Richland County’s unemployment rate is hovering above 6 percent—6.6 percent in July versus the state rate of 5.7 percent. The county’s labor force has also shrunk—184,670, compared with 186,127 a year ago.
A scholarship fund administered by the City of Columbia aims to change these rates by awarding qualified applicants up to $4,000 to study one of 29 training programs. Dubbed Work It Up, the scholarship began in April 2013 under a $184,372 grant by the non-profit organization, Nec Users Group. The group is a telecommunications company that dissolved in 2012 and put its funds toward employment in the capital city.
Thirty-five of the 419 applicants have received scholarships. The qualifications include living in the city limits, having at least a GED, and being unemployed or underemployed.
The city is partnering with Midlands Technical College and Richland School District One to test recipients’ math and reading skills and to teach interpersonal skills needed in the workplace.
Marsheika Martin, assistant to the director for the Two Notch Development Corporation, helps oversee the program. She says the goal is to get people to work as quickly as possible. “We’re trying to encourage people to go into the manufacturing sector,” she says.
The manufacturing program is a 10-week program. Martin says the industry has picked up. And it offers a good wage range from $10 to $16 per hour, compared with a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Martin sighs when asked what measures for accountability are in place to ensure applicants make the most out of the scholarships. She says it’s difficult to keep in touch with applicants after they finish the program, especially if they can’t find a job. “They just kind of give up.”
We still need the employers in place, she says.
A criminal record is another challenge for some applicants. Having one doesn’t necessarily disqualify applicants from employment, but in some cases Martin’s department may steer them towards entrepreneurial programs like landscaping. The city also partners with South Carolina Legal Services to help applicants with criminal histories clean up their records.
The scholarship program was initially expected to expire in 2015, but will continue until the funding runs out. Martin did not immediately say how much scholarship funding has been awarded.
Four certified nursing assistants, three phlebotomists and one veterinary assistant are among the scholarship recipients who have found jobs.