OMAHA — Angelica Dunn and Isaiah Hall sat in the community college classroom, fixated on a woman in a blazer reaching behind a desk and lifting props into the air. First, an empty coffee cup. Then the lid of a sour cream container. Next, a foam cooler for Omaha steaks.
“Thirteen dollars an hour,” she said. That was the wage for a full-time job packing these products into boxes during the graveyard shift at Airlite Plastics. After that, she said, promotions. They could learn to drive a forklift, manage a team, get reimbursed for taking college classes. They’d have health insurance and the chance to make enough to buy a car, secure a mortgage. All of the fixtures of middle-class life that have been eluding so many people in north Omaha, particularly young African Americans such as Isaiah and Angelica, could be theirs — if they could make it through the next five days.
For decades, thinkers from economists to politicians to pastors have searched for ways to reduce the unemployment gap between whites and blacks. Angelica and Isaiah were living in a city that might have found one.
Since 2007, more than 1,000 Omaha residents, mostly African American and mostly low-income, have landed jobs in the growing manufacturing and tech sectors through targeted employment training in the city’s worst neighborhoods. The training began popping up after a local newspaper series noted that the booming Midwestern city had some of the most alarming racial disparities in the country, embarrassing civic leaders and politicians into action.
Back then, 4.7 percent of whites in Omaha were unemployed. But for blacks, the number was 17.2, according to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In 2016, the most accurate numbers available, those rates had dwindled to 3.9 percent for whites and 8.9 percent for blacks. Of the nation’s 70 largest major metro areas with statistically significant populations of black and white residents, only 28 had shrunk the unemployment gap, and none at a faster rate than Omaha.
The city’s progress is partially due to programs such as the bimonthly one that Angelica and Isaiah were beginning at Metropolitan Community College. Drawn to the program by text messages and fliers that nonprofits plastered around their neighborhood, the two were among a cohort of 12 attending a five-day, unpaid workshop to transform them into the type of worker that the woman in the blazer would want to hire.
She told the group that there had been a lot of retirement cakes at the 1,000-person company lately. But business had been growing and it was eager to attract employees from neighborhoods where it traditionally had trouble finding qualified applicants. If a trainee could make it through the program, the company would at least grant them an interview.
“I’ll see you at the factory in five days,” the woman said, packing up her props and walking out the door. Jana Dye, a career-skills coach, would help lead them through the other four.
She asked the group members to introduce themselves.
In the front row sat Isaiah, a 21-year-old college dropout, who said he was done wasting all the chances he had received in his life.
“Really, this is a new opportunity for me to start over and reach my new potential,” he told the group.
In the back row sat Angelica, a 22-year-old mother of two, who wanted to show that she had what it takes to make it on her own.
“I’m here because I want to prove myself,” she said.
“Has anyone told you you’re not going to do anything with your life?” Dye asked.
“I heard that last night!” Angelica called out.
“Are you going to persevere, or do you want to make that person right?” Dye said.
The American work ethic
First, Dye explained the basics of being an American worker to a group of people who had little success in the American workforce.
“It is all about having a good work ethic,” Dye told them. “If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, ask yourselves, do you still deserve to get paid?”
Dye recommended setting their alarms five to 10 minutes earlier than they thought they needed. It would give a little buffer to the hustle of working life: choosing appropriate clothes, eating a good breakfast, saying goodbye to their children, catching an earlier bus to make sure they were not late and being ready to work the moment their shift began.
Angelica fidgeted in the back row. She wore a dingy white-and-blue T-shirt, and her hair was placed in a messy lopsided bun. “I do that sometimes, and it still doesn’t work,” she whispered to the woman next to her.
Now Dye was explaining how important it was to have a good attitude, even during a bad day or when working with an unfriendly boss. “Sometimes, they make it so hard, you can’t help it,” Angelica said to the woman next to her.
Three career coaches were sitting in the back of the room, and one walked up to the pair.
“This is an opportunity,” a coach whispered to Angelica. “Pay attention.”
The coaches understood what the opportunity could mean for Omaha, especially for the four women in the room. Half of black households in the area were headed by a single mother, statistics showed, and 42 percent of those families lived below the poverty line.
