State leaders — including Gov. Jim Justice — gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the Putnam County Career and Technical Center to unveil a new initiative that combines free substance abuse treatment with free job training.
The so-called Jobs and Hope program brings together state departments dealing with addiction and workforce issues to tackle barriers faced by those recovering from substance disorder as they look for employment.
West Virginia faces both high levels of unemployment and high levels of substance use-related deaths.
In 2017, West Virginia had a rate of nearly 49.6 fatal overdoses per 100,000 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s more than three times the national rate that year of 14.6 deaths.
The state also has consistently held the lowest workforce participation rate in the country. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports West Virginia was hovering around 55 percent in August.
Since July, Jobs and Hope has hired 12 transition agents to assist all 55 counties. The agents are tasked with helping participants overcome barriers keeping them from meaningful employment. Obstacles can include a lack of reliable transportation, childcare needs, health concerns, revoked driver’s licenses and unfinished education.
Deb Harris, the program’s lead transition agent said she hopes the program will help reduce another barrier people in recovery often face — stigma.
“Statewide, we’ve done a better job of offering treatment resources and recovery home resources to individuals that need treatment,” Harris said. “The problem is when they’re done with treatment, they have little to no options for career employment or training.”
So far, Harris says the program has received approximately 380 referrals. About 250 people have already met with transition agents to develop short-term and long-term work-related goals.
“I think giving individuals the tools they need to overcome things is really empowering,” Harris said. “It really makes all the things they’ve gone to an asset to them, [and it makes them] more employable.”
Harris says she hopes to see 12 to 14 more agents hired in January. The program receives referrals from recovery partners, workforce offices, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and self referrals.
According to the Governor's Office, the West Virginia Legislature in 2019 agreed to provide nearly $30 million toward the program’s first year. The funding is used to support transition agents, participating career and technical centers and other state-run locations offering job training, like the West Virginia National Guard.
When lawmakers passed legislation supporting the initiative, it was still associated with the name "Jim’s Dream," a reference to Justice’s goals outlined in his 2019 State of the State address.
“If you're the governor, or if you’re an elected official, you can’t use your name on stuff,” Justice said Tuesday. “It started out as ‘Jim’s Dream,’ and I guess it evolved to Jobs and Hope because you couldn’t put my name on it. But I want to tell you this — it is a dream. It’s a dream that somebody had to have.”
Other attendees at the unveiling event on Tuesday included both Democratic and Republican members of the Legislature whose support helped create Jobs and Hope, leaders of the state departments of Education, Workforce Development and Health and Human Resources, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer with the West Virginia National Guard and students of the Putnam County Career and Technical Center.
To learn more about the Jobs and Hope initiative and to find a local transition agent, information is available at jobsandhope.wv.gov.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.