Seven years ago, Virginia Johnson thought she never would walk -- let alone work -- again after enduring 10 painful operations on her right leg.
Today, Johnson, 46, is doing both as she strolls the floors of Woodward & Lothrop Inc.'s downtown store as a roving sales lady, moving from department to department, ringing up sales wherever she is needed most.
Johnson, who before her illness was a manager at a carry-out restaurant, got back on her feet through her own determination and persistence. But to get back to work, she had the help of an experimental retail-training program for D.C. residents.
The program, which was begun in April, gives students five weeks of classroom training in a variety of retail skills, such as running computerized cash registers, handling credit-card transactions (including dealing with a customer after discovering that a card is stolen or expired), coping with irate customers and dealing with shoplifting. Additionally, the course teaches students how to interview for a job -- and then keep it -- by teaching them, among other things, how to dress and communicate with customers, fellow employes and bosses.
After the five-week classroom course, the students go to local retailers for four weeks of on-the-job training. If the training works out, the retailers hire them permanently, either part-time or full-time. In turn, the retailers are reimbursed for 50 percent of the employe's salary for the training period (as well as receiving a tax credit if the employe is considered "economically disadvantaged"). Employers also can call on the school for specialized training for employes who need extra time to master the cash-register system.
To date, two classes have completed the course, and the third is slated to graduate on Wednesday.
The program was designed by local government and industry officials to help provide jobs for primarily unskilled, unemployed inner-city residents. It also helps retailers who are having an increasingly difficult time finding qualified employes for entry-level jobs.
"What was happening was that we had a lot of people who came to apply to us," noted Joseph Gallucci, Woodies' senior vice president for finance. "But they were not qualified." So, together with other area retailers, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the nonprofit D.C. Private-Industry Council, Gallucci headed a committee to come up with a cooperative industry-government program. The program, funded with $140,000 of District funds, is an experimental one that is slated to last for at least a year.
To some area employers, the program is making a noticeable difference. Students being interviewed are not ignorant about retailing, noted Renee Davis, personnel manager for Woodies' Washington store. "It's like interviewing someone who has come from another retailer," she said.
That's not to say that the program is a complete success. Of the 48 students who attended the first two sessions, only 40 graduated. Of these, only 33 found jobs, of whom only 24 are still on the job today.
Some have dropped out because they decided retailing -- with its low wages and frequently odd hours -- was not for them. And in one instance, a student who was hired had to be let go after it was found that she was giving discounts to friends.
Then, too, some employers initially were reluctant to hire the students for permanent positions. And the program -- promoted only in the D.C. employment office -- had a hard time attracting the number of students program officials had hoped. Nonetheless, the successes, like Johnson, keep the program's officials encouraged enough that they are seeking more funds to expand it.
Having been out of the work force for 11 years, Johnson said she had lost confidence in her ability to work and was intimidated by the new computerized-cash-register technology that did not exist when she had last worked. "I didn't know a thing" about the new cash registers, she said. "I didn't think I could do anything like that. I had no confidence in myself, and I thought I was too old. The course gave me confidence. I can deal with the cash registers. I can deal with people. I couldn't do that before."
"Everyone wins -- the retailer and the employe," said Gary Lacy, program manager of the course.