Passport2Success program aims to help fight unemployment

Michelle Nixon, right, and Janel Wright are part of the current Passport2Success cohort.

Since Premier Alden McLaughlin called out the “unacceptably high rate” of Caymanian unemployment in his New Year’s message, leaders have been trying to come up with new ways to address the issue. But administrators and participants of the Passport2Success program have already been quietly working to combat the high rate of Caymanian unemployment for the past five years.

Since 2010, more than 300 Caymanians have taken advantage of the Passport2Success initiative, which offers practical hands-on training designed to give participants a leg up in the often challenging job-search process. To date, the program has graduated 18 cohorts, and on Jan. 4, the program’s 19th cohort – one designed specifically for single mothers – began its training.

Passport2Success was especially created to address the issue of unemployment among young people, since individuals ages 15 to 24 have one of the highest rates of unemployment for Caymanians among all age groups. That rate does not students who are in school full-time. Dianne Connolly, training and development manager at the National Workforce Development Agency, helps administer the program. She said she is proud of the ways it has been able to assist young people.

The latest Passport2Success participants spend a few weeks in a classroom setting on the campus of UCCI, before beginning their internships. - Photos: Kelsey Jukam
The latest Passport2Success participants spend a few weeks in a classroom setting on the campus of UCCI, before beginning their internships. – Photos: Kelsey Jukam

“Many of these young people have such a story behind them … you see what they’ve gone through and what they’ve accomplished,” Ms. Connolly said. “And all they need is that second chance, all they need is someone to believe in them and provide that foundation.

“To see them go through the program and know where they started and know how they’re ending … they swell your heart,” she added.

Passport2Success is a Ministry of Education, Employment and Gender Affairs initiative, and is managed and facilitated by the Wellness Centre. It was put under the purview of the National Workforce Development Agency last year so that program participants can have access to all of the agency’s resources, including an employment counselor they can work with during and after their session.

The program graduates three cohorts a year – two are 12-week sessions for young men or women between the ages of 18 and 23, and one cohort each year is for single mothers of any age. That cohort is a 16-week session and includes a parenting skills component.

While Passport2Success has helped many struggling young people find employment, the program is designed to do much more than simply match an individual with a job. Participants have to learn how to write a resume and ace an interview, and they are also challenged to improve themselves in ways that are much more personal that can have a ripple effect beyond their own personal achievements.

“The service here is more than just attaching them to a job or guiding them to a job,” Ms. Connolly said. “And it’s not only helping them become better people, but it’s also helping us as a society.”

Victoria Powery, 24, had been having difficulty finding employment for some time when she joined the single mother’s cohort last year. Today she says that if not for the program, she would still be job hunting.

“It really helped me boost my confidence … to be more open and come out of my comfort zone,” she said.

She credits the program with helping her get her current position at Caribbean Utilities Company, where she did her program internship and is now employed part-time as an assistant to the environment, health and safety manager. It’s a suitable position, given her desire to eventually go back to school to study environmental science and work in the Department of Environment.

While the job-skills component of Passport2Success was useful, she said, it was actually the parenting component that she found especially helpful. Ms. Powery said it helped her to develop the patience necessary to parent her 4-year-old son, and it taught her that there are better ways of disciplining than corporal punishment. She learned that “when you get angry, you just take a step back, relax, and then come back and address the problem.

“It taught me alternative ways of parenting,” she said. “That was really good for me and for my son.”

The parenting component, led by Wellness Centre director Shannon Seymour, asks the young mothers to reflect upon their own childhoods, to help them understand what bad – or good – parenting habits they learned growing up, Passport2Success instructor Khadija Chisholm said this therapeutic element “can bring great change in their family life.”

“If the Passport2Success program did not exist, sadly, these unemployed mothers may continue to struggle to find and maintain employment,” Ms. Chisholm said.

Michelle Nixon, 32, is part of the latest single mothers Passport2Success cohort. She has been registered with the National Workforce Development agency since 2013, but said she was not getting many calls back from employers. She decided to join Passport2Success to figure out why they were not calling her, and what she could do to improve her professional skills.

“When I came here, I realized the mistakes that I had been making – and that was only in the first week of the program,” Ms. Nixon said. “I realized I do this on my resume, it’s wrong. I do this during an interview, it’s wrong. Before you go to interviews, you’re nervous and you don’t know what to do, and here they teach you how to deal with that situation.”

As the mother of two boys and a girl, Ms. Nixon said she is juggling a lot.

“It’s very hard as a single mother because you have to find time for your kids, but at the same time you need a good job,” she said. “If you don’t have the cash and you don’t have insurance, it’s like, what are you going to do?”

Sharing those anxieties and pressures with other program participants during the first week has made the cohort already feel like a family, Ms. Nixon said.

“We get to know that it’s not only us under stress, it’s a lot of people in this situation,” Ms. Nixon said. “I hope more mothers can get to join us because I have confidence that when I leave here, I will have my feet in a good job.”

To date, around 83 percent of participants complete the Passport2Success program, which is a full-time commitment. Some participants decide to pursue further educational opportunities after they have completed the program, and the NWDA can help those students find scholarships. Approximately 29 percent of those who complete the program have secured employment by the time their session has ended, and 57 percent find employment within a year of graduating.

That’s good news for Pamela Ebanks, who is also a member of the current cohort.

After leaving school 25 years ago, Ms. Ebanks had steady work in administration and as a receptionist, primarily in the legal field. But after leaving a job last May, she has been unable to find work. She said employers have come up with “every excuse in the book” as to why they won’t hire her, including that she is overqualified.

“It’s just been really hard to get back in the workforce … as a Caymanian, overall, to get a job,” Ms. Ebanks said.

She hopes the work experience component of the program will help her get the foot in the door again, and she is determined to make the most of what the program has to offer.

“You’ve got to be constantly fighting to get somewhere,” Ms. Ebanks said.

Ms. Ebanks said she is willing to do whatever it takes to find employment, and that is why she decided to join Passport2Success, even though many of the lessons are more like refresher courses for her.

The first few weeks of the program are dedicated to personal development, resume writing, interviewing, improving computer skills, and learning how to make presentations. Instructors talk to participants about how they dress, their attitude, being on time and what employers expect.

Participants also learn from guest speakers, go on industry field trips and do entry-level job-shadowing.

Halfway through the program, participants are matched with an employer for an internship. Previous participants have interned with CUC, Flow, DHL, the Health Services Authority, and the Westin and Marriott resorts.

Passport2Success instructor Ann-Marie Gray said the program’s curriculum helps participants realize that each individual is responsible for his or her own success.

“I find in our culture, there is a lot of dependency on others,” Ms. Gray said. “So we really push the issue and that perspective that we are each responsible for ourselves.”

If the program did not exist, Ms. Gray said, “there may be quite a few lost souls … unsure about themselves, unsure about their future, that lack the skills and the knowledge to not just gain employment, but to maintain employment.”

Ms. Gray said she is impressed with the current cohort, and is hopeful that they will be able to push through some of their personal challenges and confidence issues to succeed in the program.

“They’re very interested in themselves and their children, in bettering themselves. They’re very focused and they feel very hungry, very passionate about success,” she said.