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Vocational Program Means Business for Out-of-Work Youths

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A small sign hanging over the desk of the president of the Center for Employment Training in San Jose, Calif., makes it clear that this unconventional vocational-training program means business when it comes to job training:

"Only one piece of paper is more important to our graduates than a diploma ... a paycheck.''

This nonprofit's emphasis on training the hard-to-employ--including many high school dropouts and unemployed youths--for relatively well-paying, in-demand jobs has made the C.E.T. a pacesetter in the job-training field, experts say.

Its experiences could also offer some lessons in how to serve out-of-school youths under the various school-to-work systems now developing across the nation.

Unlike many job-training programs, which require clients to master the basic skills before they are allowed to operate a computer or a tool machine, the 26 C.E.T. sites nationwide encourage their 2,100 students to work on tangible job skills from day one. The C.E.T. then weaves vocational-oriented, basic-skills instruction into the job training.

Also unusual is that C.E.T. sites provide a full range of services--including job training, counseling, job placement, day care, and English-language instruction--under one roof. "We have found that those kinds of services, concentrated in one area and providing 'one-stop shopping,' are very successful,'' says Robert Zachariasiewicz, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department. In 1992, the department allocated $1 million to the C.E.T. to replicate its training model in other cities and plans to earmark another $1 million for the project this spring.

But even more important is the C.E.T.'s placement record. In 1992, Zachariasiewicz says, the C.E.T. placed 72 percent of its graduates--the majority of whom were high school dropouts--in jobs. Their post-training earnings were slightly more than double their pre-training salaries. "If you have high placement rates and double the earnings, that's pretty impressive,'' he says.

One secret to the C.E.T.'s placement success is its strong ties to local industry. Instructors say they make sure that their basic-skills lessons draw on problems and issues raised in the workplace. What's more, the C.E.T. only trains students for jobs that are in demand, as determined by local businesses. As a result, many companies routinely call the C.E.T. when they have vacancies to fill.

No Testing Requirements

The C.E.T's impressive performance with a hard-to-serve population is the result of more than 25 years of intensive work. Founded in San Jose in 1967, when fresh fruit still rivaled computer chips as Santa Clara County's primary product, the C.E.T. began with an enrollment of 15 machine-shop trainees in an East San Jose garage. Some 60,000 graduates later, the C.E.T.'s national headquarters, along with a large training site, has moved into a former schoolhouse in downtown San Jose.

Here, clients, about one-sixth of whom are age 21 or younger, can choose job training in any one of 14 skill areas, ranging from printing and graphics to food services. On any given day, about 500 students are enrolled in the various skill areas. Clients can enter the full-time training program year-round and learn at their own pace.

Most clients need about six months to complete their training. High-school-age students work side by side with older students and have the opportunity to earn their General Educational Development diplomas. And because none of the programs has a formal starting or ending date, students can continue learning new skills until they find a job.

Unlike many job-training programs that serve hard-to-employ clients, the C.E.T. does not require potential participants to meet any academic, linguistic, socioeconomic, or age-related standards as a precondition for admission. As a result, about half of its students nationwide are either migrant farmworkers or those who have recently given up seasonal agricultural work for a more settled way of life. About 80 percent of the clients are Hispanic, primarily Mexican-American, and many are enrolled in the C.E.T.'s English-as-a-second-language program.

The only criterion for admission is a sincere desire on the part of the student to turn his or her life around, says Max Martinez, an education analyst at the C.E.T. "Our philosophy is geared to serving those most at need,'' he says. "And you are certainly not serving those most at need if you test them. We consider ourselves a school for success. We don't want people to fail before they come in.''

This philosophy has been particularly well suited to the needs of high school dropouts and other young, discouraged workers. "People who drop out of school don't want to drop back into a system that they don't think is addressing their needs,'' Martinez adds. "They did not see a path to a job. Here, when you put their hands on a machine, it says, 'Job.'''

And a full-time, unsubsidized job is what many high school dropouts and unemployed youths get when they graduate from the C.E.T. According to Martinez, 71 percent of C.E.T. clients younger than 21 who completed a training program in the second half of 1993 have full-time jobs, and the program was able to place 86 percent of those employed students in positions related to their training. They earned, on average, $6.14 an hour, for an annual wage of $12,772--more than double their average annual salary of $5,078 before the training.

