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Colorado’s middle class is in distress according to a state specific study conducted by two University of Colorado Denver professors, Todd L. Ely, Ph.D., and Geoffrey Propheter, Ph.D. Their report, entitled “Colorado’s Middle Class Families: Characteristics and Cost Pressures,” reveals unsettling findings about the economic health of residents in the state. Utilizing the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook Manual as a guide, researchers calculated the hourly wage rate required to be middle income. Occupations for which the hourly wage fell below two-thirds of the median were classified as having a low likelihood for entry into the middle class. In applying this method to Colorado’s marketplace, the academics discovered that, “64 percent of Colorado workers in 2016 held occupations with a low probability of paying hourly wages that would grant entry to the middle class, up from 59 percent in 2000.”

Leadership at PCs for Peoplea nonprofit with a mission to provide computers and Internet access to underserved populations, seeks to assuage the financial demand of the current economy on underemployed Coloradoans. On the specifics of the endeavor, Executive Director, Julie Seltz explains, “We often utilize the ingenuity of organizational models created by partners with similar missions to unearth viable solutions to help people make ends meet.” Accordingly, the organization collaborated with WorkLife Partnership, a local nonprofit with the creative design Seltz references. “Career advancement is one way to help middle-skill employees who aren’t making enough money absorb the costs associated with living in our state.”  WorkLife Partnership equips employers with resources to retain and promote employees who are interested in advancing in their career and strengthening their earning capacity.  Seltz adds, “We eliminate the burden of purchasing the technology required to engage in online training which is invariably a part of the process.”

WorkLife Partnership applied grant funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop Upskill, a program that aids employees in identifying talent within their respective organization and providing a track to advance internally – a method of retention. Upskill candidates are middle-skill employees who have been qualified as “underemployed parents,” working full-time or part-time, and aren’t making enough money to survive in Colorado’s existing economy. Christian Living Communities in Englewood was the first organization to pilot Upskill by identifying their incumbent workers in food service and cleaning who were interested in pursuing a certified nursing assistant (CNA) career.  WorkLife collaborated with the Community College of Aurora to send recruits identified in the Christian Living Communities cohort to school to obtain the CNA certification.  Candidates also received childcare if needed while pursuing evening classes – all free of cost.

Reflecting on the benefits of the program, Kate Ridings, director of programming, states, “Not only are we helping with tuition, we are helping with the cost associated with child care which is a major barrier for people trying to go to school after work. It’s already too expensive to pay for childcare while you are at work, let alone adding three more hours every day to that cost.”  Ridings further expands on the financial hurdle of continuing education adding, “Many individuals would like to advance, but if they need to get a CNA certification for example, it costs money. This creates another obstacle for middle-skill employees in Colorado looking to advance because the short-term program certifications are what many employers in this market are looking for.”

WorkLife Partnership provided another layer of support to Upskill candidates by sourcing grant funds to contribute to the payment of personal computers from PCs for People.  Program facilitators recognized that many participants were relying on cellphones to access the Internet, which is in no way feasible when it comes to researching information, applying for jobs, storing files, and taking exams. The collaboration between PCs for People and WorkLife Partnership is a prototype that demonstrates the way in which other Colorado organizations can unite and help reestablish the middle class in our state.