpac in Longview.
The program provides a model for how to give local youth industrial skills often missing from their resumes, plus employment and intangible life skills that can propel them out of poverty.
“I would say if (these youth) had just applied for any entry-level job position, they wouldn’t have been at the top of the pile. This allowed them an audience with a local employer and the chance, with no pressure on the employer’s funds, to really show their ability to grow,” said Tori Skinner, business development manager for Goodwill Industries in Longview. “And that made a big difference.”
Goodwill’s program is geared toward a demographic called “opportunity youth” — typically low-income people ages 16 to 24 who have some significant barrier to employment or education. They may not have a high school degree or they may struggle with homelessness, poverty or lack of English-language proficiency.
In Cowlitz, Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties, about 16 percent of young adults fall into the “opportunity youth” category (2,325 people), which means they don’t have a full-time job and they’re not attending school, according to Workforce Southwest Washington.
About 59 percent of opportunity youth here are living below the federal poverty line, and 37 percent have less than a high-school diploma or equivalent. Many of these young adults are living independently without financial or emotional support from family. Overall in the region, about 33 percent of “opportunity youth” females have their own children to support, too.
Skinner said she wanted to find a new way to develop opportunity youth by working through a local employer, so she reached out to Northwest Motor President Spencer Wiggins about a potential partnership. Wiggins said he saw it as a way to train more local young people in the kinds of industrial skills employers here often bemoan are lacking.
“One of the challenges we face in this (motor) industry, but I think it’s also fairly universal across most of the skilled trades, is that there is a skills gap, a very noticeable one when you’re in a position that does hiring,” Wiggins said.
More importantly though, Wiggins said he saw it as a way to give back to the community.
“It takes work, it takes supervision, it takes planning … (but) this is a small contribution that our organization can make to make an impact,” Wiggins said.
The week before Thanksgiving last November, Skinner launched the program, thinking she would get a few responses on a Facebook post. She was shocked to receive 70 applications. After an initial screening and interviews, three interns were selected: Steven Jordan would work in sales, while Tanner Willman and Jessica White would work in the motor shop.
Funded through federal and state grants administered by Workforce Southwest Washington, the interns worked part-time for minimum wage ($11 an hour) for the first six weeks, then got bumped up to full-time for the last four weeks of the program.
“Paid learning — that’s a big deal so they know they’re not having to take out student loans to do this program. A lot of those (financial) stressors are eliminated through this type of support,” Skinner said.
In the shop, White and Willman gained exposure to skills often needed in industrial settings, such as how to operate a forklift and overhead crane, proper use of safety protective equipment and how to use hand tools, air tools, processing equipment and pressure washers. For Jordan, who worked in sales, he learned the basics of motors while focusing on the business skills of working with customers, providing quotes and juggling multiple accounts.
On Fridays, they trained at Goodwill to earn various certifications such as CPR, first aid, forklift and OSHA-10 certifications, as well as training on life skills and money management. All three interns studied the intricacies of electric motors with daily homework and tests. Towards the end of the internship, White and Willman received safety training so that they could shadow field maintenance workers who repaired electric motors in the local mills.
Before the program started, Willman said he knew he wanted to do something hands-on, but he wasn’t sure how to break into the industrial world.
“At that point I was just wanting to … start building a career and start heading in the right direction,” said Willman, 20, of Kalama, who is low-income and has a two-year-old son. But at a lot of companies, “it didn’t seem like there was a lot of opportunity for growth. I found through this program, they actually wanted to teach you.”
Willman said this helped to get his foot in the door in an industry that doesn’t have many formal training or apprenticeship opportunities regionally.
“This kind of opened my eyes to another field that I didn’t really know existed,” he added.
For White, being one of the few women in the business was awkward at first, but she was surprised at how welcoming all the other employees were. Eventually she took an apprenticeship as a winder —a technician who winds copper wire around components inside of an electric motor — a field she knows she wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
Right after she earned her GED through the program, the other shop employees broke out into applause when she entered the shop.
“(The program) made me a lot more confident about a lot things that I do because a lot of the people from Northwest Motor and Goodwill always kept you confident. No matter what, they always reassured me,” said White, 20, of Kelso, who is low-income and has an 18-month-old daughter.
In a way, the Northwest Motor employees became the “motor dads” for the interns, Wiggins quipped. They helped give Jordan advice on his auto loan and other personal decisions.
Jordan said that it was the first time he remembers adults taking a real interest in his future.
“It definitely is a change. And it’s a welcome change,” he said.
The program offered something many opportunity youth are missing — support to help navigate through early adulthood.
“In many cases these young people don’t have a connection to a parent or someone at home that gives them encouragement and a sense of self-worth,” said Jeanne Bennett, CEO of Workforce Southwest Washington. “Knowing someone thinks they’re capable of achieving success gives many of them the encouragement to work hard and overcome obstacles.”
From the employer’s side, Wiggins said the program helped to build a shared mission and a sense of community among his staff as they worked to train the interns. And he gained a better understanding of the hardships local at-risk youth often face.
This month Goodwill and Northwest Motor are launching the second round of the internship, with two interns already selected. They received 100 applicants for this round, 30 more than previously.
After the first round, Wiggins was happy to hire all three interns as full-time employees. While he can’t hire every batch of new interns, he hopes he can provide the industrial skills and letters of recommendation that will give more opportunity youth a better chance of success.
“The more we can engage the people that really need it here in this community and really invest in them, the better our community is going to be,” Wiggins said.