JobTrain enters new era | September 11, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - September 11, 2013

JobTrain enters new era

Menlo Park job-training center has helped thousands land jobs

by Sandy Brundage

Bells ringing in the workplace: Fire alarm? Stock exchange closing? If you're at JobTrain, that sound means someone got a job, and everyone spills into the hallways to celebrate.

There's been a lot of bell-ringing since JobTrain opened in 1965. The nonprofit focuses on providing free or low-cost services to underserved populations, such as veterans, the homeless, the long-term unemployed, parolees, people recovering from addictions, the underemployed, and at-risk youth.

In 2012 alone, 8,645 people came to the nonprofit for help with job training, developing life skills, getting their GED and other challenges. Of those, 77 percent found work, according to the organization's most recent annual report. That was a banner year as JobTrain saw a record number of clients.

The nonprofit racked up success after success with Sharon Williams as executive director until she decided to retire after 34 years in the top spot. Now another director is at the helm, and the Almanac caught up with Nora Sobolov on Sept. 4, about 12 hours into her new job.

The shelves of her new office were still empty, as she hadn't had much time to unpack.

Ms. Sobolov comes with a background in finance and a long history of nonprofit management. She co-founded the Community Forward Fund, a loan and financial coaching service for nonprofits in Canada; Housing Help, a one-stop service for the homeless; the Canadian Lung Association; and the Canadian Cooperative Association, an umbrella group for credit unions and cooperative businesses.

Her very first job, she said, involved working with kids whose parents were involved with gangs in Ontario, Canada. "I lived in the community, so I'd seen the effects of violence," she said. " The real difference were the community mentors, who stayed long after the program ended. Just by being there and being present, it made a big difference."

At Housing Help, she used to close the office for half a day to make time to talk to senior government officials and other social-service providers, creating a network that considered the whole person and community-wide initiatives rather than isolated problems — an approach that JobTrain shares.

A common thread through all of her jobs has been the drive to help people get and keep jobs that pay a livable wage. JobTrain aims for $15 to $16 an hour, Ms. Sobolov said, which is "not at the high end, but achievable."

Community collaboration is both something she hopes to expand and a quality that drew her to JobTrain. Fifty people showed up at a "welcome lunch," she told the Almanac, including many community members who wanted to meet the person stepping into the shoes of Ms. Williams, who helped make JobTrain a beloved asset.

"They feel really, really attached to this place," Ms. Sobolov said. "There's a great team atmosphere. Everyone helps each other." One sign of that attachment lies in the not-uncommon sight of a former client now returned to JobTrain to work on the staff.

Ms. Sobolov expects to spend her first year learning how JobTrain works, getting to know an organization and the community's needs first before trying to tweak it. One wants to know what the key ingredients are in the "secret sauce," she said, before deciding what's next.

The economy offers hints at what may be on JobTrain's horizon. As electric cars gain popularity, and manufacturing starts to rebound in the United States, the doors may be opening for manufacturing and automotive training as a viable career path, she suggested. With employers like Facebook and Google hiring JobTrain's graduates, she'd like to create more employment opportunities with local businesses. And then there's the ongoing challenge that all nonprofits face of finding revenue sources that don't rely on any one program.

One-stop shop

A key ingredient in the "secret sauce" is the number of services JobTrain offers at its 1200 O'Brien Drive location. In addition to job training, clients can get help with tax preparation, applying for benefits, immigration issues, and mental health counseling. The site also provides child care.

Director of program operations Alonzo Emery, after 15 years at JobTrain, may be another crucial ingredient. Enthusiasm spills through his voice as he describes the array of training programs — culinary arts (there's a professional kitchen on site), digital arts, construction, solar power, computer technician, telecommunications technician, medical office assistant, office assistant, health care worker.

"Even during the tough (economic) times, we were still successful," Mr. Emery said.

He showed the Almanac a class of about 15 students learning the finer points of the pulmonary system. Even at 2:40 p.m. on a warm late summer afternoon, everyone looked wide awake.

Companies that have hired JobTrain graduates have praised their work ethic, Mr. Emery commented, and often return to hire more, sometimes taking groups at a time.

Everyone learns basic computer skills, to be able to create and email resumes. Clients can earn a GED through JobTrain; 218 students took exam preparation classes during the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the nonprofit's most recent annual report.

JobTrain provides placement services, work outfits through its "Clothes Encounter" program — alterations are free as needed — and coaching. The majority of the organization's clients find work, but it's not unusual to see familiar faces return to JobTrain — as staff members.

Natalie Tercero said she used to drive by the nonprofit before finally deciding to walk through the door as a client. Now she works at JobTrain as the coordinator for Single Stop, a national organization dedicated to connecting low-income clients with government services.

Other clients have gone on to work for Kaiser Permanente, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and in the kitchen of popular local restaurant "The Refuge."

Mr. Emery smiled as he walked through the halls. He explained that he understands the challenges facing his clients. As a high school student, "college prep was a foreign language" until someone took an interest in his future, he said. He went on to Arizona State University, then to professional football before finding a new career as a counselor.

"I'm a product of this type of program," he said. "If students want a chance to move forward, JobTrain can give them that chance."


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