In January, the Alexandria Women's Commission applied for a federal grant to develop a work-training program for low-income women in the city. The idea was to teach the women marketable skills and help them find jobs as carpenters and appliance repair workers.
Last week, the program marked its first success when 22 women, several with jobs waiting, became the second group of traniees to earn diplomas. The women, beaming their pleasure, accepted congratulations from family and friends -- and the teachers who had helped them through 13 weeks of hammering, splicing and wiring.
Three months ago, when the first class graduated, the mood was markedly diferent. Some teachers did not attend the ceremonies.Several students were left clutching only their diplomas; the jobs promised them had not materialized. And some commission employes found themselves wondering if the second class would run into the same difficulties.
The road from that near-failure to last week's success has been bumpy, commission officials agree. For most of those involved -- teachers, students, program administrators -- there have been some bitter lessons, but commission officials say those lessons finally forced the organizers to take a long, hard look at their operating procedures. For others, it proved an embarrassing demonstration of problems they say continue to plague some segments of the women's commission.
Commission officials generally agree the program's rocky start stemmed from one major problem: lack of experience on the part of the organizers.
"We had never been in the training business before," said commission Director Carol Becker, "and therefore didn't realize there would be so many kinds in its administration. We were basically a commission who never ordered more than a few paper clips, faced with organizational problems that snowballed."
In retrospect, former employes, students and some commission officials say there were several major flaws in the first program:
Hiring a program director and all five teachers only two weeks before classes started.
The decision by commission director Becker to take a leave of absence just as the program was starting.
Ordering equipment so late that some classes were without tools for more than half the program.
Said one former employe: "It wasn't an organization, it was a disorganization. During a two-month period, half the staff said, 'Let's get the hell out of here.' It was a terrible mess."
The idea for the program, known as The Women's Pre-Apprenticeship Corps, was born last winter. The Women's Commission had just completed a series of seminars designed to teach low-income women how to get jobs. From surveys of the participants, commission officials decided the women would benefit more from a program that actually trained them in a skill. In addition, commission officials decided to focus on skills that would pay more than the minimum wage.
"We decided to train the women in areas where they could eventually make $10 or $15 an hour," said Jeannine Swiggard, who helps design programs for the commission. "When you train a woman to make $3.50 an hour, you're not training her to get anywhere."
With the basic goals set, the commission applied for a $75,000 federal grant to pay for a 13-week training course for 17 women. When the grant was approved in January, commission workers were estatic. Similar programs had succeeded in Boston, Denver and the District, and officials were confident the training would succeed in Alexandria.
Later, employes who have since left the commission said that blind assumption of success -- without proper planning or budgeting -- nearly doomed the program.
Linda Clover, a former Vista volunteer, was job developer for the pre-apprentice program. Her responsibility was to line up jobs for women who successfully completed the course.
"Two weeks before the program was scheduled to begin (in March), they (commission officials) didn't have any idea how to proceed," Clover said in a recent interview. "They seemed to think things would happen on their own. There were just so many administrative snafus.
". . . Because there was so much else to do, I didn't have time to begin finding jobs for the women until less than two weeks before the end of the classes."
Clover resigned from the commission in July. "I was frankly embarrassed to say I worked there," she said.
Employes also said organizational problems were compounded when commission director Becker, who had initiated the overall planning for the program, took an unpaid leave of absence at the beginning of the course to work, on the President's Advisory Committee for Women. During Becker's absence, Swiggard was placed in charge.
Two months later, Becker said she cut short her 10-month contract with the White House when it became clear there were serious administrative problems with the commission. She did, however, continue as a consultant to the presidential commission.
When asked why she decided to leave at such a crucial moment, Becker said she could not have anticipated the problems.
"I left at the time I did because it was an interesting opportunity (to work for the presidential commission)," Becker said. "It would have been hard to anticipate the problems with purchasing and . . . paperwork when we had never done this before."
For the teachers, there were other frustrations. Pat Harley said tools for her class did not arrive until halfway through the course, and some of the other four teachers said they had the same problem.
"It was one of the most devastating experiences of my life," said Harley. "How would you feel if you were trying to teach someone electromechanics and you didn't even get a screwdriver until seven weeks into the class?" Harley eventually resigned. She worked as a volunteer for the last 2 1/2 days of the course, explaining that she no longer wanted to maintain a professional relationship with the commission.
Commission officials concede there were delays, but attribute them to a lack of knowledge about what supplies to order. The officials also complained that tedious and slow city buying processes exacerbated the situation.
The original trainees are divided on the success of the first program.
For Inez Johnson, it was the answer to constricting financial problems. Johnson now works as a carpenter on the I-66 construction, building retaining walls and earning $7 an hour. She says the extra money will help her rebuild her house, which burned down more than a year ago.
"Sure, there were problems with the program," Johnson said, "but I couldn't have gone out and tried to get hired as a carpenter without the training."
Linda Marsh, 37, feels differently, Marsh, who is single and has two children, was unemployed before she took the training. She now has a job, but as a receptionist, not in appliance repairs, the course she took in the apprentice program.
"The program was a complete waste," Marsh said. "They didn't get me a job or place me anywhere. They just didn't do what they promised. I went to 10 interviews, but no one would hire me because they said I didn't have enough training."
Of the 17 women in the first class, more than half are working in program-related jobs. The highest pay among them is $7 per hour, and they average $4 to $5 per hour.
While the students may be divided in their opinions of the class, of the five teachers hired for the first program, none said he or she left the program with the feeling of a job well done. Two teachers, Anne Smith and John Donati, are still fighting to be paid their full salary. Becker said the pay dispute is in the hands of Alexandria's city attorney.
Another instructor, Mary Ellen Steece, recently received payment of her full salary, but only after she took her case to small-claims court. The other two teachers have been paid.
When told about the apparent success of the second program -- several graduates have been placed in well-paying jobs -- most of the original instructors expressed surprise, but maintained the program should be administered by a group other than the Women's Commission.
Said instructor Harley, "I'm a gut-issue feminist. I have worked for the passage of ERA for years, but I cannot support the commission because they do not support women. I got paid well for my job and I worked hard, but in some ways. I didn't earn my money -- the trainees were the victims of commission incompetence.
"I've worked with Wider Opportunities for Women (a similar program in the District) and know this type of thing can work. I believe that because of the lack of professionalism forced upon the teachers, we took . . . trainees and left them worse off."
Commission officials say the problems that initially plagued the program have been worked out and they are optimistic that they will receive funds to start the final cycle of the program next month. Most of the instructors in the second program say they plan to stay on and teach the final phase.
"We learned a lot from the mistakes of that first program," Becker said, "and everything is running smoothly now."