Program helps seniors get back on their feet again

Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 4:40 PM
Joe Miller, formerly a truck driver, has used the federal work program to learn new skills and to start a new career.
Katherine Taugelchee works in the Durango office of the Senior Community Service Employment Program as a trainee. After years of working three or four jobs at a time she joined the program to learn computer skills.

A truck driver, a wrangler and a jack-of-all trades all found a new start through a federal job training program for older workers.

Joe Miller, a former truck driver, lost his job during the recession and went on to battle a type of cancer associated with trucking. When he became well enough to return to work, he was looking to change fields and stay closer to home.

He found the Senior Community Service Employment Program at the Cortez Workforce Center, and the agency placed him with the Habitat for Humanity store in Cortez. While there, he learned how to price retail products and how to use accounting software. The job gave him renewed confidence.

“If you go in there slump-shouldered, they aren’t going to look at you,” he said.

After six months with Habitat for Humanity, he was offered a job with The Geeks, a computer store in Cortez.

From her Durango office, Judy Campbell manages the program in the region and places unemployed people 55 and older in jobs where they can learn new skills. The program is under the umbrella of Service, Employment and Redevelopment and is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, which pays trainees minimum wage for maximum of 18 hours a week while they work for nonprofits.

The nonprofits do not pay the stipend, Campbell said.

The program draws people who spent a lifetime working in a physically demanding field and those who can’t live on their fixed income. Almost 100,000 people are trained every year across the country.

“People are trying to live off their Social Security, and they realize they can’t,” Campbell said.

The program tends to have more participants from the Cortez area than Durango. But she has noticed the number of phone calls seems to have slowed down in recent months, as the unemployment rate statewide has dropped.

In general, most people come to the program looking to learn computer skills.

Katherine Taugelchee of Durango has spent most of her 57 years working three or four jobs at the same time. She was an overnight stocker, a waitress and a janitor, among other things.

It got harder for her to find work as the applications moved online and she struggled with computer basics. But training in Campbell’s office since November has given her experience with Microsoft Word, Publisher and Excel.

“I was a zero on the computer; now I think I’m a whiz,” she said.

Every nonprofit hosting a trainee must provide a short plan of the skills the person will learn to aid in their job search and future. The trainee also interviews with the nonprofit so, both can decide if it will be a good fit. While in the program, trainees may be moved multiple times, so they can have varied experiences and set new employment goals.

For Taugelchee, that goal is stability.

“I want to find a job where I stay for a long, long time,” she said.

SER Jobs for Progress is in need of nonprofit organizations. city and county entities and schools in La Plata and Montezuma counties to accept seniors for training, Campbell said. Trainee salaries are paid by the U.S. Department of Labor, not the employing organization. Information is available from Campbell at (970) 385-3995.