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An Internship Program Brings Older Vermonters Back Into the Workforce

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Melodie Lewis - COURTESY OF MELODIE LEWIS
  • Courtesy Of Melodie Lewis
  • Melodie Lewis

Melodie Lewis had been unemployed for more than three years before she started a paid internship this summer at the Community of Vermont Elders in Montpelier. The 59-year-old Barre woman had experience working in an office but needed to brush up on her computer skills.

About two months later, she'd landed a part-time gig as a dispatcher at West Motor Freight in Barre. And Lewis said she has the Senior Community Service Employment Program to thank.

Run by the St. Albans-based nonprofit Associates for Training & Development, the program "provides critical job training and related services to low-income, unemployed job seekers," according to Mary Branagan, the organization's assistant vice president of communications and policy.

"There's no cost to the agency. There's no cost to the participant," Branagan said. "And, over time, the person gets their skills updated; they get their self-confidence back; they become way more job-ready. It can absolutely be a really pivotal point for people." 

Founded in 1983, Associates for Training & Development now operates in five Northeastern states and served more than 1,000 clients last year. The U.S. Department of Labor is funding the nonprofit to the tune of $9.5 million a year — into 2023.

In Vermont alone, about 200 older folks accepted internships at what the nonprofit calls "host agencies" — other nonprofits or government agencies, such as the Abenaki Self-Help Association in Swanton. Branagan's organization pays the person's wages and any other training costs.

After about 15 months, participants find employment elsewhere, usually "with an average starting wage significantly above the minimum wage in their areas," Branagan said.

The program has become an important lifeline during the pandemic, due to high unemployment rates and a disease that more disproportionately impacts older people.

"It gives the person the dignity, the pride and the wages to stabilize, to really become employable again," Branagan said. "It's fabulous," she added. "I love it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Working on It"