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Building a Career Path Where There Was Just a Dead End
"That's how they teach you -- repetition, repetition, repetition," Rodriguez said. "You must study every night. Everything about you has to be professional -- your voice, your posture." She illustrated by drawing herself up tall, looking suddenly commanding. "They taught me about shaking hands: Look them eye to eye and give a firm handshake -- it shows you're not afraid."
Workforce experts caution that it would take significant investment to replicate sectoral training programs on a grand scale. But the approach is considered promising in part because it has succeeded with people who were hard to employ.
Rodriguez arrived at Per Scholas as a third-generation welfare recipient. A cosmetology dropout from a vocational high school, she recently had passed her GED test and was drawn to Per Scholas in part because every student gets a free computer. Tuition is free, and students must come from low-income communities.
The program is tailored to people who have failed in other jobs or schools. Classes are small, and the teaching style is aggressively hands-on. Students spend the first week not in lectures, but at work benches building their own computers from scratch. Only then are they assigned readings from a text. "Once you've built a computer, you have a vocabulary for it because you've handled it, and the reading -- which is rigorous -- is no longer scary," said Deborah MacFarlane, Per Scholas's first president.
Teachers regularly sabotage students' computers and make them find the problem. "It teaches an inherent part of the occupation: Things always go wrong with technology," MacFarlane said.
Connie Ciliberti, vice president of human resources for Time Warner Cable, said the company eagerly hires Per Scholas graduates as field technicians and on its help desks. "Per Scholas has spent time learning our business, understanding our measures of success," she said.
On a recent day, Rodriguez was one of three Per Scholas alumni working the phones from a cavernous room of cubicles in the Queens call center. Fellow alum Jack Collazo walked by Rodriguez's desk and dropped off two CDs labeled "A-Plus Review." He has passed the A-Plus test; she is still studying for it. He said he burned the CDs for her from his own review discs.
"We look out for each other -- that's another thing we learned at Per Scholas," Collazo said. "You need a network to be successful."
Rodriguez needs one more than most. She has moved off of welfare and Medicaid, but life is hardly easy. She is raising her three sons, ages 2, 3 and 7, and a 2-year-old niece in a three-bedroom, rent-subsidized apartment in the South Bronx. She doesn't have a car, so she has to rise on weekdays at 5 a.m. to get the children washed, dressed and fed and to take her oldest son, Krystian, to a school outside their neighborhood -- a 35-minute bus ride in each direction. Then she takes her 3-year-old, Nathaniel, to day care. Her grandmother, who babysits for the younger children, was sick last week, so Rodriguez had to rise even earlier to take them to the home of an aunt.
"Honestly, there have been times I wanted to quit because I felt so overwhelmed," she said. What stopped her? "I don't want to be stuck again," she said. "I want to be comfortable. I want to live in a house one day. I want my kids to run free in a back yard. It's about providing something for them that I didn't have. We had our first real Christmas tree this year. Krystian opened his present and said: 'Oh, my God. I got what I wanted!' "
She said she doesn't spend much money on herself, but she is a "shoe person," and on her lunch hour, she walks to Payless to look at boots, but not to buy them. She also wants a minivan -- a very used one because she could afford to pay only $100 a month. With four children to ferry around, she needs the space, but she also loves the suburban imagery. Pretending to slide open the door of an imaginary van, she sang out, "Everybody in!"
Back at the call center, business was brisk. A customer from Manhattan couldn't get a dial tone on his digital phone. Rodriguez ran tests, discovered a problem in the modem and scheduled a technician. A caller from Flushing fumed that he couldn't get online to place orders for a Chinese New Year celebration. "I do apologize, sir. Please bear with me while I run some diagnostics on your modem," she said solicitously, in her Per Scholas-trained voice. She identified a problem with his Internet protocol address and sent his call to a higher-level specialist.
"I sometimes get home and all I can think is, 'I had such a long day,' " she said. "But then I think about having a nice check at the end of the week and taking my kids to a movie. I know they're going to be able to say, 'Mom did a lot.' So I hope they'll grow up to take care of me when I give out."