02/01/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Expanding Opportunities for Better Jobs in Atlanta

By Katey Ceccarelli, Atlanta CareerRise

Sherry Williams believes in writing down her plans. "If you put something on paper, you can work toward it." Williams was working as a part-time food service liaison at WellStar Paulding Hospital in Dallas, Ga., when she made the decision to take her plans off the page and put them into action. Warm and gregarious with a bubbly, lively personality, Sherry was eager to migrate into a full-time position involving direct patient interaction.

"WellStar is so big it can be overwhelming," she says. "It's hard to know which opportunities to pursue." When her supervisor mentioned the School at Work® (SAW) program in a team meeting, it sounded exactly like the door-opener that Sherry was seeking. SAW gave her a welcomed refresher in math, English and medical terminology, as well as exposure to different career options within the WellStar system. It also provided practical knowledge such as resume writing and interview skills that helped her land a job.

Sherry's story is just one example of how Atlanta CareerRise and its Healthcare Careers Partnership are changing lives across metro Atlanta. SAW is the outcome of a successful collaboration between the two entities, in association with WellStar Health System, the region's leading provider of healthcare, and CobbWorks, a local workforce center. This unique venture is based on a national workforce development model introduced by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions to help close America's skills gap, and get unemployed and underemployed workers on the path to family-sustaining careers.

For Sherry, it was through the job shadowing component of SAW that she learned about the role she would want to pursue: patient access specialist (PAS). A PAS visits with patients to collect and verify insurance information in order to avoid payment snags that could be a nuisance for the patient as well as the hospital. Because she already had strong computer skills, the job seemed like a good fit. When a position became open, Sherry's SAW experience proved to be excellent preparation. "Going through SAW gives you confidence," Sherry says.

With an unemployment rate hovering near 9%, metro Atlanta is in critical need of the systems change -and workforce development opportunities - that the National Fund model provides. Many large employers in the state have trouble finding qualified workers for good-paying jobs. According to the National Skills Coalition, these middle-skill positions account for 51% of all Georgia jobs, while adults with middle-skill credentials are just 40% of the state's workforce.

Meanwhile, more than 630,000 families across the 13-county region are not financially self-sufficient. They are headed by adults who lack the education, training and experience needed to fill middle-skill jobs that pay enough to support a household. This trend being displayed within the Atlanta metro area is a reflection of a startling national issue.

"About 10.4 million such families - or 47.5 million Americans - now live near poverty, defined as earning less than 200 percent of the official poverty rate, which is $22,811 for a family of four," wrote Susan Heavey in a recent piece for These families, referred to as the "working poor," are headed by parents who are forced to work low-wage jobs offering few hours and benefits because of a skills gap. "Overall, nearly one-third of working families now struggle, up from 31 percent in 2010 and 28 percent in 2007, when the recession began, according to the analysis," said Heavey.

Programs such as SAW are working to fill this gap and pipeline talented workers with the drive to succeed into lasting careers. Newly hired as a full-time PAS at Wellstar Paulding Hospital, Sherry exemplifies how these efforts help participants clarify their desired future and advance at an accelerated pace. With two teenagers to educate, the new career path offers financial benefits for her family as well as greater job fulfillment for Sherry. "I'm so glad I did this," she says. "I am eager for more."

Fortunately for workers like her, Atlanta CareerRise is working with other employer groups to form additional workforce partnerships in healthcare and logistics. To support them, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions is taking part in the first "JobRaising Challenge" sponsored by The Huffington Post and Skoll Foundation, where contributions can be made by the public through CrowdRise. To find out more or make a donation through March 1, visit