GARY | Dyer resident Denise Hills had been out of work for 10 months and was starting to feel discouraged.
"I just got so beat down," she said. "Looking for jobs is not fun. I really felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I was applying for things I knew I was qualified for and not hearing back. I started to think, 'What's wrong with me?'"
But Hills enrolled in the new Skills Building Institute, a collaboration with the Indiana University Northwest School of Business and Economics, the Center of Workforce Innovations and WorkOne Northwest Indiana. The nonprofit Legacy Foundation funded the 12-week program that aims to get long-term unemployed professionals back into the workforce, and even helped one newly minted graduate snag a job as a plant manager.
Participants, who have college degrees but were unemployed for more than six months, are given paid internships with local employers, including the Lake County clerk's office and Habitat for Humanity. Hills recently completed interning as a caregiver for the disabled at Globe Star in Chesterton and landed a new health care job in Munster.
She was one of 20 graduates in the inaugural class, who were feted Thursday at a graduation ceremony in the WorkOne office in Gary. WorkOne Northwest Indiana workshop team leader Sharla Williams said the hope is to expand the program to three classes, each with 25 participants, across Northwest Indiana after June.
Participants spend time with WorkOne career advisers and in workshops that sharpen their leadership, teamwork, interviewing and conflict management skills. They are assessed so they know what soft skills they might be missing and are coached on how to present themselves in a different light to prospective employers.
"Working with all of you has been incredible. You were ready to dive in workshops to improve your skills," said Jana Szostek, director of the Assessment Center at Indiana University Northwest. "You were able to improve your confidence and get your confidence back. You kind of take a beating during long-term unemployment."
The crux of the program is an internship with a local employer, which is designed to address a job interview question that applicants dread: "So why have you been out of work for so long?"
"We were really trying to think outside the box about how to help the long-term unemployed," said Nicholas Elliott, Regional WorkOne Manager for the Center of Workforce Innovations. "It's difficult for the unemployed to get back into the workforce because employers have a stigma. The internship helps jump over that stigma, and helps employers wanting a skilled workforce."
Merrillville resident Bessie Upshaw had been out of work for a year and did not know what she would do when her unemployment benefits ran out. But she got referred to the Skills Building Institute and landed an internship with the Lake County clerk's office, where she handles small claims.
She is seven weeks into a 12-week internship and hopes to be hired for a part-time job there after the internship ends.
"It's given me so much strength and confidence," she said.