Portia Mclaurin stands at the entrance of The Bluffs

Portia Mclaurin stands at the entrance of The Bluffs before work in April. Mclaurin became a certified nurse assistant, or CNA, while a student at Hickman High school last year, and now provides care to individuals with memory problems. Although she is not sure what career she specifically would like to pursue, Mclaurin wants to continue working in a field that allows her to help people.

It's still dark when Portia Mclaurin, 19, gets up for work.  By the time she gets home and changes out of her scrubs, the sun is just shy of setting. She sets her alarm for 4:45 a.m. to make her 12-hour shift at the nursing home,  puts tomorrow's clothes out and showers before going to sleep.  Mclaurin brushes it off; it’s just what she needs to do to earn her $9.49 per hour base pay. 

Although Columbia is home to several colleges — supposedly crucial to escaping poverty — and a low unemployment rate, Mclaurin's journey isn't unique. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology found to earn a living wage in Columbia, a single adult without children needs to make an hourly wage of $10.64, a far cry from Missouri's minimum wage of  $7.85.

As Ron Schmidt puts it: "Unemployment rate isn’t bad, but underemployment is,” said the program supervisor for Career Awareness Related Experience, or CARE, an employment program for at-risk teens. “They’re making enough to get by, but they’re still in poverty."

In other words, Columbia's unemployment rate, as of March , is only 2.6 percent, but having a job doesn’t eradicate poverty.  Having a high saturation of college students with high school diplomas and work experience makes it difficult for local teenagers to break into the workforce, Schmidt said.

He finds the biggest reasons for not keeping a job are transportation problems without a backup plan and illnesses. Education plays a part in long-term earning potential, but that’s not all, Schmidt said. The difference lies in soft skills, whether it’s being on time or dressing appropriately. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a great chef if you don’t show up to work and don’t get along with your co-workers and customers,” he said. “Technical skills don’t matter if you don’t have soft skills.”

Mclaurin  started working at age 14 through the CARE program. Her first job was at an in-home daycare where she taught young children how to say their ABCs and write their names. She'd also take them to Douglass Park where they served free sack lunches packed with ham sandwiches, chocolate milk and carrots, and the children played on the playground.

Eventually she moved into food service: Fazoli's. She worked the drive-thru, cash register, dishes — really everything but cook.  

This job was a juggling act. Mclaurin’s family didn’t have a car, so her aunt or a fellow co-worker drove her to work. But outside of her 30-hour work schedule, she was a high school student. McLaurin worked to get half of her homework done during study hall and finish most of it on weekends. “If it was a good night, I’d get out of work at 11:30 and go to do homework till 1,” she said.

She’d wake up early to make the 15-minute walk to school and start working even before the first bell rang: “I don’t have a computer at home so I’d handwrite and go to school early when the computer lab opened at 8 to type up my homework.”

Part of her paycheck went to her mother to help out with bills and items for the home. The rest of her paycheck, she either saved or spent on things such as  food with friends or a prom ticket.

Six months at Fazoli’s was enough; finding a ride to work and dealing with a work environment she didn't like became too difficult. Mclaurin found better luck at the Dairy Queen behind Hickman High School — she got out of work on time and could walk there. “I really didn’t have no problem there,” she said.

But seven months in, she called in saying she needed to go to urgent care for stomach pain. Because she'd called in sick twice before, her manager said she could “either come in or not have a job.”

So she quit. But things would start looking up. She signed up for a Professions in Healthcare class offered through Hickman High School that bused students to Rock Bridge High School for classes three hours each day. Mclaurin thought it was just a CPR class but found out she could earn her certified nursing assistant, or CNA, certificate for free through the course.

And that’s exactly what she did. Just several weeks after turning her tassel at graduation in 2017, Mclaurin went to work as a CNA at The Bluffs nursing facility where she feeds and bathes residents, as well as takes them to their doctor appointments — "the whole nine yards." Mclaurin said she doesn't think they are paid enough for what they do, but she doesn’t harbor a bitter spirit. “It’s really sad back there in the dementia and Alzheimer’s units,” she said. “Just seeing the families and individuals suffer is horrible.”

“Without us, who would be taking care of them? I feel like my job is so important because otherwise, these people would be struggling at home, not knowing the proper care.”

Mclaurin changes her mind often — her dreams have included nursing, cosmetology and now real estate . “I don’t know what I want to do, but I’m dabbling in a lot of things,” she said.

Even though she was accepted into Columbia College, she couldn’t afford it and instead opted for classes at Moberly Area Community College, but this hasn’t suited her fancy.  “It’s just like high school,” Mclaurin said.

She stopped her coursework at MACC during the second semester, but Mclaurin still hopes to have “the college experience” of being away from home, staying in a dorm, meeting new people and becoming friends. “At MACC you go to class and you see people and you might know their name, but it’s harder to make friends there,” she said.

Despite her desire for that "college experience," Mclaurin knows that having a career and the financial stability that comes with it is more important. 

“For me it’s about getting out of my living situation. I’ve grown up in a low-income family and going to college was the ticket out,” she said. “Part of it is finding out what I want to do; the other part is getting out of a low-income situation.”

Her biological father finished high school and died in a car accident when she was two months old. Her mother dropped out of high school and always tells her four daughters: “be better than me.”

“It’s up to me to do something with my life because I never got to see that from my own family members or experienced it from them because they didn’t finish college,” Mclaurin said

The middle child spirit of resilience is strong in Mclaurin, but it wasn't always this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. “In the beginning when I was going through high school, I was angry because I have to work 10 times harder,” she said. “Now I realize it’s up to me; in the long run it’s up to me to move ahead. I can repeat the cycle or I can move ahead.”

Her older sister is closer with their mother and her younger twin sisters “just get away with a lot.”

At the end of March, Mclaurin's  mother and sisters moved out of their home into a duplex and are no longer in public housing. Her mother went back to work, and their new home has a washer and dryer. “I hate walking across the street and paying to do laundry,” she said. 

There’s a lot Mclaurin doesn’t know, but one thing she does know is determination. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I’m gonna do it,” she said. "If I don’t know how, I’m gonna find a way.”

Supervising editor is Ron Stodghill.

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  • Spring 2018 business reporter. I am a sophomore studying magazine journalism. Email me at kbx5f@mail.missouri.edu or tweet me @Kristin_Blake_

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