A Sept. 8 article about a Virginia career training program incorrectly identified Soza & Co. Inc. It is a management and financial consulting firm. (Published 09/14/99)

Natasha Crawford, a 22-year-old single mother of two whose last job had her flipping burgers, is not your typical Wall Street type. Still, there she was last week carrying a black attache case and dressed in a dark gray Chanel business suit, anxiously awaiting her first corporate job interview.

Crawford, who lives in government-subsidized housing in Falls Church, was determined to do well when she met the recruiter from the McLean consulting firm.

"I want more for my kids than what I had," said Crawford, who had her first son while still in high school, supporting him and the baby who followed by working various menial jobs, most of them minimum-wage. "I want a better future for my family."

Crawford's transformation represents another milestone for Training Futures, a privately run, volunteer-supported program in Fairfax County that helps cabdrivers, housecleaners and others at the lower end of the economic ladder attain better-paying, upwardly mobile careers by teaching them the personal and professional skills that will get them there.

In three-plus years, the staff of Training Futures, which operates out of donated office space over a bank in the heart of Springfield, has assisted close to 200 of Northern Virginia's so-called working poor. Participants, who have ranged in age from 22 to 58, must pass an initial screening in which they commit to a rigorous, five-day-a-week schedule over four months. To accomplish this and still support their families in many cases, some trainees work two jobs or overnight shifts before reporting for class each morning.

Despite such obstacles as arranging transportation and child care, motivating the trainees is not difficult, said Marla Burton, co-founder of Training Futures.

"One of the things that is very special about our program is that we talk about permanent change and a permanent career path," she said. "They are not only learning new skills and getting a job, but they are also keeping their jobs and getting promoted."

More than 90 percent of the program's graduates move into entry-level clerical and administrative positions at banks, law firms, technology companies or nonprofit groups such as the Red Cross. Virtually all stay at least a year, Burton said.

Training Futures, funded primarily by private donations, runs counter to the surge in recent years of welfare-to-work programs, which aim to reduce welfare rolls by getting people jobs, but often without providing training and education.

Although that effort has trimmed welfare numbers, a recent survey by the Urban Institute found that about a third of those who left the rolls from 1995 through 1997 had returned within a year's time. Moreover, the wages of those with jobs remained relatively low--$6.60 an hour on average--and about 75 percent lacked employer-provided medical benefits.

In a survey last month of the nation's working poor--a larger segment of the population than welfare recipients, and one that is often overlooked, community leaders say--82 percent of the respondents said they needed more education to advance, but only 18 percent had received financial support from their employer to obtain it.

"We know that they are dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities for training," said Duke Storen, senior project manager at Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, which did the survey. " . . . They are much less likely to get training than middle- and upper-income individuals. And, ironically, they are the ones who need it the most."

Word of mouth has turned Training Futures into one of the more popular job training programs in Northern Virginia. About 100 people apply for each of three annual sessions, but only 30 can be accommodated. Applicants are tested for basic English proficiency and math skills and then have a sit-down interview.

"We talk about what their lives look like now, what brought them to this area, and we try to get a feel for whether they will be able to make it" through the program, Burton said. "It's a lot of commitment on their part."

Those who are accepted embark on an intensive 17-week program in which they are taught high-demand technical skills as well as office basics.

Trainees are expected to arrive promptly at 7:30 each morning, dressed in business attire, at the program's offices on the third floor of the NationsBank building. Classes end at 2:30 p.m., after which most trainees head off to work. For some, their day doesn't end until early the next morning, only hours before they are expected back in class.

Most students have to juggle to make it all work.

Each afternoon, John Mensah, a father of four, rushes from Training Futures to his child-care job in Arlington, where he works until 6 p.m. before going to his security-guard job at an Alexandria asphalt plant, where he works from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. Despite his frenzied schedule, Mensah, 50, has never been late to Training Futures.

"I would love to work in an office," Mensah said, explaining his motivation. "The pay will be better, and there won't be so much strain and stress."

The program's first weeks include instruction in such office rudimentaries as filing documents and building a business vocabulary. More technical skills, such as accessing the Internet, follow. Company recruiters from across Northern Virginia volunteer to conduct mock job interviews, and the program ends with a job fair.