Angelica understood what the opportunity could mean for her. She had tried getting an associate degree at the college but was overwhelmed by balancing kids, a job and school all on her own. That left her with no child care, no degree, no job. She had lost custody of her younger daughter after a judge determined the girl, hardly more than a year old, was better off with her father. The decision haunted Angelica, who was 3 when her own mother lost custody of her. She wanted to break the cycle.
As the group dispersed for lunch, Angelica gave herself a pep talk. “I have to start on my goals,” she said. “I got so many things going on. My life feels like chaos.”
After the break, the group had to take a multiple-choice test to figure out whether Dye’s lessons had registered. One question asked whether the customer is always right. Another asked what would be the best way to describe the relationship between employee and employers. Angelica looked over each of the answers, taking longer than almost everyone in the room.
The trainees needed to answer 32 of 35 questions to pass. Angelica got 33 right.
The big test
When class started the next day, Angelica was missing.
“I’m almost there,” Angelica responded when a career coach called to see where she was.
The second day featured another test. Instructors distributed laptops to assess whether trainees knew how to calculate averages, use measuring tape and perform simple multiplication — key skills for the most basic jobs in Omaha.
Ten minutes into the examination, the door swung open. Angelica walked through. Her hair wasn’t combed, and she was wearing the same shirt as the day before. She was pulling a blue wagon behind her, and inside sat her 3-year-old son, who was holding a box of banana granola.
The room was silent, and Angelica sat down to begin the test. But Thomas-Johnathan started to whine. Then he started thwacking the cereal box on his mother’s chair.
Angelica stared at him to get him to stop. She tried placating him by opening the box and handing him the unopened bag. But the boy wrinkled the plastic, and the crackling sound was filling the room. Angelica snatched it. That’s when Thomas-Johnathan started to cry.
An instructor made eye contact with Angelica and directed her outside.
“Why isn’t the child at day care?” she asked.
“I don’t have the funds,” Angelica said.
“Can you call someone to figure out if they can watch him?”
“My cellphone just got turned off,” she said.
The instructor handed over her own cellphone. Angelica pulled the boy and the wagon deeper into the hallway. She stopped in front of a large window and looked out at the recently renovated campus. She dialed the welfare office number, hoping to get a child-care subsidy so she could pay for day care. Then she could drop him off in the morning, walk to the campus, pay attention, get the job interview and start working.
Her son sat in the wagon, fiddling with the cereal bag. Angelica stayed on hold. One minute passed. Two minutes. Five minutes. She was in the eighth minute when she heard a pop. She turned around, and granola clusters littered the floor.
“Why did you have to do that?” she said, stomping. “Why is it always a continuing cycle with you?”
A tour group of men and women soon walked past her, admiring the new building. They wore suits and looked away while they walked past the spilled cereal. Angelica remained on hold. Fourteen minutes. Eighteen minutes. Now, Thomas-Johnathan was climbing out of the wagon and down a steep set of steps.
A staff member at the college walked past her, alarmed.
“You want me to bring him up the stairs?” she said, before running to grab the child, who was now halfway to the bottom. “It’s concrete, honey.”
Angelica had enough. She hung up and walked back into the classroom to return the instructor’s cellphone.
“I can do this on my own,” she said, before grabbing her backpack and walking out of the building.
She pulled the wagon across a five-lane highway. The sky was gray and threatened rain. She lugged the blue wagon uphill, past a lawn where crushed Natural Ice cans and empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s lay between dandelions.
“I wanted to prove I could do this myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to need help. I wanted to show I’m strong.”
She walked past boarded-up houses with overgrown lots. Rumbling by were construction trucks and fire engines, but what she was looking for was a public bus. None passed in the direction of her neighborhood, where she lived in a house on a pothole-pocked street with her aunt and, sometimes, her grandmother.
“I literally keep having to restart,” she said. “And I’m just so freaking tired.”
She climbed up the house’s chipped green stairs and stood on the fading Santa Claus welcome mat before walking in. It was dark inside, with old figurines crowding the shelves and baby toys scattered across the floor.
“Can someone watch my son?” she called out to anyone who would listen.
“You couldn’t call anyone?” her aunt asked from another room, as she changed the diaper of her own child.
“I couldn’t because my phone is dead, and I can’t pay the bill,” Angelica said, raising her voice.
