Hector Marrero is beginning to understand the difference between a career and a job.
The 21-year-old Hartford native had abandoned high school, adult education and other job-course programs.
Nearly out of options, Marrero this spring enrolled in Hartford nonprofit Community Renewal Team's YouthBuild program for another shot at new learning opportunities, job training, meaningful employment and, ideally, a better life.
Just months in, Marrero has earned his high school diploma, several construction certifications and a driver's permit. His goal now is to land a union job that pays a livable wage and provides growth opportunities.
"I didn't have anything before this," Marrero said. "We are all behind in life, technically, and are trying to catch up while life is still going. We are not just looking for employment, but better employment."
Marrero is part of an untapped talent pool that workforce-development officials say is crucial to jumpstarting Connecticut's economy and helping employers fill thousands of open jobs around the state.
They include "opportunity youths," or individuals ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or working, and low-skill adults ages 25 to 64 who have less than, or equivalent to, a high school education.
Added together they number in the hundreds of thousands across the state and include ex-offenders, those who lack English proficiency or are foreign born, veterans, among others.
Community Renewal Team's YouthBuild initiative is one of about 40-plus programs in Connecticut — funded by state, federal and nonprofit dollars — that aim to raise the prospects of this population, many of whom live in the state's urban centers, by helping them gain employment or advance their skills.
The stakes around their success are high because Connecticut has significant demand for middle-skill workers, or individuals who have more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.
In fact, thousands of middle-skill jobs are available each year in Connecticut's key industry sectors, including health care, construction and manufacturing, but are going unfilled because of a skills gap, industry officials said.
As a result, businesses nationwide are lowering education requirements in many industries, and the same is true in Connecticut, said Andrea Comer, vice president of workforce strategies for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA), the state's largest business lobby.
Comer said employers in various sectors have reported that many opportunity youths and underskilled adults lack social and collaboration skills for team building. Others face transportation barriers, which need to be addressed for those in urban and rural areas, she said.
While there is a viable workforce development backbone in the state to upskill this population, Comer said coordination is often missing between local programs and employers.
But many initiatives are pushing the right buttons.
The Eastern CT Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative has been successful providing training to address the hiring needs of submarine-builder Electric Boat. The Academy of Engineering & Green Technology, created and sponsored by CBIA and Hartford Public Schools, also connects students to learning-based internships with member businesses, she said.
Since the Great Recession, Comer said businesses have become more engaged in strengthening the employment pipeline due to a "desperate" need for skilled workers.
Employers must continue forging partnerships with local workforce initiatives, she said, adding they should also look at a broader educational pool when considering job candidates.
"The good news is the untapped talent in workforce development is on everyone's radar," she said. "The caveat is more coordination and more collaboration needs to take place if we are going to be successful."
Finding a path
Since its 2009 founding, YouthBuild has connected 228 Hartford residents ages 18 to 24 to secondary education or job-skill training opportunities, which often lead to careers in construction or health care.
The majority of Hartford opportunity youths enrolled in the program have not completed a high school equivalency degree.
YouthBuild connects participants to high school courses, general education development (GED) exams, construction and certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificates or job-site internships, among other post-secondary education options.
Annually, more than 60 youths are split into two six-month cohorts funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the state labor department and federal initiative AmeriCorps. Outfitted with safety equipment, Community Renewal Team-embroidered jackets and shirts, participants have access to the program's on-site trainers and employer specialist, who helps with resume and interview preparation.
Almost all of CRT's construction learners enter the program with little understanding of carpentry before they're trained and linked to job-site internships for 25 hours a week, earning $100 stipends. Employers pay for additional hours.
"We offer a lot but we also expect a lot," said CRT Program Manager Cynthia Baisden. "We understand that life happens so let us help you through that."
CRT supports participants with any barriers that may curb them from employment opportunities, connecting them to transportation, food, clothing or child care services.
Elethia Mills earlier this year applied and enrolled in YouthBuild to earn a GED and CNA certification. After just three weeks, the 23-year-old passed her first GED exam and is moving her way through various nursing and construction certification programs and required community service hours.
Mills and Marrero, who have tested several training programs in the area, said YouthBuild is Hartford's best.
Only a short list of YouthBuild enrollees fail to meet the program's requirements — 94 percent of participants have obtained either a construction or CNA certification.
After graduating, participants often return to CRT for career or life advice, Baisden said.
"Just because you finished the program doesn't mean you're done with us," she said. "You are with us for life."
A fresh start
Among those in the at-risk, untapped population are ex-offenders attempting to re-enter the workforce.
Stigmas aside, ex-offenders' job skills often fade during years in prison, but industry experts say many workforce initiatives are available to those currently and formerly incarcerated.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has focused on easing nonviolent offenders' reintegration into the workforce through his Second Chance Society policies, including a 2016 law that prohibits employers from requesting a job applicant's criminal history as part of an initial application, recently praised 18 incarcerated graduates of the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education program who are currently being held at the maximum-security Cheshire Correctional Institution.
The program over the last decade has offered accredited Wesleyan courses, including English, biology and philosophy, to offenders who committed a wide range of offenses. The program's selective admissions committee accepts students based on intellectual curiosity, work ethic, and other factors.
In addition to similar programs providing skills training to ex-offenders via the state Department of Corrections and Asnuntuck and Goodwin colleges, Hartford nonprofit Chrysalis Center also supports individuals leaving Connecticut's prison system.
Chrysalis, which provides social services and develops affordable housing, is nearing completion of a three-year Career Pathways Initiative funded in part by a $4.5 million grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Eight other organizations also receive a portion of the funds, including Capitol Region Education Council, Goodwin College, Hartford Public Library and YMCA Hartford Region Inc.
The initiative targets low-skilled Hartford residents, providing access to customized education and training programs, or offering participants support to overcome other barriers.
At Chrysalis, 68 of the 104 current participants are employed, and officials expect that figure to rise as others move through the program, which has served those between ages 18 to 77, with an average age of 33.
Hartford native Andre Thompson is one of 200 individuals Chrysalis has served through the Career Pathways program. Thompson started over a year ago and has received lead, asbestos and hazardous waste training on his way to earning a job as an on-site assistant with carpet cleaning company Stanley Steamers.
Thompson, 36, has come a long way to find a job that offers a family sustaining wage after being charged with a slew of drug offenses and serving 90 days in prison for failure to pay child support.
The North End resident, who resides where unemployment hovers around 35 to 40 percent, said Chrysalis has helped him meet every challenge with direction and motivation.
"They provided me with whatever I needed," Thompson said. "Now I have a foundation and am doing pretty well."
Although the Chrysalis program is slated to serve 50 individuals a year, it has annually accepted at least 60 or more because of demand, said Robert Michalman, a Chrysalis program manager.
Michalman said the program no longer advertises due to its influx of candidates. And with high unemployment in its North End neighborhood, he says Chrysalis is exploring how to continue the initiative ending in December.
"If you want results and you want to empower the individual and offer them some sustainability at the job … it requires training and a direct path," he said.