NM solo work not just for urban dwellers

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Shawna Austin of Milan works in the SoloWorks office on the campus of New Mexico State University\’s Grants branch. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOLOWORKS

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Shawna Austin would have to work at least two minimum-wage jobs, with little time for her 7-year-old daughter, to match what she’s earning now at her home-based job.

Decent-paying work is scarce in Milan, the Grants-area town where the 31-year-old single mother lives.

Austin is a grateful graduate of the new SoloWorks program, which trained her, encouraged her, helped her find a job and then made sure she succeeded at it.

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In fact, she got her job with Teletech working on an Intuit tax software product the same day she graduated from SoloWorks last December. She’s making $10.25 an hour in what has become a full-time job and hopes to earn more as she gets more experience.

SoloWorks, which debuted in Grants in early November after several previous pilot launches, is a different kind of economic development effort that’s aimed at finding out-of-state jobs for solo workers in rural areas.

The out-of-state component is important because it means creating “economic base” jobs that bring new money into the state and help boost the economy, said Mark Lautman, founding director of the Community Economics Lab, an Albuquerque think tank on economic development.

And the solo part is important because large new employers, such as those sought by Albuquerque Economic Development and the state, aren’t necessarily interested in setting up shop in a small and economically struggling area like Grants.

“Most of the rural areas in the state … they’re not in the game,” said Lautman, who also is lead consultant for the state’s Jobs Council.  “They have no industrial parks.”

Enter SoloWorks, which is about to wrap up its fourth class. Eighteen people have gone through or are still in the job creation program, seven of whom are now employed. Four others are in the job search phase of the program, and the remainder are still taking training classes, said Paul Hamrick, managing associate at CELab.

The program, sponsored by a consortium, is housed at New Mexico State University’s Grants branch, which donates the space, work stations, computers and IT service.

A key SoloWorks partner is Digital Works, an Ohio-based non-profit that works with 65 companies across the country to match people with solo jobs. Part of its approach is to set up a “back channel” with each employer to iron out any problems that might come up with the worker in hopes of ensuring long-term employment.

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SoloWorks is upfront with its participants about this: the 140 or so hours of training they go through is demanding, and some will have to deal with a “wage cliff” in which they might become ineligible for food subsidies and other benefits because of their new wages.

The program helps them figure out how long that will last and how to deal with it, Lautman said. Also, they are encouraged to swiftly advance so they can start earning more money and cover the gap.

SoloWorks training is followed by a supervised job search, which is followed by a “nesting period” after a hiring is made. That post-job aspect is aimed at “figuring out what (they) need to hold onto the job,” Lautman said. That could be anything from day care to improvements to a home computer, he said.

The program’s cost, he says, is $3,000 to $5,000 per job created. That compares to as much as $35,000 per job when more traditional economic base jobs are created, according to an information sheet.

SoloWorks has been funded by $95,000 in grants, and organizers are looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going.

Hamrick said SoloWorks has been going through refinements so that other small communities can get behind it and set it up in their area.

“We’re just offering the tool box,” Hamrick said. “We’re just hoping everyone can see the long-range benefits.”

Austin, for one, is sold.

“I’m trying to get back on my feet,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the program. I really hope it can succeed.”

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