Athens, Ga. – As Athens moves into the action stage of its two-year campaign against poverty, the University of Georgia is taking a leading role in combating two of the most serious problems associated with poverty-school dropouts and unemployment.
In collaboration with the Clarke County School System and other local groups, UGA’s Human Resources division is creating internships that will help more than 130 local high school and middle school students gain hands-on work experience if they remain in school.
The division also will help agencies that serve adults with physical and mental disabilities place their clients in university jobs matched to their skill levels.
“We are the largest employer in the county and we need to do our part to help the community overcome the poverty problem,” says Tom Gausvik, associate vice president for human resources. “And the university has a vested interest in developing a quality work force in the community because these are the people we may hire.”
Employment-related issues-including a large number of unskilled high school dropouts and an undertrained or poorly trained work force-are major contributors to Clarke County’s 31 percent poverty rate, according to Partners for a Prosperous Athens, the antipoverty initiative launched in 2006.
On March 31, PPA-now known as OneAthens-will hold a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Classic Center to unveil an action plan for fighting poverty. OneAthens leaders will explain how 11 strategies aimed at attacking causes of poverty will be implemented. The action plan will include a structure for implementing the strategies.
As one of six organizations that started PPA, the University of Georgia has provided major support for the initiative including assigning several Fanning Institute staff members to work almost full time on the effort. Many other UGA faculty and staff have been involved as volunteers and several hold leadership roles including Gausvik, who is chair of the OneAthens Work Force Committee and a member of the Education Committee.
Both committees have said a key to reducing poverty is keeping students in school until they graduate from high school (Clarke County’s 58 percent graduation rate is one of the state’s lowest) and providing those who don’t go to college with training and skills to hold good jobs.
Gausvik says UGA will heavily support two internship/apprenticeship programs this year in collaboration with the Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services department and the Clarke County School System’s “School to Career” program. One of the programs, for about 30 middle school students, will start this summer. The second, for more than 100 high school students, begins this fall.
Interns/apprentices will be assigned to university offices, labs and other units based on their interests and career goals, Gausvik says. The interns will have to meet strict academic and behavior requirements to be accepted and will be interviewed by faculty and staff before being placed.
Students in the fall program will earn academic credit in their schools. Gausvik says all the students will learn “soft” job skills such as punctuality and attentiveness, and get valuable training in real-life work. He hopes the internships and apprenticeships will help keep the students in school until they graduate–and maybe bring them back to UGA to work.
“This will give us a chance to look long-term at who we may want to hire,” Gausvik says. “They may go to Athens Technical College or to UGA or another school and then come back here to work. We have to recruit just like the admissions office tries to get the best students and the athletic department recruits the best athletes. We’re looking at where our next employees will come from.”
Gausvik says Human Resources also will become the university’s clearinghouse for finding jobs for adults who have physical or mental disabilities but are employable.
Until now, local agencies such as Hope Haven, Advantage Behavioral Services and Goodwill have contacted individual departments or offices to try to place their clients. Human Resources will now be the central coordinating point for placing adults with disabilities in appropriate jobs throughout the university.
The university has worked with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Athens Technical College, local service providers, ministers and other groups on other PPA/OneAthens programs aimed at improving education and strengthening the work force. These efforts include helping plan a proposed career academy that combines education and job training, and a proposed charter school for young children; supporting the Adopt-a-Class program in local schools; and helping a Chamber of Commerce committee build partnerships between local businesses and schools.
By helping provide more skilled workers and opening new job opportunities, UGA is bolstering the community’s fight against poverty and fulfilling its own educational responsibilities, Gausvik says.
“We have the resources to assist, our mission is education and we have an obligation to build our work force,” he says. “We can help the school system by bringing our expertise to the table. We can help attract new businesses by creating a skilled work force. And most important, it’s the right thing to do.”