02/28/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Working for the Workers

During President Obama's State of the Union address, he delivered an ambitious vision for the future -- one in which any American in need of a job can find one, workers are paid a living wage, and new jobs are created every day. It's an inspiring vision, and one that we at Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty organization, have been making a reality for 125 years. It's not work we can do alone, though. It's work that takes investment from all of us to keep our country moving forward.

For those fighting to escape poverty, getting a job isn't as simple as filling out an application and waiting for a call back. It's a matter of overcoming huge hurdles that haunt them year after year. For some it's a term of incarceration. For others, it's a lack of job skills. Still others are unable to afford the child care or transportation costs they'd incur while working a minimum wage job.

We can't afford to abandon these workers. If we want to keep the Midwest and America competitive in the global marketplace, our country must invest in building a full and robust workforce. Leading the way on that front is our National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN), a national coalition that collaborates to create jobs programs that work. For years, NTJN has acted as a "social laboratory," finding and refining the solutions that create jobs, help end poverty, and fuel economic growth. We know what strategies will fight unemployment:

  1. Job training: Those who experience chronic unemployment, or whose job sectors have been decimated need job training and retraining to become competitive again.
  2. Skill building: Transitional jobs, short-term skill building assignments that train workers for a field while providing them a living wage, help them apply basic job training knowledge and gives them the real world skills that employers look for.
  3. Sharing what works: Through NTJN, we join organizations across the country in creating the right transitional job programs -- ones that help people become and stay employed quickly.
  4. Fighting for good policy: Our work can't stop when we have good programs. Policymakers need and want to know what works in the fight against unemployment. We have the answers.

It's a holistic approach and it works. Just ask Wendy. A participant of one of Heartland Alliance's jobs programs, she found herself homeless and jobless after a term of incarceration. Once we'd helped her find housing, we connected her with a skill-building transitional job -- the kind supported through NTJN. She's now gainfully employed and moving up in her job at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. She truly has escaped poverty. See her story here.

Growing the economy by getting unemployed Americans back to work should be one of the most pressing national priorities today. As we debate the future of job training, skill building and transitional job programs, millions of individuals' futures hang in the balance.

By this time next year, we will have come far in our fight against chronic unemployment, hardship and poverty. The question remains though -- in which direction?