In an Arlington office building, there is a classroom with computer parts and car parts everywhere. Immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, South Korea, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and other countries come to learn how to say "keyboard," "printer" and "hard disk." They come to learn how to dress for a job interview and how to put a computer back together.
Amtek Systems Inc., a small Arlington software development and computer services company started by three Vietnamese refugees who met here in the mid-1980s, has conducted such courses since it was founded in 1986. Last month, the company regrouped its top executives and formed a nonprofit organization, the Amtek Institute, to help other refugees struggling with resettlement. With training in technical skills, as well as language and cultural skills, the newcomers can get started on career paths, rather than just into jobs.
Long Dinh, Peter Ly and Toa Do, the three principals, know what they are talking about.
Dinh and Ly came to the United States from Vietnam as refugees in 1975; they were both students. Do, a former South Vietnamese government official, was in a relocation camp for several years and finally left during the Vietnamese boat lift in 1980. With no money or contacts and educations with little value here, the three took the typical immigrant's path: working several jobs at a time to feed big families, studying English and learning marketable skills in the growing computer industry.
"We had educations, but when we came to this country we did not have opportunities to use the background ... because the education system is different," Ly said. "So most of the people who even have a very high degree ... have to start everything from ground zero."
Four years ago they formed the company, but only Dinh worked there full time. Today Amtek has a dozen employees and is starting to take off, Ly said. Last year he and Do quit other jobs and came to Amtek full time. The company had sales of about $100,000 in 1990, and Ly predicts gross sales will be nearly $1 million in 1991.
By restructuring and incorporating a nonprofit group, they hope to minimize overhead and expand the training programs, going to local governments in search of more contracts.
The Amtek Institute, and programs like it, they hope, will cut out some of the struggle involved in starting over in a new country.
With contracts from the Fairfax County Department of Human Development, Amtek has taught groups of refugees on public assistance the basics of computer or automobile repair in four-month courses. The programs are not set up to produce experts in electronics or auto repair; rather, they teach the immigrants the basics so they can get entry-level jobs.
Gary Gortenberg, program manager for employment training in Fairfax, said Amtek is one of several contractors the county uses to train refugees and get them off welfare. The program's goal is to give them "career latitude and a work history so they can move up," he said.
Joe Jackson, automotive sales manager in Sears's automotive department in Fair Oaks, has hired several of the graduates from Amtek's courses. He said that although they usually need more training after they are hired, the students fill a big need for him because good entry-level workers are tough to come by.
"They're very good employees," he said. "They're dependable ... if we could find a way to bottle their enthusiasm we would all be rich. They're dedicated, they're hard-working, they have a thirst for knowledge. The information you get from the institute is like a survey course in college... . It's hard to make somebody a mechanic in four months."
Najibullah Mukhtar, who came here with his wife and five children from Afghanistan two years ago, hopes the automobile repair course he took will help him get off public assistance. Mukhtar, 46, who was a truck driver and mechanic in Afghanistan, said that the four-month course was enough to teach him the English terms for the parts of a car and introduce him to air conditioning, automatic transmissions and fuel injection, which cars in Afghanistan do not have.
Plus, at graduation, he received a certificate for completing the course and a box of tools, so he can practice working on his own car.
"Those short months, they will help me," he said. "I'm ready to work."