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December 6, 2006 12:04 PM

Small program has big impact

IT training puts low-income women on the road to financial security

(This story appeared in the Toronto Star on Nov. 27, 2006. Written by ANDREA GORDON)

KITCHENER-Trudy Jackson is a 36-year-old widow, with two young children, who has been struggling to make ends meet earning minimum wage in a department store.

Maha Selfo, 44, is a civil engineer from Egypt. Since immigrating to Canada, where her qualifications aren't recognized, the mother of two teenagers has been employed as a child-care worker, at a seniors' home and has volunteered in her community.

Kay Speed, 54, of Guelph, spent years working long hours with fierce deadlines and then suffered a major depression following the breakdown of her marriage three years ago. Now the former technology writer wants to return to the workforce doing something she loves but without the risk of burnout.

Then there's Jodi McNichol, who's raising three sons on her own in Stratford. The 31-year-old has been working at Tim Hortons but craves a higher-paying job to cover her mounting expenses for food, clothing and children's hockey.

They are four women of different ages, backgrounds and circumstances but they are brought together every morning in a classroom at Conestoga College by the things they have in common: determination, a work ethic, and the goal of finding a decent job that provides them with financial independence.

The women are among a group of 18 who have been together since September, five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., in Conestoga's Information Technology Training for Women (ITTW) program, which is subsidized by the province through the Ontario Women's Directorate.

They will spend 32 weeks side by side in the computer lab, logging on, scrolling through material, taking notes, doing drills and leaning on each other as they plow through the intricacies of software applications, Internet training, customer service and computer hardware. Then they will head out on 10-week job placements. By next summer, they hope to emerge with an industry-wide A+ accreditation in computer hardware and the promise of a $40,000-a-year job on a computer help desk, in administration or in an office.

Tuition for this kind of course is roughly $10,000, so without the government funding, these women would never be able to earn such a qualification and the prospect it brings of a more secure future for their families.

"You can't put into words the value of this," says instructor Caroline Schlievert, who developed the ITTW course at Conestoga and has been a technology teacher for 16 years. "It has changed so many lives."

The program is one of several offered in the province and funded by the Ontario Women's Directorate to improve skills and employment opportunities for low-income women. It is also offered through MicroSkills Development Centre, a non-profit multicultural community organization that has sites in Scarborough and Etobicoke (microskills.ca).

Conestoga has offered tech training in partnership with the directorate since 2002, and MicroSkills launched its program in 2001. Since the training was initiated, 450 women in Ontario have completed the program. And according to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, which oversees the women's directorate, 78 per cent of them are currently in secure jobs.

The latest funding came in August, when the province promised $2.7 million over the next two years. That will cover costs for 72 women at Conestoga and 240 at MicroSkills, which also offers an advanced stream for women with technology backgrounds who want to upgrade their skills.

These are the kinds of announcements that go virtually unnoticed because, by government standards, it's not a huge amount of money. You could wallpaper a newsroom with the number of press releases issued every week about where our tax dollars are going, but a visit to the Conestoga classroom provides a window on how even a small program can have a big impact - on the lives of women and their families.

"You can't believe the success stories, of women who have gone from living on Ontario Works to $40,000-a-year jobs," says Schlievert.

Willa Wettlaufer of Kitchener is an example. The 38-year-old, on her own with three daughters, heard about the program from a neighbour. Over the years, she has struggled to make do on social assistance and periodically, when her girls were little, by caring for other children in her home.

But last year, when her youngest started school full-time, she knew it was time to find something that would pay better than minimum wage.

"This was perfect and it all fell into place for me," says Wettlaufer, a high school graduate who completed a college course back in 1989 and had some experience with computers. She had to upgrade her English and math qualifications before joining the program last January.

It wasn't easy juggling school and kids and piles of homework each night, says Wettlaufer. "It was an intense course with a lot of information packed in, in a short time."

But Wettlaufer was excited and resolved to make the most of it. After her 10-week work placement at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener last summer, she continued as a volunteer, then got hired on a short contract in which she continued to prove herself as committed, hard-working and a quick study.

The result: a full-time position, which she started last week, as a PC technician deploying and maintaining the hospital's computers. She earns good money, will get full benefits after three months, a pension plan and two weeks' holiday this year.

"This has given us a future that I thought we'd never have," she says. "It just opens up doors in so many areas."

As soon as Wettlaufer gets her first paycheque, she's taking her girls to dinner at Red Lobster - a restaurant they've always wanted to try, but which has never been within their budget.

Her eldest daughter, now 18, left high school a year and a half ago and has been working at low-wage service jobs. She's now decided to follow her mother's example and return to full-time school.

Connie Boyd, co-ordinator of Conestoga's ITTW program, says the program is in demand. There were 67 applicants for the 18 spots in the current session. The next group of 18 starts in January, followed by a third session in April and a fourth beginning next fall.

Schlievert notes the students are also in demand when placement time comes around. Local employers who have offered placements in the past frequently contact the college about when the next crop is coming through so they can offer them spots.

Before being accepted into the program, candidates are interviewed to ensure they have what it takes to handle the demanding curriculum and fast pace - including the financial supports to cover daily living expenses and child care.

"There has to be a real commitment and they need things in place," says Boyd.

Jodi McNichol has it. She has plenty of energy and enthusiasm, too. But one thing she hasn't got is a car, so Boyd helped her arrange a ride every day with a teacher who drives from Stratford to Conestoga. McNichol leaves the house at about 7 a.m. and is back for dinner with her boys, ages 10, 4 and 2. Her parents and sister help with child care. She loves the course and hopes to one day have a job on a computer help desk where she can problem-solve and work with other people. Her kids have special needs and she wants to be able to improve their lives and also encourage them to dream.

"For me, this means maybe I can buy a house eventually rather than being at a minimum wage job and saying, `How is this bill going to get paid?'"

Christine Hanson, 36, also sees the program as a big opportunity. She emigrated from Jamaica last summer with her husband and two children. She used to work in a bank and the family is living in nearby Waterloo on their savings while she takes the course and her marine biologist husband searches for work.

"I see this as a good stepping stone to getting a job," says Hanson. "I'm really grateful."

While the job prospects are important, there are a couple of other things the women have found that weren't promised in the brochures. Mutual support, friendship and inspiration. Both on and off the computer.

"We feel like a family," says Selfo, smiling, as she looks around at her classmates. "It's quite a support group."

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