Underused government office here to help

The local office of Southwestern Illinois workNet is expanding services to offer more to individuals and employers through on-the-job training and an apprenticeship program. (submitted photo)

Since 2014, Southwestern Illinois workNet has helped employers hire skilled workers and individuals become those workers. 

The program, which is funded by a grant through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, operates in five counties. It has seen particular success in St. Clair County, which is the grant holder for the program, but not as much in Monroe County. 

“We don’t really have a hard time in St. Clair County because that’s the grant holder,” career specialist Melanie Biffar said. “Everybody knows about it up there, but down here, in our community, it’s just not really well known. It’s a mechanism to help people become more self-sufficient, and I know we have people in this community who could use it.”

Biffar, who operates the Southwestern Illinois workNet satellite center in Monroe County, said she estimates a typical workload for her involves helping 50-60 individuals. 

Of those people, only about six are from Monroe County. 

Other counties served by the program are St. Clair, Clinton, Randolph and Washington counties. 

As Biffar told the Monroe County Board at a recent meeting, if the program continues on this trend and does not utilize the funding it gets, it may decrease or be redirected. 

“Right now, we are federally funded by the Department of Labor,” Biffar explained. “So every year we get x amount of dollars. And if we don’t spend that money, we have to give it back and when they reassess there is always that possibility we won’t get it back.”

To combat that, Southwestern Illinois workNet is expanding the services it provides by marketing for on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs.

For the first of those initiatives, Biffar will work with employers to provide hands-on training for qualified new employees. 

These employees are dislocated workers or adults with low incomes who Southwestern Illinois workNet helps find these jobs. 

Employees who participate in the training get reimbursed for gas mileage, and businesses get reimbursed for up to half of the employee’s pay. So, if someone attends the training and makes $10 an hour, Biffar’s office reimburses the company up to $5 an hour for the training.

“On-the-job training is just a really great program,” Biffar summarized.

Currently, only one Monroe County business,  Oak Hill Senior Living and Rehabilitation Center, utilizes this training. Biffar said she is currently seeking more clients.

On a similar note, Biffar’s office has recently started offering an apprenticeship program to help individuals learn a new job skill.

In this case, an employer would hire someone, like an welder, with no experience or training. The business would then train this worker while Southwestern Illinois workNet helps the new employee find education to become a welder. 

“The apprenticeship program is a really great program,” Biffar said.

Currently, no one in Monroe County uses this program.

In addition to these services, Southwestern Illinois workNet can also assist individuals through training at its resource room, workshops on skills like resume writing, help with job searching, paying up to $14,000 to send someone to college and more.  

“The main goal is to live self-sufficiently,” Biffar said of what these services accomplish. 

To qualify for these programs, applicants must either have low income or be a dislocated worker.

A person with low income is someone who receives government assistance like food stamps, is homeless or is under income per self-sufficiency guidelines. According to these guidelines, a family of three making less than $41,996 qualifies as low income, for example. 

A dislocated worker is someone who is unemployed, whose unemployment has been exhausted within the last year and is unlikely to return to that industry. 

Biffar said there are employment options for people in this area that her office could help them find and obtain. 

“There’s a pretty big need for jobs to be filled (in Monroe County),” she said. “We’d just like to keep as much of this in our community as we can and help people out around down here.”

The process for getting assistance, which is funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, includes orientation, assessments and proof of things like income. 

Biffar said the application can take up to a month, but she can streamline it so that she can see an applicant within a week. 

“The process coming straight to me is a lot quicker,” she said. “Plus, to me, I think you’re going to get a lot more hands on when you’re here.”

The Monroe County office of Southwestern Illinois workNet is located in the Monroe County Courthouse in Room 19. Biffar can be reached at 618-939-3332 or melanie.biffar@co.st-clair.il.us.

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