In contrast, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in the last quarter of 1993, the mean hourly wage for workers ages 16 to 19 was $5.05. Slightly more than one-fifth of 16- to 19-year-olds who were dropouts were unemployed, versus 12.4 percent of those who had received their diplomas.

Increasing Their Odds

Research also supports the premise that the C.E.T.'s method--hands-on, self-paced training, combined with basic-skills instruction and intensive services--is well suited to hard-to-employ youths.

In 1992, a Rockefeller Foundation study found that minority single mothers who graduated from the C.E.T. were more likely to get a job, keep a job, and receive higher pay than similar women who graduated from other training programs.

A second study, released late last year by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, also found dramatically larger gains for young high school dropouts who completed a C.E.T. training program.

In its study of 13 sites funded by Jobstart, a federal job-training program for high school dropouts, the M.D.R.C. found that graduates of the C.E.T.'s San Jose campus earned in excess of $6,000 more than members of a control group over a four-year period. In contrast, graduates of all 13 programs combined earned an average of only $214 more over the period than did similarly disadvantaged youths who received no training.

Not High School

At the C.E.T., "the emphasis is on getting people into the labor force,'' says Fred Doolittle, one of the authors of the Labor Department-funded study. "They work hard to have a connection between themselves and the labor market.''

At the same time, he says, the C.E.T.'s students are more job-motivated than average and "are not a random draw of all 17-year-olds.'' The C.E.T.'s mission statement lets students know the center is serious about job training, so students are serious about learning the skills they need to get a job. "If I was a 17-year-old who [just] wanted a nice place to hang out,'' Doolittle says, "I wouldn't go there.''

From the moment a potential client enters the San Jose campus, it's clear that the C.E.T. is not a continuation of high school study hall.

While on an orientation tour of the program's 14 shops, a student may notice the time clocks that dot the hallways. C.E.T. instructors expect students to punch in and out so they learn the importance of punctuality and responsibility in the workforce.

As part of this tour, instructors try to "sell'' their subjects--ranging from computer-aided design to building maintenance--to the potential student. "We tell our instructors to sell their skills as if they were selling it to the President,'' Martinez says.

In the various shops, the bustle of the students and their instructors complements this sales pitch. In the medical-assistant classroom, for example, students clad in white lab coats learn how to draw blood samples and conduct hearing and vision tests. In the printing-and-graphics workshop, meanwhile, students learn how to use printing presses, sophisticated photocopiers, and desktop-publishing software.

Vincent Lara, an instructor in the machine-tool-operator shop, says students learn mathematics as they draw up blueprints to make small metal parts. "The neat stuff about the math here is that it applies to something real,'' he says. "It's not like in the 6th grade, where you forget it the next day.''

Lara considers boosting student self-esteem another major component of his job. "I think the people who come here have had a hard time finding work,'' he says. "Can you imagine a person who has not had much success who comes here and finds people who care about him and tell him that he'll get a job for $7.50 or $8 an hour?''

But at the C.E.T., instructors like Lara don't have to imagine. High school dropouts enrolled in the C.E.T. praise the program for allowing students to proceed at their own pace and develop new career interests.

Roseanna Ortiz, 17, says she dropped out of high school and enrolled in the C.E.T.'s medical-assistant program as a way to get herself and her 1-year-old daughter out of foster care. She says local foster-care regulations require her to prove that she has a means of support.

"Here, it's at your own pace, so you don't feel so pressured,'' she says. "I've learned a lot of things I didn't know before.''

Others say that the C.E.T. is giving them a new chance to put their lives in order.

Armando Razo, a 23-year-old high school dropout with a pregnant wife and two children to support, says a learning disability hindered his progress in high school. In the C.E.T.'s building-maintenance program, he says: "I'm learning by using my hands, and I'd rather do it that way. With the job search the way it is, you need a piece of paper saying you know how to do something.''

Ellen Flax is a New York-based freelance writer.

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