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Computer Training Program Helps Veterans Crack Job Market

Times Staff Writer

Jack Garcia, 39, moved to Los Angeles from Denver a year ago with hopes of finding a job. Garcia, a Vietnam veteran, had received training as a radio operator in the Navy and had 11 years of electronics experience at a telephone company.

But he said he found the Southern California job market discouraging. Although he sent out about 40 resumes, he received only one response--from the Manhattan Beach City School District. Despite his training, the only work he could find was as a maintenance worker for the district.

“It’s pretty much dead end. I don’t feel comfortable (there) and the advancement opportunities are just about nil,” he said.

Garcia, however, may soon be able to trade in his custodial tools for computer software thanks to a new computer training center in Culver City. Garcia recently started classes there along with seven other veterans.

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“If we can get one veteran a job (who) couldn’t get a job before, then we’ve done what we had to,” said Charles Allemann, treasurer of the Southern California Veterans Services Council Inc. and chairman of the California American Legion’s Employment Commission, which monitors various state employment organizations such as the Employment Development Department and the California Veterans Board.

The council, the legion and the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program--a nonprofit organization that provides job placement services and legal assistance for Vietnam veterans--joined forces behind the new computer training program that Allemann said is unique in the nation because it is taught by veterans for veterans.

“We’re stressing quality and making veterans computer literate,” said Alex Areyan, president of the 3-year-old Veterans Services Council, which is made up of personnel specialists from Southland companies, public agencies and veterans organizations that help veterans find employment.

During the eight-week course, students will get hands-on computer experience, according to Arelene Williams, a veteran and executive director of the computer training center. Williams has taken a leave of absence from her job at the state Employment Development Department since March to volunteer at the center.

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Students will also participate in sessions on resume writing and job interviewing, Williams said, and will meet with representatives of major companies.

The program got its start three years ago, when the Veterans Services Council approached TRW Inc. in Redondo Beach, which was offering computer training, Areyan said.

The Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program referred some of its clients to TRW and word of the program began to spread among veterans. TRW, however, eventually decided to discontinue the class.

Donated Computers

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The leadership program decided to pick up where TRW had left off, according to Leo Thorsness, former program chairman and former civil affairs director at Litton Industries. Thorsness said he told a Litton official, also a Vietnam veteran, that a new computer training program for veterans would need computers. Litton donated two IBM computers valued at about $6,000 each, Thorsness said.

Then, Derek Zupancic, president of Data Zone Inc. of Canoga Park and a Vietnam veteran, heard about the program and donated several computers. He later was named to the board of the Southern California Veterans Services Council.

The computer training program is now offered at the American Legion Community Post No. 46 in Culver City. The veterans attend free of charge, the staff is all-volunteer and the legion does not charge any rent. Organizers estimate that the cost of the training would run about $2,000 per veteran for an eight-week class.

Allemann pointed out that the center is funded and supported entirely by veterans organizations and donations from individuals and from businesses. The program received no state money, he said. While the class is open to veterans in general, Roland Cinciarelli, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, said the focus is on veterans who have been unemployed or underemployed for a long time.

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Cinciarelli said the center is “barely making ends meet,” but he predicted that demand would increase as more unemployed and underemployed veterans hear of the classes.

Many Vietnam veterans canot find jobs because they lost years of education and training while serving in Vietnam, Allemann said. “There are very few jobs for riflemen and machine gunners,” he said.

Concentration of Veterans

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 4.6% of Vietnam veterans nationwide were unemployed in August, 1985, Cinciarelli called the figure misleading. He said Los Angeles County has the largest concentration of Vietnam veterans in the nation and estimated that 15% to 20% of them are unemployed. (According to the Veterans Administration, Los Angeles County was home to 838,400 veterans in March, 1984, 223,600 of whom were Vietnam veterans.)

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“If someone told me that 4.6% of veterans were unemployed in Los Angeles (County), he’d better go back to school,” Cinciarelli said, adding that during his four years with the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, he had found that the percentage of unemployed Vietnam veterans to be much higher than the national average.

Along with lack of training, Vietnam veterans have a bad image among prospective employers, Allemann said.

“If (a Vietnam veteran) stands out on the street corner and beats up his wife, then you have a story about a crazed Vietnam veteran. This is the image that veterans have with employers,” Allemann said.

Arthur Emerson, a retired Air Force sergeant major and a student in the computer class, said he once was denied a job because he was a Vietnam veteran. The employer told him Vietnam veterans have a “bad attitude.”

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“He said most of them have a chip on their shoulders,” Emerson, 46, said. “Regardless of how well you can write a resume, if the employer is not interested in hiring you, he’s not going to hire you.”

Emerson, who holds an associate of arts dgeree in computer science, worked as a mail distribution clerk for three years. He hopes to use his computer training to start his own accounting business.

‘Shell Shock’

Student Dwight Adams, 33, said many prospective employers have asked him whether he has had drug problems since returning from Vietnam. They also asked him if he has ever suffered from “shell shock” and nightmares from killing people.

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“I told them I didn’t function in that capacity,” Adams said, “I’ve treated the wounded but I’ve never taken a life.” He served as a hospital corpsman in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 but was withdrawn after the Navy discovered that he was the sole surviving son in his family, Adams said.

Computer training seemed to be the best way to prepare veterans for employment, Areyan said. Added Thorsness, “They can catch up quickly here. You don’t have to have a lot of training to learn computers.”

“Everybody believes in apple pie and country and veterans but no one was doing anything about it,” Areyan said, “We wanted to do something about it.”

“Vets have been terribly neglected as far as retraining goes,” Zupancic said, "(but) the days of vets working as warehousemen and getting paid $4 or $5 are over.”

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Rico Fanning, a self-employed tax accountant who served in the Marine Corps from 1956 to 1964, volunteers four hours a day to teach the class. He said that giving his time is a way of paying back Vietnam veterans what is due to them.

“They had their lives on the line and made sacrifices,” Fanning said, “I know what kind of a man or woman it takes, and they have something coming to them.”

Cornelia Freeman is not a veteran but volunteers part time as a secretary for the program and takes the class with her son, Dwight Adams. Her oldest son was killed in Vietnam in 1966, she said, and helping veterans is her way of doing something for her dead son.

George Cortell, who worked in the finance and collections business “on and off” for 12 years, said he is optimistic about his job prospects after completing the course.

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Cortell, 41, said he wants job security most of all. “This is turning into a computer world. If you don’t keep up with it, then you get left behind,” he said. “I don’t want to get left behind.”


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