“Everyone calm down,” said her grandmother, emerging from the kitchen. Her gray hair was tied neatly in two braids. “I’ll watch him. Do what you gotta do.”
She looked at Angelica.
“And comb your hair,” she said.
Angelica stepped outside and smoothed her hair into a ponytail. There was no returning to class; it was too late in the day to take the exam. Instead, she headed to the child welfare office to ask for the child-care subsidy in person.
She thought about waiting for the bus, but she didn’t want to spend the $1.75 or risk waiting too long. So she walked. Before long, she was on the main artery of 24th Street, the old heart of black Omaha, where the city had repaved sidewalks and renovated the Fair Deal supermarket with fresh produce and modern lighting.
“It used to be so bad,” Angelica said, “but it’s getting better so people can preserve the memories of what chocolate people in this city used to be.”
It took more than an hour to walk to the office.
It took a minute to fill out the form.
“I’m a disaster,” she said.
She had walked 6
A new path
The third day began quietly, as Dye instructed the trainees that career coaches would sit with them and go over résumés. Three of the original 12 trainees had stopped coming. And, at first, it looked as though they had lost another one.
But 14 minutes into class, the door swung open. It was Angelica, dressed in a pair of brown slacks and a white shawl. Her hair was tied into two braids, just like her grandmother’s.
A career coach named Angela Baker sat next to her. Angelica pulled up her most recent résumé.
“I just have so much experience it’s hard to put on one page,” Angelica told her.
Angelica’s experience: six months at a cash register at Taco Bell; three months working a factory job at Mi Mama’s Tortillas.
“You only worked at this place for a couple of months,” Baker said. “Employers like to see longevity. Maybe we should take it out.”
“But I loved that job,” Angelica said to her. She liked working with a conveyor belt and helping new employees. She flattened tortillas and placed them into plastic bags, and sometimes, she said, she would go to the nearby Walmart and look for the packages because they said “Omaha, NE” on the back.
“That was me, my work,” Angelica said, and showing her work made her proud.
Angelica told Baker she would have kept the job longer, but she got pregnant and quit.
“I had that boy,” she said. “Thomas-Johnathan. He’s just like me. Sometimes he’ll be doing things all perfect, all proud, and then he always just messes up.”
“Why do you say that?” Baker asked, and Angelica shrugged.
Baker agreed not to delete the job at the factory, but she suggested that Angelica replace a line about graduating from high school with a line about her working toward an associate degree.
“You have to show your ambitions,” Baker said.
“I’m not sure if that’s realistic, though,” Angelica said.
Angelica told Baker that she liked taking classes. She had taken some photography and design classes in high school; she didn’t mind reading and doing math before she dropped out of community college. But she had little direction about her future — what she knew most was that she wanted to be creative.
“I always liked the idea of being a developer,” she said. “Maybe a developer of buildings. Maybe a developer of people.”
“You can do this,” Baker told her. “We can help you get there.”
After three hours, the résumé fit on a page.
“It looks so modern!” Angelica told her.
“I’m starting to get conceited in my head,” she said at the end of the day. “I’m getting better at getting a job. And I know when I get the job, I’m going to do well. Because when I was at my old job, I was the stuff.”
The right answer
One day left. Résumés were polished and the lessons in work ethics were over. Now, as the other trainees broke off into a different room to practice interview skills, Angelica sat alone in a classroom, completing the basic math assessment she skipped on the day she left class.
“You passed,” Baker told her when the assessment was over. The two stayed in the room together to practice interview skills.
“Tell me about a time you had difficulty at work,” Baker said.
Angelica looked up to the ceiling, twisting her face as she figured out a response.
“One of the managers at my last job told me my attitude wasn’t up to par,” Angelica said. “I took it as a lesson to learn to pay more attention to what I was doing, and how I was presenting myself on the outside.”
Baker told Angelica her response was good because it showed she was “coachable,” one of the skills she listed on her résumé. But the response wasn’t great; she didn’t want to give employers doubts about her ability to do the work. Above all else, Baker said, Angelica had to show confidence.
Baker asked why she wanted to work at Airlite.
