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Dental assistant student Brenda Goeller, far left, lines up with her fellow ACE graduates before the group receives diplomas Tuesday night. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Program holds out hope of a ‘better life’

Brenda Goeller attended her graduation Tuesday. In a new dress and new shoes, she was recognized for completing a dental assistant program at the Community College of Baltimore County.

Goeller is 52 years old. She lost her husband three years ago and had been working off and on for a tax firm since then. But when that firm was sold, she was unsure what to do next.

“My unemployment was starting to run out,” she said. “That was my last hope when I had seen that flier.”

The flier was for programs at CCBC through the Accelerated Connection to Employment initiative, the product of a grant from the Labor Department. After attending the preliminary sessions and undergoing the application and random selection processes, Goeller became part of the first ACE class of 30 students, who graduated Tuesday evening.

Along with dental assistant training, the first class includes students in the logistics technician and the utility installation programs. These programs were chosen because jobs are available in these areas, said Fronda Cohen, a spokesperson for the county.

The education was free to participants, and for Goeller, that sealed the deal.

“I thought about going back to school,” she said. “It was in the back of my mind, but I have to pay my bills. … It never would have been possible for me.”

Baltimore County’s Department of Economic Development, Division of Workforce Development, is the administrator of the national grant that is funding ACE. The applicant group includes seven other Maryland jurisdictions and three out-of-state cities.

The grant is expected to fund the training of 1,281 people over its life, 210 of whom will be trained in Baltimore County by the end of 2015. The county’s second round of training just began, this time with tracks for pre-apprenticeship construction and apartment maintenance technician certification.

Baltimore County requested $11.8 million for these jurisdictions to create and evaluate a training program that provides technical skills training and job readiness along with career navigation and job placement services, to help low-skilled workers build careers. The aim was to reach disadvantaged individuals, such as people receiving government assistance, immigrants and ex-offenders.

“We will be addressing people who are probably chronically unemployed,” Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in an interview at the graduation ceremony. “The key is to provide the skills that are needed by employers today.”

In order to evaluate the training, ACE students were chosen randomly from a pool of interested participants. The others were provided with the basic literacy and occupational programs that are already available to the public. Both groups will be tracked for several years.

“The idea was to create a program that would demonstrate the effectiveness of a new way of training low-skilled workers,” said Cohen, “a new way of looking at what makes you job ready.”

As of graduation on Tuesday, the eight utility installation students had all passed their certification exams and were hired by Corix Utilities. The 11 logistics technician graduates had all become certified logistics associates and received forklift operating certifications. Dental assistant students are still preparing for their certification test.

For Cecil Frederick, the logistics certification earned him a promotion at his part-time Dollar Store job. But he’s hoping to take it further by putting his forklift training to work in a full-time position.

“I was proud of what I did, and I’m going to take full advantage of it,” said Frederick, who continued working 20 hours a week while taking classes at CCBC for nearly 20 hours a week and completing homework. “It was hard at times. … I really wanted it, so I buckled down and actually got it done.”

Like Frederick, Goeller intends to take full advantage of her training.

She plans to test for her dental assistant certification in May. From there, she wants to get a job with help from ACE advisers, earn more certifications and move into a specialty dentistry.

Since she became unemployed last year, she said, her training has taken her “further than I ever expected to be.”

“It’s just like a big weight off my shoulders, like I can breathe again,” she said. “It made me believe that there can be a better life, that I can have a life.”