Building a Career Path Where There Was Just a Dead End

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007

NEW YORK -- Barely two years ago, Cristina Rodriguez and her three children were moored on the wrong side of the income gap. A high school dropout, she was making a little more than $200 a week, stapling price tags to shirts and boxing them at a Modell's warehouse. "I didn't use my mouth, didn't use my mind; I only used my hands. I was always going to be broke," she said.

That, in human terms, is the crisis of opportunity for workers at the bottom of the economy. But unlike most of them, Rodriguez found a way out. Her route was an innovative approach to job training that is upending the conclusion, widespread in the 1990s, that training programs don't work. More and more governors are embracing the approach, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke recently called job training one of the most promising answers to the growing income gap.

Rodriguez attended a program called Per Scholas, which trains computer repair technicians in the nation's poorest congressional district, in the Bronx. Like dozens of programs around the country built on a similar model, it evolved by working closely with employers in high-growth sectors of the local economy, tailoring its training to the precise entry-level skills that were most in demand. Earlier training programs were much less targeted to the needs of labor markets.

In an ever-more-wired New York, Per Scholas places close to 80 percent of its graduates in jobs from Wall Street to tiny nonprofits. Most make about $12 an hour within a year, and many make $15 an hour in two years, according to school records. Rodriguez, who is 25, makes $12.72 an hour plus health insurance at Time Warner Cable, where she has been a broadband specialist for a year at a Queens call center.

"What feels great is when I resolve someone's issue," she said after a recent morning of troubleshooting with customers in English and Spanish. "I knew nothing -- I mean freaking nothing -- about computers two years ago, and I just fixed your problem! How cool is that?"

"Sectoral training," as the approach is known, emerged from anti-poverty efforts in a number of communities upended by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Per Scholas's hulking, red-brick training center in the South Bronx was once a factory that printed stock certificates -- until computers rendered its work obsolete. There are now more than 200 sectoral training programs for skills of every level in 41 states. They prepare workers for jobs in industries as diverse as health care, diesel mechanics, information technology and food processing.

Programs in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore allied with hospitals to train nurses' aides to assume more responsibility, ultimately becoming respiratory therapists, lab technicians and practical nurses. Project Quest in San Antonio trains low-income people in environmental monitoring and aviation mechanics. Per Scholas trains to the computer industry's standard of basic technical competence, the A-Plus certification.

These programs emerged as the federal government was retreating from training -- after years of big spending and disappointing results -- and most have survived on foundation support, particularly the Charles Stewart Mott, Annie E. Casey and Ford foundations. But state support now is increasing because sectoral training fits into many states' approach to economic development. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), is awarding $15 million to alliances of employers, community colleges, universities and training programs to feed skilled workers into nine industries with potential for rising wages. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is considering sectoral-training proposals endorsed by his transition team. And the National Governors Association is urging all governors to embrace the approach.

Per Scholas's $1.9 million training budget ($6,000 per student) is funded by grants from foundations and the New York City Council. From 1998 to 2006, the program graduated 1,029 students, of whom 818 got jobs, almost all in the computer field, according to training director Linda Lopez. She said almost 90 percent of those placed in jobs remain at least 12 months. Those who earned further certifications make as much as $30 an hour, she said.

A study by the Aspen Institute of sectoral programs in the late 1990s found that median annual incomes of graduates rose from $8,580 before training to $17,732 after two years of employment. The Mott Foundation is financing a long-term incomes study, hoping the results will persuade the federal government to adopt the model.

The difference from earlier job training, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Paul Osterman, an expert in workforce development, is "the deep understanding these programs develop of the workings of industries where they place people."

The businesslike approach is palpable as soon as students arrive at Per Scholas. "I was late for the orientation, and they told me: 'You're five minutes late. You have to come back another time,' " Rodriguez said. Students who miss two classes in the 15-week program are required to leave.

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