“Because it’s working with your hands, and I know I can do that,” Angelica said. “I know how to use a conveyor belt. I’ll even work overnights. On the overnight shifts, I used to wash the dishes and dry them so they wouldn’t just sit there soaking all night.”
“That’s a good answer,” Baker said. “You’re so much more than you think you are. You’re a problem solver.”
“I should have put that on my résumé!” Angelica responded.
Baker said she would do well the next day if she stayed focused. They worked out a plan for Angelica to meet another career coach at the community college, so they could drive to the factory together and ensure Angelica wouldn’t be late.
“I know you’re going to dress up, right?” Baker asked.
“Yup,” Angelica responded.
“Can I just say that you should be proud of yourself?” she told Angelica. “You have overcome a lot of things to get to work and do well this week. You’ve been consistent and you’re always trying, and sometimes, people who have a lot to overcome need more support. I’m willing to be that person for you.”
“I just hope to get my life together,” Angelica said. “I was so close to getting my associate’s degree here. I just hope that when the job is together, the rest of life will get together.”
“You have a lot of potential,” Baker said.
“People always say that about me,” Angelica said.
The final challenge
Angelica woke up the next morning even before her alarm clock went off. It was still dark outside.
She fixed her son a bowl of banana granola and put on a zebra-striped dress over black leggings. She put her hair in a beehive with a single braid tied down the middle, her fanciest hairstyle all week.
She left Thomas-Johnathan with her grandmother, and, when the sun rose, she raced down the chipped green staircase and past the overgrown lots to get to the community college, where an instructor waited for her in the parking lot.
“You ready?” she asked.
“I’m ready,” Angelica said, and they drove to join the other trainees in the factory.
Twelve had started the program, but only seven made it to the final day. Angelica was the only woman left. She looked up at the towers of boxes filled with foam, as forklifts scooted back and forth. Workers in smocks and safety goggles wove around them.
“Any questions?” a tour guide asked the group, but the whirring sounds were so loud it made it hard for Angelica to hear. The group started to walk to the quieter break room, where they would await human resources officers to interview them. As they were leaving, Angelica noticed a young black woman with frizzy hair in a black smock emerging from a row of shelves.
“You like working here?” Angelica asked. The worker smiled and nodded.
Angelica sat in the break room, watching as trainee after trainee went up for an interview. And then, it was her turn.
“I’m Angelica,” she said, shaking hands with the recruiter. They walked to a small, bare room with only a slit of the window facing a hallway. Angelica sat down, and her legs began to shake.
“Tell me about a time you had difficulty at work,” the recruiter asked, the same question Baker asked the day before.
Angelica did not give an answer that revealed anything about her skill set, as she had practiced. Instead, she described a co-worker at Taco Bell who did not want to follow her suggestions on how to be a good worker.
“I told her this is how we do this particular thing, but I can’t remember what it was in particular,” Angelica told the recruiter. “I see her on Snapchat every now and then. But I don’t really know if she’s still around. She normally posts stuff about her family and stuff. . . . She’s in school and I remember she asked me, if, uh, because I had a book she needed for class and asked if she could borrow it.”
“So I guess you gave her support as needed?” the recruiter asked, trying to get Angelica back on track.
“As needed,” Angelica said. “But actually, she didn’t need support. She was good.”
“And it was a math course,” Angelica said, reverting back to her original story.
The interview didn’t get any smoother. When the recruiter asked whether Angelica had any questions, she responded, “How many break rooms do you have?”
“I had another one. . . .” Angelica said, trailing off.
The recruiter had one more question.
“Based on the information that we shared with you today,” the recruiter asked, “do you feel that you can complete the requirements of the job as it was described to you?”
“Oh, I know I can,” she said.
“There’s the confidence!” the recruiter said.
Angelica began to tell the recruiter about the young woman on the floor.
“She had been working,” she said. “And I saw her and said, yeah, whatever, I can do this.”
The two stood up and shook hands. As they walked back to the break room, the recruiter said one more thing to her. Angelica smiled.
She had a few things to work out. How would she get to work? Who would watch Thomas-Johnathan? But at this moment, the only thing she wanted to work out was finding someone who could loan her a cellphone. She dialed her grandmother to say something she hadn’t been able to say in more than a year: “I have a job.”
