Sandy Butler, University of Maine and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on January 25, 2014.
Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.
When she graduated from Mount Desert Island High School in 1981, Kaloe “Kay” Haslam was the first in her family to earn a high school degree. She took “business” and “general” classes rather than “college-bound” courses. She had no aspirations to go to college, nor was she encouraged.
“I never thought I could afford it,” she said. “I was one of three in a single-parent family. It was like, ‘This isn’t anything I can afford to do.’ I basically just went to work.” Her dream at the time was to work in an office. “I didn’t even care what I was doing in an office,” she said. “I just wanted to work in an office.”
But living in a high-tourism area, office jobs were not widely available.
“I worked in the fish factory. I’ve worked in motels, restaurants, short-order restaurants, fast-food places, babysat. I’ve tried to sell Tupperware and jewelry and all that kind of stuff,” Kay said. “And then I got this job in retail and liked it, and it just worked.”
She worked at a small, family-run fashion outlet, the Cannon Store, in the Ellsworth area for 16 years. She began as a clerk, earning $4.25 per hour, and over the years worked her way up to a supervisory position with considerable responsibility, making more than $12 per hour. The poor economy forced the store to close in 2011, and Kay was unemployed.
When she went on the job market — now in her late 40s — Kay learned that, despite her experience, no one in retail would hire her into a supervisory or management position without a college degree. Entry-level positions were all she was offered. After one store offered her a clerk position, even though she had applied for the advertised assistant manager position, she thought, “I don’t want to work another 16 years and work my way back up again.”
Kay then had an unexpected and fortuitous opportunity that changed her life and job prospects dramatically. When she was laid off, she became eligible for unemployment and dislocated worker benefits. As part of those programs, she went to a workshop that described the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, which offers other support services to unemployed Maine workers seeking to increase their skills for high-wage, high-demand jobs.
Each year, a limited number of slots open for new participants, chosen through a lottery system. In February 2012, Hancock County had five openings for CSSP. Kay filled out the application and was one of five people chosen from her county. At the time, she was working as a room inspector at a hotel — a job in which she did not see much of a future.
She recalled, “I never dreamed I’d get the scholarship, as it was only given to five people. I was lucky. So now I’m taking full advantage of it.”
She worked with CSSP and University of Maine at Augusta Ellsworth Center staff to craft a program for her. She is pursuing a four-year degree in business administration.
“I really want to run somebody’s company. Retail is my passion, but it doesn’t have to be retail. My ultimate dream would be to have my own business. I’d love to have an events center. I really like planning and organizing events for people,” she said.
In fall 2012 she began with college transition courses. She expects to graduate in three and a half more years. The support services and small stipend she has received since her unemployment benefits ended have made a college education possible. Support from friends and family has been gratifying.
When she was younger, she said, “My family was just excited that I graduated from high school. Now my family is very proud that I’m doing the college thing: my children, my husband, my mom, my dad, my brothers.”
One of her greatest fears when she started the CSSP was that the program would end before she completed her degree. “I’m going to want to finish, and then I’m going to have to start taking out loans,” she said.
At age 50, that’s not something she thinks her family can afford. She was concerned it could be the end of her dream.
Currently, the Maine Department of Labor is considering changes to CSSP — changes that worry Kay. Some services would be cut; stipends would be eliminated for part-time students; and restrictions would be placed on how long one has to complete one’s degree. While these proposed changes might not affect Kay, as she now has the ability to go full-time, many of her classmates do have dependent children and are unable to pursue their studies full-time.
With aging parents herself, she might also have to reduce her own course load to part-time in the future. She is anxious that the program could be pared back in such a way that prevents her or her classmates from completing their degrees, keeping them from contributing to the Maine economy with their newly gained skills.
Earlier this month, Kay provided written comments to the labor department on the proposed CSSP rule changes. She concluded her testimony by saying: “We hear on the news that there are lots of jobs in Maine, but folks like me don’t have the skills to get these jobs. And the older we get the harder it is to get a job unless we have the skills and can show our value. The CSSP provides us with the opportunity. Please remember the Maine people that CSSP is helping as you make decisions about its future.”
Kay is a part of Maine’s aging workforce, something we also hear a lot about in the news. If we are sincerely committed to growing our economy and educating our workforce to fill 21st century jobs, then programs such as the CSSP are essential and must be expanded rather than reduced.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.