Irene Montoya is a truck driver, and she loves it.
The 35-year-old from Cheyenne, Wyoming, likes making short hauls through beautiful places like Steamboat Springs, where the landscape is so breathtaking and peaceful that she can't believe she's getting paid to drive it. And she likes it when kids in passing cars gesture for her to blow her horn — which she usually can't resist.
Most of all, she likes that her job pays well — well enough for her and her 4-year-old son to live in a nice condo, to have a new car, to see the doctor and dentist when they need to. Three years ago, she was unemployed and struggling to support her child, and she contacted CLIMB, a job training program for low-income single moms that helped her get her commercial driver's license and land a job. Now, she and her son "live like civilized people," as Montoya says.
Government job placement programs have weak results. In the last quarter century, the U.S. has had more than 50 federal training programs, but unemployment rates have continued to struggle. Employment went up about 1 percent last year, but the economy continues to lag, and the number of unemployed in the U.S. is 10.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nine federal agencies spent approximately $18 billion annually for employment and job training programs, according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, but "little is known about the effectiveness of most programs," according to the report.
One placement program in Wyoming is successfully finding work for women like Montoya by training and placing them specifically in jobs that are in demand in the local economy. In a state like Wyoming, that means that mom is driving a truck, a forklift or firing up a welding torch. The payoff is that single moms have skills that are in demand — and allow them to successfully support their families, not just scrape by.
Flipping burgers to bringing home the bacon
Montoya wasn't working when she first contacted CLIMB Wyoming. She'd had other jobs before, mostly in fast food and bars, but she was getting out of a bad relationship and trying to care for her son, who was then just over a year old.
She saw a flier for CLIMB at family services that said they were training for commercial driver's licenses, and she thought to herself that she had never wanted a desk job, she had always liked "getting out in the dirt." Besides, she knew that she wasn't going to support her family by going back to flipping burgers.
"It was nontraditional, and I had been waiting for something like that," she says. "I had to do that for me and my son — so I did it."
Montoya's situation represents many women in Wyoming, where 43 percent of single mothers and their children live in poverty. Nationwide, 62 percent of employed mothers work in low-skill retail and service jobs that usually offer poor pay, little or no benefits, have little flexibility and are susceptible to cutbacks.
As a business liaison for CLIMB, it's Val Arias' job to find work for women that provides more than a poverty wage.
The state of Wyoming projects that in the next 10 years, job growth will demand 27 percent more commercial truck drivers, 22 percent more welding positions, 18 percent more health and technology jobs and 17 percent more nursing assistants. Arias crunches job report data like this and sets about building relationships with local businesses that might hire her graduates. Then, CLIMB builds training courses around those opportunities, usually in small classes of no more than 10 students.
Montoya completed a 12-week CDL training and certification, which, along with welding training, are ongoing mainstays of CLIMB's training and placement. One of CLIMB's newest offerings is training for warehouse inventory management and forklift operation positions.
Is it hard to get women excited about welding and driving a dump truck? Sometimes it is, says Arias. "We screen really carefully for women who are ready and right for the job," she says, and CLIMB doesn't accept every applicant — in fact it can only accept about 10 women for each training cohort. "We do a lot of interviewing and testing, we tell them 'welding can get hot, it's a lot of working alone.’ ” Women who don't seem like the right fit get put in a pool for other training opportunities.
It's also a "leap of faith" for employers, she says, many of whom mostly hired men before building relationships with CLIMB. "In the beginning, there were just some really good guys willing to take a chance," says Arias, especially with her first classes of CDL graduates that didn't have any driving experience.
But there are benefits for employers, too. Single moms can make great employees, she says. They are motivated to succeed. "My partners tell me that women drivers take better care of the trucks, they are more detail-oriented." As an added incentive for employers who may initially feel this demographic is an employment risk, CLIMB offers a money-back guarantee to employers for the first six weeks on the job. If a CLIMB graduate doesn't work out, those wages go back to the business. "It's not a big motivator for all of our partners," says Arias, but it's an added incentive to get their grads in the door
The biggest motivator for moms is the financial security that a "non-traditional" job can offer. CLIMB has had a 91 percent placement rate over the last year, and most graduates see their income double with their first paycheck.
Most trainees start the program with about $1,000 monthly income, and that jumps to an average of $2,363 within 24 months after graduation. CLIMB now has locations in six Wyoming cities thanks to a one-time federal TANF grant in 2004, and in some of them income averages are higher. In Rock Springs and Laramie, the average graduate makes over $3,000 a month. Almost half of CLIMB trainees were on food stamps when they began the program, and that number drops to 30 percent within 24 months.
Montoya was paid $13.50 an hour at her first trucking job post-graduation, and now, a couple years later, she's moved up to a new, higher-paying job with a landscaping company that pays $15. With good performance, she can soon make up to $18, she says.
She says that her newfound career "changed everything." The big moment for her came when she received a letter saying that she was no longer eligible for food stamps because of her income. "It was like oh my gosh, this is for real," she says. "That was a happy day — so happy."
Before, she was living in an apartment with mice and terrible neighbors. Now she lives in a new apartment and can afford "some nice things" for herself and her son. "I'm not on welfare, not in housing, and I can walk around town and hold my head up high," she says.
More than just the job
CLIMB's executive director, Ray Fleming Dinneen, was finishing her doctorate in psychiatry in 1986 when the Department of Employment came to her to understand why job training programs for youths were failing nationwide. What she found was that in order for workers to succeed long-term, especially for high-risk individuals, you also had to address personal barriers alongside job placement. She applied for funds to work with the "most vulnerable" population in terms of unemployment and poverty in her area — single moms — and founded CLIMB.
"There is little opportunity for a mom with the responsibility of a child to move beyond minimum wage work. To make a shift is almost impossible for a family without help — they have to work so hard to make the day-to-day," she says.
The barriers to employment aren't just lack of jobs or training. Issues such as abusive relationships, parenting issues and legal and custody battles all add stress and complicate home and work life. To address this, CLIMB requires once-a-week group therapy as part of the training courses. This provides a therapeutic environment where single moms can "trust that their needs will be heard, rather than having people dictate and tell them what to do," says Dinneen.
Her hope is that trainees can identify what has gotten in their way and move past those things. "It's about being free," she says. "Free of poverty, and freedom to enjoy family."
The in-depth nature of CLIMB's training means that it makes a big investment in its trainees, and it's not cheap. One of the criticisms of the program is that it's only able to reach so many people. With sites in six cities, CLIMB runs 18 programs a year with 10 women in each program, for an average of about 180 trainees per year. There's also the question of help for single fathers, which is also a need, but when CLIMB began in the mid-1980s, the majority of Wyoming households in poverty were run by single mothers, so that's where it started, says Shannon Brooks Hamby, CLIMB's statewide director of communications. Now helping women is its "area of expertise."
"There are different ways to approach the battle against poverty, and ours is a program that helps a small number of people a lot, instead of helping a lot of people a little," says Brooks Hamby. She attributes the high success rate to the focus and depth of the program. "We are interested in long-term change, and our success rate shows that is sustainable over time," she says.
Montoya says that the extra attention and life skills training that CLIMB offered — like budgeting and mock job interviews — along with the counseling made her feel "cared for." In group therapy, "you get to watch girls cry or get happy, it helped us get closer and lean on each other — it was a very good bonding experience," she says. It also helped her feel comfortable with her past, she says, while she was changing her life.
CLIMB offers periodic reunions for its cohorts, and Montoya still has lunch with a few friends from her class. "I see those girls in trucks," she says, "and we wave to each other."