Seeking a path to a better future
The Post followed two people in a job-training program in Omaha. Angelica Dunn’s story is included here. To read about Isaiah Hall’s journey, visit wapo.st/omahajobs.
The American work ethic
There were seven components to being successful in the workplace, Dye told them, and they all started with the letter “A.” Attitude. Attendance. Appearance. Ambition. Accountability. Acceptance. Appreciation.
Isaiah figured he already embodied those qualities. He sat in the front of the class, a showcase of ambition. He kept his hair in a close-cropped fade, and his jogger pants and sweatshirt fit neatly, a respectable appearance. He had a smile he perfected in his childhood modeling classes to give off a positive vibe — that was attitude.
With the class, he vowed to put his past behind him. He could no longer afford Grand Canyon University in Phoenix after his mother lost her accounting job. His gig at a Forever 21 couldn’t make up the $3,000 he owed, so there was little choice for him last summer but to come back to Omaha.
“Back into the hole,” he remembered thinking. Back to the city where his mother did everything she could to keep him out of trouble — football, dance, wrestling, musical theater — but where he found it anyway. The older students at school taught him that the easiest way to money and respect was through the drug game, and, by 13, he joined the Gangster Disciples.
“Pretty girls like a boy who can trap,” he said, a play off a 2 Chainz album title, and he took trap life with him even after he made the wrestling team at Iowa Western Community College. He was caught selling marijuana and pills out of his dorm and spent his 20th birthday in jail.
Arizona was supposed to be a new beginning, yet he ended up back here, sleeping on a mattress under the power box in his great-grandmother’s basement. Back to his old neighborhood and his old friends, with whom he got drunk on his 21st birthday, which is when the group got into a scuffle with another and a police officer tried breaking them up.
“I will f---ing kill you,” Isaiah remembered saying to the officer, and then it was back to the jail and the courtroom, where a judge put him on a two-year probation.
Now Dye was trying to teach him and the others in the workshop how to move forward. She emphasized one main thing about work ethic: Don’t expect to be rewarded if you don’t do the work.
If they came in a little late or spent the entire day talking about the new “Avengers” flick or couldn’t put life drama on hold, she posited, “should you get paid for that time?”
“I guess not,” Isaiah said. He never thought about it that way before.
The discussion put some trainees to sleep, until Dye pulled out laptops for an open-book exam. The test had 35 questions. They needed to answer at least 32 right to pass.
Isaiah scored a 26.
“This is bulls---,” he muttered.
“How could that be?” he said. “I had the book right in front of me!”
An instructor told him to slow down, think and try again. Have a good attitude.
He reread the questions and changed some answers.
“I’m afraid to push the button,” he told the instructor, sheepishly.
“Try it,” she said.
On the second attempt, he passed.
The big test
Three trainees were missing when Dye started class on the second day. Isaiah remained in the front row, wanting to pay close attention to learn how to pass two more tests.
By afternoon, he had failed one of them. Isaiah stared at a laptop for a test assessing observational skills. He could not rewind or fast-forward the video. There was no music and hardly any movement, except for some workers at a counter making sandwiches.
He lost interest, and as his eyelids got heavier, the test questions popped up. He needed to recall the order of slicing bread, putting on vegetables, adding meat, slathering the sauce. He remembered nothing.
Earlier on the second day, a separate examination assessed that he was proficient enough in applied math and reading skills to handle a job. What he needed most was focus.
On the first day, he blamed the system. On the second, he blamed himself.
“I was the smartest kid,” Isaiah said to Keith Mitchell Jr., 47, a trainee with a scraggly beard. They sat on a patio outside the classroom. “I just didn’t listen. If I had just listened all along, I would have been graduated now.”
“These tests keep trying to trip me up,” Isaiah said. “I got to keep my focus.”
“Isn’t that the key to everything?” Mitchell responded.
Mitchell had run away to Florida to avoid paying child support and wound up, by his count, with seven felony charges — including a sexual assault charge in connection with having sex with a 15-year-old girl. He wanted to prove he could get his life together.
They were two men of different generations, threaded by the same issues afflicting so many black men. Coping with unstable fatherhood and a lack of role models. Struggling with the feeling that it was easier to find clients for drugs than an employer who’d hire them. Trying to break out of the sense that the two most likely outcomes were jail or death.
