PROVIDENCE — Bernice Morris sees dueling problems in Rhode Island: A growing population of homeless individuals seeking shelter and — as the state’s aging population continues to swell — a growing need for front-line health care providers, but a workforce without the skills to fill the jobs.
She sits on workforce development boards in both Providence and Cranston while maintaining her day job as the senior director of education and employment services at Crossroads Rhode Island, which is the state’s largest homeless service provider. On Friday, Morris held a graduation for another class of the nonprofit’s workforce training program for certified nursing assistants, which has helped approximately 1,500 homeless and low-income individuals get a certification and connect them to a job.
“This is a job that is in extreme demand,” said Morris. “If you finish this program and pass your state exam and you’re still not working, it’s because you don’t want a job.”
Q. What is the certified nursing assistant job training program at Crossroads and how does it work?
Morris: It’s a seven-week training program that happens about six times per year to help prepare folks looking for a new start and the state license exam [which is required to work as a CNA in Rhode Island]. Our content is the same as a regular CNA job training program, but the delivery is different.
Q. How so?
A. Those who are in the program are currently staying in a shelter or in one of our housing programs, which means they needed additional supports to make it through the job training and be successful. We provide transportation, we help them obtain all the necessary basic personal documents they need like IDs or licenses, and help fill out their applications for SNAP benefits.
We also have an adult educator working with our registered nurse instructor to make sure the material is accessible. An employment specialist also helps link participants to jobs quickly so they can start working soon after the training is over.
Q. Who can be accepted into this CNA program?
A. A lot of CNA programs require a high school diploma where you take a standardized assessment and you’re either accepted into the program or not. We do not require a high school diploma, we lowered the standardized test score so that we could accept more people.
Q. How much does the program cost?
A. We don’t charge for the program. It’s free.
Q. When the graduates do enter the field, they are entering a market where some nursing homes and other providers could be paying them less than what they could earn at McDonald’s. Is that a concern for the program?
A. I think there are a lot of challenges around “next steps” that I struggle with a lot. A certified nursing assistant is a very critical job, but it is an entry-level position. It has a lot of requirements and the state exam is not easy.
I’ve been plugged into the workforce development space in Rhode Island for 25 years and there is no clear system for someone to go from this program and be a CNA, to the next step, except to “become a nurse.” That’s a really long jump for anyone. There’s a lot of certifications in the medical field that they can stack, but it doesn’t really lead to any advancement. So this has always been a challenge, and I’ve been trying to figure out what we can do to help someone earn a little bit more money and be able to make that next step in their career more clear.
Q. What other issues do you see the state facing when it comes to workforce development and this population?
A. People become invisible over time. I constantly hear the state throwing around these numbers, such as the fact that more than 100,000 adults in Rhode Island don’t have a high school diploma. But how many of those are reading below a fourth-grade level? Or are adults considered “emerging readers?” Trust me, there are many. When the state is not doing what they need to in order to ensure there is access and equality to all levels of service in the adult education system over the years, they stop asking where these people [are] and how many there are.
Crossroads has an adult learning center where we help folks who are working toward a high school equivalency and are helping those with the lowest levels of literacy in the state [those considered “emerging readers” to those who are reading at the fourth-grade level]. But we’re really one of the only ones doing this.
[Morris said there are a number of low-level ESL programs funded by the Rhode Island Department of Education, but said “there’s pretty much nothing” in adult basic education programs.]
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.