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Overcoming barriers to employment

Experience Works state program manager Lyle Koller, relaxes in his office at Dickinson. (Press Photo by Linda Saielr)

Pam Stedham and Tom Bittleston, both of Dickinson, had little success in finding  jobs after their previous careers ended. The challenges of being an older worker didn’t help either.

Stedham, 58, had sold her dry cleaning business, but lacked computer skills. Bittleston, 56, worked for an oil service company before being laid off.

“We closed our business after 38 years,” Stedham said. “I never dreamed I would have problems finding a job. My goodness, what more could you ask for from an employee who has been at a job for 38 years. I waited six months until somebody at church mentioned Experience Works. I applied and it really went well for me.”

Through Experience Works Inc., eligible individuals receive paid community service assignments at local public and nonprofit organizations.

“We identify people who need to change careers -- we give them work experience -- it’s that foot in the door for employment,” said Lyle Koller, Experience Works state program manager. “For whatever reason, at a certain age, they don’t get the calls back from resumes. We have a lot of people who are not computer friendly, but the applications are submitted online.”

Eligible individuals must be age 55 or older, be unemployed, low income and looking for a job.  They are paid a minimum wage for 20 hours, Koller said.

Koller works  in Dickinson, along with Kimberly Cater, employment and training coordinator for western North Dakota, and two assistants. The office was moved on Jan. 2 from T-Rex Plaza to the Dickinson Research Extension Center office building at 1041 State Avenue. The move was necessary because of administrative cutbacks, he said.

Typical training assignments include clerical duties at nonprofit organizations, working at thrift stores, animal shelters or food pantries, or cleaning parks and buildings.

Experience Works is described as  one-stop service. Homeless individuals, who may have no money, no food, no place to live or no vehicle find their way to Koller’s office.

“We have gotten them food vouchers and got them into housing -- it's fairly quick turnaround,” he said. “We have literally drove them to the homeless shelter, hooked up with Community Action, Job Service and Stark County Social Services. “If you don’t have housing, we work with Stark County Housing. If you need food, we get you a food pantry voucher. We make the phone calls and set up appointments.”

Experience Works was launched in 1965 as the Green Thumb program. Funding comes from Title 5 of the Older Americans Act and it operates through the  Senior Service Employment Program.  As a nonprofit organization, no fees are charged for the services.

Success stories are documented by the individuals themselves.

Bittleston worked for an oil field company out of Casper, Wyo., until being transferred to western North Dakota. He lived in Heron 1½ years to be near the rigs, and then was laid off.

“I painted houses, it was seasonal work, but something to do,” he said. “I met Lyle and he learned I had some truck driving experience. He sent me to Job Service to get a grant award and sent me to a truck driving school.”

Bittleston completed the training through Commercial Education and Safety, LLC in December, and is pursuing a hazardous material endorsement. He is confident he will get a job soon.

In another example, Koller worked with a homeless veteran looking for work in the Oil Patch.

“He came into the program and we  taught him a little about the computer,” he said. “He got his foot in the door and now is employed by the city.”

Koller’s biggest rewards come in the form of hugs.

“I’ve  had people sit in front of me crying after I help them get a job,” he said. “They ask, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ -- that’s the biggest payment right there.”

Stedham is working in the Experience Works office as a participant assistant for Kim Cater.

“Pam is not staff, but stepped up from a participant to a participant assistant,” Cater said. “She understands this program and is very good at giving back. She’s not judgemental and has a great way with people. She’s been a godsend.”

Cater’s job takes her throughout western North Dakota.

“Participants may be changing careers in the oil field, divorce, death of a spouse, whatever,” she said. “Basically, we meet every need that comes to us. If we can’t provide that service, we network with other agencies to provide that need.”

Participants want to feel needed and have a reason to get out of bed, she said.

“Once we build up their confidence, they are very dedicated and loyal,” she said. “We put them in other non-profits, city, local or state government, and they love having them. I’ve placed people at the animal shelter and at the jail. Within six months, one homeless veteran had a job. We helped him get a truck. He’s got an apartment, and is in a position to help train other participants.”

One of the challenges of finding work is often lack of computer skills.

“Just about every position now wants an application online and they don’t know where to begin,” Cater said. “Every website is different to navigate and it's real easy to get confused and they give up in frustration. We coax them, instill confidence in them until they believe in themselves.”

Stedham shared one final bit of advice for anyone looking for work.

“I’ve noticed they are embarrassed -- don’t be,” she said. “We've all been there and have come from the bottom. So many people care for you who go above and beyond.”

The situations of an unemployed older worker may be different, but the first step is the same -- start at the Experience Works office.

“I believe everyone has a family member or friend who needs help,” Cater said. “There are so many barriers to overcome. We’re here to give them confidence to move forward.”

For more information, call the office at 701-483-1333, or visit the website, www.experienceworks.org.

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