“If things are getting easier in Omaha, why am I in a homeless shelter?” Mitchell asked.
“It’s getting kind of better,” Isaiah said.
Yes, he had seen more “Now Hiring” signs around while riding buses through north Omaha. But the revitalization efforts meant there were more police here, too. Isaiah said he kept on seeing his friends get arrested, or killed. He longed to be a part of one trend, but he feared he’d fall victim to another.
“My friends, my generation, we don’t want to work,” Isaiah said. “They want to trap. I’m trying to be different.”
“So basically, they’re not your friends,” Mitchell told him. “Don’t be like me. Move on.”
There it was again. It was as if the city were filled with anti-role-models. The advice that came from Mitchell or the Lyft driver or the bus driver or the garbage man was always the same: Don’t make my mistakes. An old gangbanger approached him at a bus stop one morning and said, “Stay in school. Learn to do construction.” He could offer no more advice when Isaiah responded, “Nah, I’m into computers.”
Few ever approached him to say, “Follow this path.” So he found himself huddling in his favorite spot in the public library, past the science-fiction and fantasy section, where he tried to find inspiration from Mark Zuckerberg and Malcolm X, in the Psalms of David and in Katniss Everdeen.
“They were all survivors,” he said, sitting on a bus to the library after the second day of training. “They didn’t stop when something went wrong. They were all so young when they figured it out. I’m already 21. But they had to make the blueprint. It’s already there for me to succeed. I just have to figure it out.”
An unmarked van and two SUVs passed the bus, going the other way. Inside were police officers in shades, helmets and bulletproof vests.
“That’s how they caught the cat who killed Brandon,” a stranger said to Isaiah, referring to a murder of a local youth last year.
“When people have guns and stuff, they have to show they’ll go above and beyond,” Isaiah said. “But really, it don’t got to be a thing. They are trying to be known, trying to make a name. Everybody’s got to have a name.”
A new path
“I-S-A-I-A-H H-A-L-L,” he typed on the résumé template on the third day. The exams were over. Now he had to learn how to sell himself.
Skills coaches made a correction for practically every single line of his old résumé. Under his Forever 21 section, Dye told him to elevate the language from “greet customers/assist customers” to “itemized customer merchandise and selection at a checkout counter.” Now, he was in class, typing and retyping, until he got to one category: skills.
He listed “Microsoft Office Suite.” But there were four more bullet points on the template.
He looked at his notes about hard skills and soft skills, considering how each applied to him.
“Ability to work quickly? Yes!”
“Dependable?” he said. “I guess I’m dependable . . .”
Then it got harder. He looked to the ceiling, as if he might find some appropriate adjective hanging from above.
“People person? Nah, that’s not really a skill.”
He rubbed his temples.
“Man,” he said, slumping into his chair. “I’ve got to develop some skills.”
Dye sat next to him. He told her that before he dropped out of college, he added an information technology major to his interest in computer programming.
She sent Isaiah to an office down the hall. Mitchell joined him. There, Robert Caldwell, who directed the school’s workforce innovation program, said he had a solution for Isaiah’s skills gap.
He handed the two men a flier listing training classes that could provide certifications for work requirements from local employers.
“I see you have Linux,” Isaiah said. “I tried learning it on my own. It’s super hard.”
“Well, you can learn it here, on-site,” Caldwell said.
“You ever thought about doing cybersecurity?” Caldwell asked. “Those are good jobs. There are 1,300 openings right now in Omaha.”
“Maybe I don’t need to go back to Arizona,” Isaiah said.
“This course is a month long,” Caldwell told him. “It’s 8 through 5, Monday through Friday. It’s intense. So if you’re doing it, you’ve got to be ready.”
“I’m ready,” Isaiah said.
“I’m ready,” Mitchell said.
If he got the packing job and worked the graveyard shift, Isaiah figured he could take those certification classes during the day. Then, he could get a job, and then a better-paying job, and then get out of his great-grandmother’s basement.
Isaiah pumped his fists when he walked out of the room.
The right answer
“Good morning, everyone!” Isaiah said as he entered on the fourth day.
