PINE BELT - The Mississippi Department of Human Services has a new division to promote job training and growth among SNAP benefit recipients.
"The Division of Workforce Development is a newly created division at the department of human services, and what we do is collaborate with partners throughout the state as well as our local community colleges to assist our individuals, as well as their families, who are coming in for services to obtain the education and training that they need to go on and obtain the skills and credentials to obtain employment," said Kimela Runnels, Twin Districts area director for the Mississippi Department of Human Services. "This is a directive from Gov. Bryant to assist individuals in obtaining skills and education to become employed and to be self-sufficient."
Runnels said Mississippi has about 40,000 available middle skills jobs in areas like plumbing, welding, healthcare, commercial truck driving, culinary and business office technology, and the division of workforce development hopes to fill some of those openings with Mississippians using SNAP benefits for food.
In Forrest County alone, Runnels said about 6,664 people are eligible for SNAP benefits.
"There's a big gap," she said. "The jobs are available, but the people aren't."
MDHS is partnering with employers and community colleges, like Jones County Junior College, to train eligible people to work in specific fields. JCJC is the only junior college in the Pine Belt piloting MDHS' EDGE or Ethics, Discipline, Goals and Employment program, which provides participants with free education and training, transportation, guidance and paid employment.
"We feel like the training that we provide is the key," said Michael Yarbrough, EDGE pilot coordinator at JCJC. "It's the connection. They usually have trouble finding jobs, meaningful and long-term employment, jobs they really want, good-paying jobs, and we offer that training that helps get them there."
JCJC assigns each person with a career counselor, provides tuition, supplies and works with public transportation to pay fares, Yarbrough said.
"It's a great opportunity to get free classes, and, you know, in a timely manner they can get the job skills needed to help them get a better job," he said. "Even at the end of the training, we try to help them with work experience or on the job training and make that final connection to an employer."
Runnels said along with immediately helping individuals acquire skills for long-term employment, the new division and program mark a change in direction for the department of human services as a whole. The new focus is breaking barriers facing each family member to try to combat the need for assistance across generations.
"What we are doing is implementing what we call the gen plus approach, and this is a holistic approach that addresses not only the person coming in seeking services, but the entire family," she said. "We want the department of human services to be known as a state agency that provides the assistance to people to become employed, not as an agency that encourages people to stay on assistance. At the end of the day, that's what it's about. We want people to be self-sufficient."
Aside from EDGE, MDHS has also implemented the Skills2Work program to partner with agencies and organizations to provide employer driven training.
"For businesses and partners who participate in this, they may be reimbursed up to 40 percent of the costs that are incurred by them for providing services to individuals, so we are very excited about that," Runnels said.
MI-BEST, Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, is a Mississippi Department of Education program that allows participants to attend community colleges throughout the state to receive their career readiness certificate and high school equivalency diploma.
Most exciting for both Runnels and Yarbrough, seeing students become employed.
"Hearing the success stories and sharing those is just so beneficial to let people know that the opportunity is there," Runnels said. "Please take the opportunity. The support is there, and we just want to see people succeed."
Yarbrough said he's seen people's "whole outlook on life change" once they gain the skills and knowledge to secure a long-term job that pays well.
"It's really changed a lot of lives, and we've seen a lot of people employed just by getting the training," he said.