By Cara Rosner

Ron Harrington is among the first to admit he hasn’t always made the best choices in life. But when the 56-year-old recently started a new job as a customer satisfaction worker at an area auto parts store, he brought with him something he hadn’t had in a long time — confidence that he could do the job, and do it well.

Harrington, a U.S. Air Force veteran and recovering addict who struggled to find work for about five years, landed the job after completing a job skills training program known as WorkKeys and KeyTrain. He found WorkKeys through Harkness House, a transitional housing program that serves veterans and is part of Columbus House Inc., a New Haven-based nonprofit, which provides a range of services to adults who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“I didn’t know anything about (the program) until I came here,” says Harrington. “I found out that I’m qualified for a lot more than I thought. I went in there (to the job interview) more confident.”

Veteran Donald Moore (left) and Ron Harrington both received a National Career Readiness Certificate through Work Keys. (Kathleen Cei photo)

The WorkKeys and KeyTrain programs were introduced in New Haven in 2011. They are Web-based skill assessment and job training systems from ACT Inc., best-known to most for its college eadiness exams. The goal is to bridge the gap between the skills employers are seeking and the skills jobseekers have. 

The program fits well into Columbus House’s mission, which is not only to provide shelter, but also to foster personal growth and independence.

A recent grant from United Way of Greater New Haven has allowed Columbus House to expand its WorkKeys center from two shared computers to 10 new laptops on which job-seekers can access the program, a printer and a WiFi hotspot.

Harrington believes the impact of the additional computers will be great, saying, “There are probably going be eight to 10 times as many people using this (program).”

Prior to the training, Harrington saw himself as someone who was “getting old” and had a limited skill set. Working in customer service never occurred to him before, but now he looks forward to going to work, which he says has reinvigorated him, and credits Columbus House with connecting him to the opportunity.

Certain Columbus House clients are more likely to benefit from the program than others, ccording to Bernadette Barbour, the organization’s employment specialist. “It works better for those who are ready to find out what they want to do with their life,” she says.

Jobseekers who meet certain standards through the program earn a National Career Readiness Certificate, which they bring to potential employers to prove their work-related competencies.

“It gives you a nationally recognized certification that’s good here, it’s good all over the country and, in many parts of the country, is the certification that employers look for,” says Amy Casavina Hall, United Way’s senior director of Income and Health Initiatives.

Anne Carr, Columbus House’s former director of program development, hopes more employers in Connecticut will embrace the program and the certificate, but knows it will take some time to gain widespread traction.

“It makes really good business sense” for companies to hire workers trained with the specific skill sets the companies need, she says, but “there is a learning curve that needs to happen in the employer community.”

Adds Casavina Hall, “Organizations of all sizes that have used the system can demonstrate great savings and better results in terms of the outreach, the hiring process, training and promotion (at their businesses).” The program, she says, helps employers find the right people for the jobs quickly and helps keep them in the right positions.

A major benefit of the training program is that it is customized for jobseekers, depending on the occupational field they want to enter. Donald Moore, a 48-year-old Army veteran who completed the program and earned his certificate, is seeking work in the medical field, which has more stringent requirements than some other occupations.

“Taking the training helped me refresh my skills,” says Moore. The program is segmented into levels that get more difficult as they progress, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with completing each one, he says.

He recently moved into permanent housing, is studying at Branford Hall to become a medical assistant, and is seeking a job that will work around his class schedule.

For Ivan Velez, a 54-year-old U.S. Army veteran living at Harkness House, the decision to work through the program was an easy one. A recovering alcoholic who earned the National Career Readiness Certificate, he currently is looking for work and says he would like “to get back into the kitchen and have my passion again.”

“I made a lot of wrong choices in my life; right now I just want to get (on) my feet,” he says. WorkKeys, he says, “broadened my spectrum of possibilities.”

Having access to the program, and the determination to complete it, is something that will pay dividends for him far into the future, he says.

“It was something that I wholeheartedly wanted to do because it’s going to affect my life, not only now but in the long run,” he says.

“The certificate can carry me a long way.”