Five trainees had already dropped out. An Ethiopian refugee’s résumé was so sterling — he had a master’s degree in mathematics at a school in his homeland — that a service agency was working to get him a more professional job. One woman needed a slower track — she lacked the basic math skills to pass the certification. Two women said they needed to stop because their children got sick at home; another said the program wasn’t for her.
Six men and Angelica remained.
Dye, the career coach, went over how to prepare for an interview.
She suggested not wearing any particularly strong fragrances and advised covering tattoos with long sleeves.
“But I don’t own long sleeves,” Isaiah interrupted. “I have a polo shirt.”
A woman in the back from Heartland Workforce Solutions, the nonprofit that promoted the training, told them her office had free business attire. As she spoke, Isaiah pulled out his cellphone and called the company while sitting at his desk.
“I have a job interview tomorrow,” he told the person on the line. “What’s the policy on tattoos?”
The students laughed after the receptionist told Isaiah that tattoos were fine.
“Generally, no tattoos,” Dye told the class. “But this is good. It shows how serious he is about getting the job.”
Dye conducted a mock interview with Isaiah. She told him to ask good questions, remember the name of the person who was doing the interview and to use keywords, such as “adaptable,” “coachable,” “manageable,” “flexible.”
In a job interview, she said, a story should always show off the skills you possess. And that’s when he should throw in the keywords, she said.
“You’re doing a good job,” Dye said. Then she used some keywords of her own: “Just get a little more detail, and you’ll be on the next level.”
The final challenge
On the fifth day, the trainees had become prospective employees.
“Who’s next?” asked Crystal Sauser, a human resources manager at Airlite Plastics.
Isaiah stood up. He wore navy slacks and brown dress shoes. The white polo shirt revealed a tattoo of a cross with the names of his great-grandmother and his grandmother.
Sauser walked him to a small room with barren walls. They sat down, and he handed her his résumé.
Sauser asked him about a difficult time at work. Typically a confident speaker, Isaiah spoke in half sentences. His voice thinned. He couldn’t find ways to drop those keywords. After a nonsensical response, Sauser asked another question.
“Can you give me an example of a time when your supervisor asked you to do something that you didn’t agree with?” Sauser said.
“When I was working at Forever 21, um, my manager asked me to, um, he really asked me — it was something where, I, I, I . . .” Isaiah began.
His sentences started to take shape mid-response. He began to tell a story he practiced with Dye about the manager asking him to go to the back and fold clothes, when the only experience he had was helping customers on the floor. Isaiah said he asked the manager about the change.
“He explained he chose me because I generate flexibility and adaptability to things, and I can be very coachable,” Isaiah continued, dropping in those keywords.
“Good!” she responded.
“What degree are you working on?”
Now Isaiah got comfortable. Out flew words about how he had learned HTML and Cascading Style Sheets and tried to teach himself Python.
“Having someone who knows that and understands it — and self-taught! — it’s going to take you far,” Sauser said. “If you can now just get that degree to back you up.”
Sauser said it was possible. She worked three jobs while pursuing her degree, including a graveyard shift, she told him.
“We’re going to offer you the position,” Sauser said, and Isaiah’s stoic face began to melt into a smile.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “I know it’s about working hard to succeed. Giving 110 percent every day.”
“One-hundred percent will be good,” Sauser said. “And some days, even 90 is okay.”
Isaiah immediately wanted to show his 110 percent commitment. When it was explained that he needed to take a physical exam at a doctor’s office before he started working, he took the first available appointment.
“I’m getting this done!” he told Mitchell and another man.
A receptionist gave him a slot at 11:15 a.m. It was about 10:30. The two men walked outside with him to bid him farewell.
Isaiah looked to the two bus stops he could see. There was no one waiting at either of them; buses didn’t run in the middle of the day. Isaiah would have to find out whether they ran during his late shift, which he needed them to do. But for today, no bus.
He thought about using his mom’s credit card to order a Lyft. The doctor’s office was three miles and $21 away. “I don’t have $21,” he said. So, no Lyft. He would have no way to get to the doctor. He also had no way to get back home; none of them did.
“What are you going to do?” Mitchell asked. Isaiah paused.
“I’m walking,” he said.
He stepped into the parking lot, then through a grassy swale. Then, he stopped and turned around. Sweat was beginning to form on his brow.
“You guys walking?” he asked, and the two men began to follow him.