WINCHESTER — One year ago, Hali Wilkerson was 20 years old, living with her dad and, like many people her age, trying to figure out what to do with her life.
“I wasn’t going to school, I had never had a job, I didn’t have my [driver’s] license,” she said. “I was doing nothing.”
Wilkerson, who dropped out of school when she was 14, considered looking for work as a veterinary technician, but that would require her to earn an associate’s degree and she couldn’t do that until she had a GED.
“The closest [GED] classes were in this building,” Wilkerson said at the Winchester center of Virginia Career Works, an agency at 419 N. Cameron St. that helps people secure jobs that allow them to be financially independent.
On Monday, the now-21-year-old licensed driver started her first paid job and was beaming as she talked about her plans for the future.
“Virginia Career Works is a state-formed body comprised of five agencies,” said Bonnie Zampino, manager of the organization’s Winchester center.
The five components of the umbrella operation are:
• Virginia Career Works, which uses federal grant funds to provide job training and certifications, and offers computer access for people who need to file for unemployment, search for jobs or submit resumes.
• Virginia Employment Commission, which maintains a database of job openings and helps match people with employers.
•Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, which provides training and job placement assistance to people with disabilities.
• Virginia Department of Social Services, which provides support services to people with low or no incomes while they seek employment.
• Northern Shenandoah Valley Adult Education, which offers GED, English as a Second Language and other programming for job hunters who need to further their education.
“We’re all in this together, to serve the community and develop skills so people can get jobs and grow the local economy,” Zampino said.
Virginia Career Works doesn’t end with the five member agencies. It also partners with nonprofit, government, and educational entities such as the Winchester Economic Development Authority, Lord Fairfax Community College, United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley and Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area to ensure its services are available to as many people as possible.
“A big part of the city’s plan [for prosperity] is workforce development,” said Winchester Workforce and Business Development Director George Hoddinott. “If we don’t have a talented workforce, we can’t recruit businesses. These people [at Virginia Career Works] are out there every day trying to get clients skilled to provide a better quality of life for their families and the community.”
Winchester’s low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent means numerous job opportunities are currently available, but many jobs — particularly the higher paying positions in health care and manufacturing — require special training.
“Employers value credentials and certifications,” said Samantha M. Greenfield, placement counselor with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in Winchester. “We’re finding that applicants need to have a higher skill set.”
Some of the clients that seek the assistance of Virginia Career Works function at a middle-school level or are not fluent in English. Sharon E. Hetland and Joy Cary of Lord Fairfax Community College are there to offer adult education programs to bolster their abilities.
“Employers may not realize their employees are functioning at that level, which can mean they don’t understand the memos, they don’t understand the benefits, they get hurt and don’t know what to do,” Hetland said.
The Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services helps clients with disabilities, including veterans, enter or return to the workforce.
“If somebody, say, has been a stonemason their whole life and they have a car accident and are no longer able to do that type of work, we can assess what might be appropriate for that person and provide the next steps,” Greenfield said.
Zampino said Virginia Career Works does a lot of outreach to local employers so they’re aware of the talent and services available to them through her organization.
Job seekers can also attend free workshops at Virginia Career Works’s North Cameron Street office to improve their job-seeking techniques, apply for federal position, polish their professional demeanor and more.
People who want to bolster their resumes by learning about productivity software programs like Word and Excel can attend day or evening classes offered by Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area.
Once a client goes through Virginia Career Works’s education and training process, the Virginia Employment Commission tries to connect him or her with a suitable employer.
“If we don’t find them the right spot, they’re going to be back in this cycle again,” Zampino said. “Nobody’s going to walk out of our door without being referred to resources that can help them.”
When Wilkerson came to Virginia Career Works a year ago, her mentors realized she would need office experience to further her chances of becoming a veterinary technician.
She interned for three months at the organization’s front desk and did such a good job that Zampino decided to hire her as a resource room specialist.
The 21-year-old who was unemployed and unmotivated just a year ago now has a GED, a job and a desire to do more than be a vet tech.
“I’m thinking about getting my human services degree so I’ll have multiple options instead of being stuck in one thing and changing my mind,” she said.
“She’s come a long way in her year,” said Sabrina Dobson, career specialist at Virginia Career Works.
Dobson, a 41-year-old single mother, had been out of the workforce for seven years when she sought assistance from Virginia Career Works.
In May, she was continuing her job training by interning at the same front desk where Wilkerson works today.
Following a rapid-fire series of staff changes at Virginia Career Works, Dobson was retained as a temporary worker and, on Aug. 29, was promoted to her current position.
“So I tell people the program works,” she said with a laugh.