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Job training that works.

Three years ago, the Levi Strauss Co. announced it would close one of its last factories in San Antonio and move the operation to Costa Rica--at a loss to workers of 1,000 mostly high-wage, low-skill jobs.

Father Al Jost of St. Joseph's Catholic Church saw the effects of the plant closing immediately. "There wasn't one street in my parish where I didn't know at least one person affected b he says. "I discovered that hundreds of people would be out of work, and even those who got jobs would be going from $7.50 to $4.50 an hour. We started talking about what to do about it."

Father Jost is a leader in Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), which for the last twenty years has taught working-class people how to organize to gain more power in San Antonio. Together with its sister organization, Metro Alliance, COPS has gained enough credibility in addressing other community issues over the years to make the city's political and business establishments listen to its plans for a job-training program, and, eventually, to commit $7 million to fund it.

COPS and Metro Alliance leaders studied the local economy. Since 1970, they found, the city had lost thousands of highwage, low-skill jobs like those at Levi Strauss--yet had gained even more relatively well-paying jobs in fields from health care and education to auto repair and legal research. But employers couldn't find enough local workers with the skills needed to fill many of those high-paying positions.

Existing job-training programs, especially the Federal Jobs Training Partnership Act (JTPA), had failed miserably. "What we heard was that the job-training system was not set up to serve the needs of our people, but to build the budgets of the training providers," says COPS co-chair Virginia Ramirez. "Programs financed by student loans generally left participants with debts, but no jobs. JTPA programs left people with low-paying, temporary jobs."

Most job training, they learned, doesn't last long enough to equip trainees with the complex skills needed in the new economy. And the few programs that do work suffered from high drop-out rates--not because the trainees weren't smart enough or willing to work hard enough, but because, without an income, they couldn't support their families for the months required to complete effective training.

Out of this research and dialogue, Project QUEST was born.

Working with employers, area colleges, and approved job-training providers, QUEST identifies job openings and designs curricula to train workers specifically for those positions. QUEST then interviews applicants and matches them with the openings based on education and interest. in return for receiving trained workers, employers guarantee they will hire the workers who successfully complete the training, which is financed by city, state, and Federal funds.

QUEST differs from the failed programs of the past in several key respects. it is job-driven (training is aimed at jobs that will actually exist); the training lasts long enough (up to two years, compared to an average of eleven weeks in other programs); the money or vouchers go directly to the trainees; and it provides income-support stipends, day care, and counseling for trainees who need them.

Businesses get workers suited to their needs, the city reduces the number of unemployed citizens, and trainees obtain better, higher-paying jobs and skills they can take to other jobs.

In June, 650 people were enrolled in QUEST classes. COPS and Metro Alliance, both affiliated with the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network, are working to bring the idea to other cities.

There are still plenty of hurdles to get over. Businesses leery of past job-training efforts will have to be persuaded that this one is different. And funding will have to be wrung from parched public budgets.

"No one is saying that this is the cheapest way to go," says Bob McPherson, a University of Texas professor who helped design QUEST. "What we're saying is, the higher the investment, the higher the return."
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Title Annotation:San Antonio, Texas
Author:Campbell, Brett
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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