January 9, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:32 am
5 TO WATCH IN 2012

Kim Oliver: Focusing on workforce solutions

PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
Kim Oliver focuses on training low-income Hartford residents for jobs in the 21st century economy.

Along with economists and policy makers, Kim Oliver is busy watching Connecticut's job numbers these days.

With statewide unemployment entrenched at nearly 9 percent and the governor calling for workforce development initiatives, job creation it seems is the Nutmeg state's number one resolution for 2012. And Oliver is expected to play an important role in that effort in the region.

As manager of Workforce Solutions Collaborative of Metro Hartford (WSCMH), a broad-based coalition of government, business, education, non-profit and philanthropic entities, Oliver, 37, is tasked with helping prepare low-income residents with job skills training focused on three core industries: healthcare, utilities/cable and manufacturing.

It's a tall order in a city where nearly one-third of all residents live at or below the federal poverty level and unemployment — at 15.4 percent, according to Connecticut Department of Labor figures — is nearly 80 percent higher than the statewide rate.

Oliver, a Hartford native and graduate of Weaver High School and Yale University, understands that reversing those figures starts with the basics. "Many [Hartford] residents lack basic skills in reading and math — essential skills for employment" Oliver said.

To address those challenges in 2012, Oliver's coalition is looking to build credential-based training that develops specific in-demand skills for specific sectors. "Our curriculum is designed to provide workers with targeted instruction using content that is customized to each industries academic and technical competencies," Oliver explained.

And that's good news for low-income workers and area employers. Oliver points to the healthcare field as an example. "Our partner hospitals [unable to find qualified employees], are outsourcing their medical coding functions at a substantial cost," Oliver explained. "We realized if we trained low-income residents at our region's community colleges, we could provide a job opportunity that pays up to $25 an hour and saves the employer money."

It's a model, it seems, that's also attracting money. In 2011, the collaborative was one of only a handful of community-based initiatives nationwide to receive funding from the Social Innovation Fund — a pool of federal dollars earmarked to promote economic activity in low-income areas. Oliver has already leveraged the $300,000 in federal support to secure an additional $1.2 million from the local philanthropic community.

Oliver is looking to use those dollars to expand the industry-specific curriculum in partnership with adult education providers and community colleges. Her targeted goal is to serve 290 individuals in the Hartford and Enfield labor markets and engage 45 employers — over the next two years — by providing opportunities for career advancement. "Ultimately, we want to create self-sufficient families," Oliver explained, "by focusing on industries that offer [low-income workers] good pay and opportunity for growth."

And Oliver knows that beginning to grow the job skills in low-income areas is an economic necessity for the region's employers. "Forty percent of Connecticut's workforce 10 years from now is projected to come from the state's urban areas like Hartford," she said.

For now, she's starting small, with a focus of making progress in 2012. But if she can put low-income families in the region on a road to employment and self-sufficiency this coming year, Oliver and her coalition — like Connecticut's job numbers — should be worth watching.

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