By Don Cogger
An organization that provides training and employment opportunities for residents over the age of 55 living on a limited income may be Eastern Montana’s best-kept secret.
Everyone has felt the pinch of a struggling economy, perhaps none more so than retired or unemployed senior citizens. But for those who prefer to be self-sufficient and are willing to train for a spot back in the workplace, there is a place in Eastern Montana that wants to help.
Experience Works, formerly known as Green Thumb, is a national non-profit organization that helps older people obtain the training they need to find good jobs in their local communities. The largest program offered by Experience Works is the Senior Community Service Employment Program. Funded under Title V of the Older Americans Act, as well as state and local grants, SCSEP enables seniors to benefit from training, counseling and community service assignments.
Trainees are placed at eligible training sites where they are paid minimum wage for an average of 20 hours a week. Trainees can earn more than $7,000 annually while learning the skills necessary to prepare for them for better-paying jobs. In the 2009-2010 program year, Experience Works served more than 30,000 seniors, providing services to more than 9,000 nonprofit and public organizations in 39 states.
Eastern Montana Employment and Training Coordinator Mike Myers recently addressed the benefits of Experience Works, a fixture in Eastern Montana for over a decade.
"A lot of retired seniors are discovering in this economic downturn that their retirement or investments have shrunk, and they don't have the money they thought they had," Myers said. "We help them to take advantage of the employment opportunities that are available to them if they're interested in getting back in the workplace."
To qualify for the program, applicants must be 55 years or older and a resident of the state of Montana. His or her annual family income must not be more than 125 percent of the established federal poverty income guidelines, and he or she must be eligible to work in the United States. Myers said that after sharpening their skills in the training program, seniors are then able to find good-paying jobs in such fields as food service, groundskeeping, maintenance, janitorial and mechanics.
"There is a pretty wide spectrum of jobs that we train our people for," he said. "The people we place in positions are typically going to earn anywhere from $8 to $14 an hour. Some work full time, some work part time, depending on the needs of the employer. Most start at entry level, but they can advance from there if they wish. It's all up to the individual. We're simply the conduit so they can become re-employed."
Experience Works has been in Montana since 1970, though Myers said that not a lot of employers and residents are aware of its existence. Because the organization rarely advertises on television or print media, the organization relies on positive word-of-mouth.
"That's one of the reasons we've been traveling around talking to local newspapers," Myers said. "We want to get the word out to folks who otherwise just don't hear about us. We're a great resource for employers. They don't pay us anything, our service is completely free, for the participants as well as the employers."
Caroline Bennett, who has overseen the day-to-day operations of Experience Works in Miles City since 2005, said the most gratifying aspect of what she does is placing someone with a job that ends up being the perfect fit.
"Being able to watch someone blossom is just a wonderful feeling," she said. "When they find a job they enjoy, they get so excited. They'll call you up and thank you; it just changes their life completely. And it also makes a positive change in the community."
Myers concurred with his colleague, saying that helping someone become self-sufficient again makes all the training worthwhile.
"Instead of the taxpayers supporting them, they're paying taxes, which is pretty cool," he said. "It helps the community become stronger by generating money within the community. The success stories is what keeps us going. We provide a hand up, not a hand-out."
For more information on Experience Works, contact Caroline Bennett at 406-234-1561.
Published Nov. 24, 2010