In between, trainees must complete a two-week, unpaid internship at such companies as First Virginia, Science Applications International Corp., Reliastar and Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc.

For many, the highlight of the program is "Dress for Success Day," when trainees get to select their business attire from a small room full of donated suits and dresses and receive make-over tips from professional consultants.

"We try to get them in the mode of dressing like that every day," said Linda Nutter, a Training Futures volunteer who formerly worked as a corporate accountant. "We do have some who have come from foreign countries who have had professional backgrounds, but we also have a number of women who come off the unemployment line to this program with just bluejeans and T-shirt."

About half the trainees are immigrants, some of whom were professionals in their native country but have been held back here because their English is limited. Others are like Nancy Herbert, 53, who found she lacked the necessary job skills after a long hiatus from work.

"Whenever I went to look for an office job, I would always have to take a test which would knock me out," said Herbert, who took 15 years off to care for her two grandchildren after their mother died. "I had to do computer documents, but I just couldn't do it fast enough."

Herbert turned to Training Futures after she couldn't find anything more than menial jobs at slightly more than minimum wage--not enough to help care for her and the grandchildren. She now makes $10 an hour as an office specialist with Soza & Associates, a temp staffing service within walking distance of her Falls Church apartment.

"I love my job, and I'm now looking to elevate myself in the company," said Herbert, giving Training Futures credit for making "a great difference in my life"

Like Herbert, most trainees report making about $6 an hour before beginning the program. Upon graduation, they can usually boost that to at least $10.50, plus benefits, Burton said.

"We're not certain that a family can be supported with $10.50, but it's a start," she added.

Training Futures estimates that it costs $2,500 a person to train or retrain workers, almost all of which is borne by private donations and grants from Fairfax and Arlington counties. Each trainee pays $90 to cover the cost of books.

Burton and Training Futures co-founder Susan Craver started the program in 1996 after attending a graduation for a similar program in the District (since closed by budget cuts). "When I saw the faces of those graduates, I was captured," said Burton, who left her job as executive director of the National Association of Neighborhoods.

Eventually, Northern Virginia Family Services, a nonprofit social services organization, agreed to sponsor Training Futures, and NationsBank donated office space--worth about $100,000 a year. Microsoft contributed computers and software.

An integral part of Training Futures has been the time and talents offered by the 40 or so volunteers who courses, help with fund-raising and provide administrative support.

Vince Sescoe, a longtime federal employee who worked in personnel evaluation before his retirement, teaches a course on Internet use and helps with performance evaluations. Sescoe said he is moved by the many touching stories of trainees who have "found themselves in dead-end situations through no fault of their own. . . . "

"I wanted to give something back to the community, and when I saw this program, it was love at first sight."

Valerie M. Carroll, a senior technical recruiter for computer giant Science Applications International Corp., pretends to be a recruiter during the trainees' practice interviews, offering a critique of their performance afterward.

"The people who run [this program] are so enthusiastic, it's nice to be part of it," Carroll said. "The participants are so happy to be there you want to help people with that kind of attitude."

Last week, after one of the job fairs, trainees gathered in their lunchroom to assess how they had done in their interviews with NationsBank, Excel Technologies, Soza & Associates and nine or 10 other firms.

"They treated me like a professional," Mensah said, surprise evident in his voice. "Mostly when you go for a job, you always start as an underdog. You are speaking from a weaker point. But here there was a give-and-take. I felt like they recognized me and my skills."

"Remember," said Burton, who is integral to the self-esteem-raising process, "these are people who cleaned our hotel rooms, delivered pizzas, cooked our meals. They are used to being invisible. They believe they are not worthy. Now they've begun to believe in themselves."

Indeed. Just days after her job interview, Crawford began work in McLean as a receptionist at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a business research and consulting firm.

"I'm so excited," she said one day last week when reached by phone at her new job. "It's been great. I would love to own my home. But I've got to go," she added, cutting the call short. "I've got work to do."

CAPTION: John Mensah, left, Tatiyos Mehari, Mitra Javid and others pat themselves on the back after surviving interviews.