Job training partners fill 'experience needed' gap

Linda Hersey, from left, rings up merchandise while Annie Maxwell watches during the cash register training session with trainer Brenda Dunbar. Hersey and Maxwell are among seven who began the three-week course last month.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Linda Hersey, from left, rings up merchandise while Annie Maxwell watches during the cash register training session with trainer Brenda Dunbar. Hersey and Maxwell are among seven who began the three-week course last month.

Job seekers without specific work skills can easily find themselves in a frustrating Catch-22. Lacking experience, they find it impossible to land a job that will allow them to gain the experience they need.

A partnership between Walgreens and two private Pinellas County social service agencies may offer some St. Petersburg residents a ticket off the job hunting carousel.

Ways to Work/Partners in Self Sufficiency, programs of Family Service Centers Inc., and Advantage Training Centers, teamed up with the retail pharmacy giant to create a program that offers participants the opportunity to gain Walgreens-specific training, as well as basic job and life skills.

During the three-week course, students learn customer service, cash register and basic computer skills. The students must pass a written and practical test and, upon graduation, have the opportunity to apply for open positions in Walgreens stores.

While Walgreens does not guarantee graduates a job, Alberto Torres, a district manager with the company, said it definitely gets their foot in the door.

"It's about giving people an opportunity who never had one or had it taken away to get a good job, and not just a job, a career," he said.

The current class began on Feb. 18 and all seven students who started the course are on track to graduate.

Two weeks into the program, Sonja Parker said she hopes the training will give her a fresh start and a broader set of skills.

"Sometimes you need something else to get you where you want to go," she said.

Parker, 38, a certified nursing assistant, was laid off two months ago. She said she normally has no problem finding work, but times are hard.

"This is the worst time I've seen," she said. "Nobody is hiring. They say it's not in their budget."

Parker said she's gained confidence in dealing with customers and computers since beginning the training. She hopes to work for Walgreens when she completes the class and appreciates the opportunity.

"I commend Walgreens," she said. "They give people a chance to get their foot in the door."

What began as a partnership between Walgreens and the Chicago Housing Authority in 1997 evolved into a nationwide program with training centers in 33 states. About 60 percent of the graduates find work and the average retention rate is 58 percent, according to a Walgreens fact sheet.

The success of the program depends heavily on local partners. Walgreens supplies cash registers, sample merchandise and training for instructors. Local organizations must provide classroom space and trainers.

Torres said the company invested between $2,000 and $3,000 in the St. Petersburg program.

The St. Petersburg course, which includes books and materials, costs $299 per student, but funding through the United Way of Tampa Bay, Work Net Pinellas, Advantage Training and other organizations covered the tuition costs of all current students.

Gloria Campbell, owner of Advantage Training Systems, organized the partnership with Walgreens. She said she approached the company because of its history of offering employment opportunities to disadvantaged people.

When she found out about their partnerships with agencies in other states, she knew it was a perfect fit.

"We can make a real difference in people's lives," she said. "All together, we can achieve an end result."

Advantage Training Systems provides space for the training at its facility at 845 22nd St. S, as well as instructors for the program. Campbell said the Walgreens training provides a starting point for the students.

"This is the beginning; it's a start," she said. "I always encourage people to get as much education as they can."

Campbell said that she would like to use the model they've developed with Walgreens to partner with other companies.

Partners in Self Sufficiency, a Clearwater-based organization dedicated to helping low income families become self-sufficient through education, job training and ultimately home ownership, will provide followup support to students in the training program.

Vanessia Washington, director of programming for PSS, said they will act as a liaison between employee and manager. They also try to help eliminate other barriers low- income people often face when entering the work force by assisting with things like transportation and child care issues.

"It's not just about the job. Employment is not the only barrier. We are working on the total self," she said.

Washington points to John Velez as the type of person who can benefit from the training program. She called him the classes' rising star.

Velez, 24, was hit by a car in a parking lot, and the physical injuries compounded his struggles to hold a job. He said the training program is a great opportunity and has helped him learn how to keep his cool and put on a smile no matter what.

"I've learned that when I have a bad day, I can't bring it to work," he said. "I have to make sure the customer leaves satisfied no matter what."

Washington said Velez wouldn't even look her in the eye when he first came to the training.

"The change in John over the last two weeks blows my mind," she said. "If one person makes it out of here and does well, we're happy."

The second training program will begin March 17. Five people are currently enrolled.

For more information on the training courses, contact PSS at (727) 446-7778

Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or mmaharrey@sptimes.com.

Job training partners fill 'experience needed' gap 03/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 3:32pm]

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