Women’s program victim to funding change

Sueann Musick
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NEW GLASGOW – After being out of the workforce for almost eight years, Charmaine Smith didn’t know how to get back in. 

With both of her children now in school, the mother of two knew she needed something more to fill her days, but after spending so much time at home, she was unsure of where to even start looking for a job.

“I was nervous,” she said. “It was pretty much me and the boys for so long.”

Smith contacted Career Connections which suggested she try the Starting Point program operated by the Pictou County Women’s Centre.

She said she immediately felt relief from being in the program and meeting women in similar situations as her own.

“I made so many new friendships,” she said. “It’s an easier way to open up and not be so quiet about it.”

As a new graduate, Smith said she has referred other women to the program, but is now disappointed to hear that it might not be offered anymore because of government funding cuts.

Starting Point is funded 100 per cent by the Canada-Nova Scotia Labour Market Agreement, but that money is now going to the federal government’s Canada Job Grant that will focus on training people for highly skilled jobs.

Smith said the 12-week program not only taught how be a good employee but it also strengthened her own self-confidence and showed her how to deal with her own personal struggles.

“I have a lot of student loan debt and I learned how to accept that and not let the barrier come between myself and what is going on,” she said.

As mother of Emmett Francis, 6, and Liam, 5, Smith is currently looking for casual work that will allow some flexibility when dealing with Emmett’s special needs from spina bifda and other health issues.

“My son still needs care and anytime he gets sick, I need to be with him, but I have actually been taking a few times for my own health and not feeling guilty about it. The program teaches you to appreciate yourself.”

Arlene MacDonald, executive director of the Pictou County Women’s Centre, said Starting Point’s success has always been measured on more than just the number of people who find work after graduation.

“We don’t measure just by the women who go on to further education or find a job. We will see generations and daughters of mothers who go through the program. You are breaking that cycle of dependence on the system,” she said. “It really introduces a structure or value for contributing into some homes. Things happen in the lives of these women and cause them to have to leave school. We also get a lot of women who worked before they had children but now 18 years later are removed from the labour market.”

Starting Point has graduated more than 400 women who are now ready to enter the workforce with certifications, education upgrades and career counselling.

MacDonald said Starting Point runs on an operating budget of about $200,000 and offers 12-week courses for women who want to become employable. The program includes life skills and personal development, introduction to information technology, literacy and numeracy improvement, employability and career planning as well as certifications in first aid/CPR, WHMIS, OH&S, World Host and Food Handlers.

In order to graduate from the program, the women must have satisfactory attendance, adopt a positive and responsible attitude, complete a resume and cover letter and complete two mock interviews.

MacDonald said the loss of the Starting Point program will leave a real gap in the employment line because there will be a large group of people who want to work, but need a little extra encouragement or the resources to upgrade their skills and education before entering the workplace.

“The Canada Job Grant program is going to be for ready-to-employ or trained participants. The private sector is going to invest in participants that are ready to be trained, but that is not our women. None of the participants that we have seen would have been able to go to a private employer and engage them to invest in their training at the point that they are at,” MacDonald said.

The Canada Job Grant requires a $5,000 contribution from the employer that will be matched by the federal and provincial governments so that people can train in highly skilled jobs need of workers.

“For a rural community like Pictou County, how many businesses do we have that can participate in that program? What is likely to happen is it will be medium to large-size businesses who take part and who are probably already doing that training.”

MacDonald said Starting Point program is one-of-a-kind started by women’s centre more than 10 years ago and has been duplicated by other organizations from across the country. She said she often hears from community services, the multicultural association, the community college and Career Connections about how well prepared its graduates are for the next step in their lives.

Heather MacIsaac of Career Connections said if the program ends, there will be real void in the labour market.  

“There will definitely be a gap there,” she said. “It gives them such self-confidence to work with others in the same situation and to develop their personal and employability skills.”

Unfortunately, she added, Starting Point is not the only program that will be feeling the effects from the loss of LMA money.  Pictou County Continuous Learning Association will have its budget reduced by half at the end of the month while the Skills UP employment program that provides financial assistance to eligible African Nova Scotians lost its funding.

MacDonald said Starting Point will host its last graduation ceremony March 21 at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. She invited the federal and provincial ministers responsible for LMA funding to attend so they can see first-hand where the money is being spent.

“The cost savings of having just one woman coming off the system and working probably pays for one program,” she said.

Organizations: Pictou County Women, Pictou County Continuous Learning Association, Museum of Industry

Geographic location: Pictou County, Stellarton

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  • NB
    March 12, 2014 - 20:40

    I don't see any comments here....is there no one out there that is against this happening? Who is speaking up to say this program is of great value to the women of Pictou County? I think this is a fantastic program and we need to have it now as much or more than ever to support the wives/partners of the men that may find it hard to get employed in this county. Please let's find a way to keep it going.