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Off-the-Farm Training : Jobs Center Opens Santa Paula Office to Help Fieldworkers

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A job training office has opened in Santa Paula to help teach English and business skills to farm workers who were left unemployed after the December freeze cut Ventura County agricultural jobs in half.

The office, a satellite of the nonprofit Center for Employment Training in Oxnard, has served about 30 unemployed workers since it opened Jan. 16, center director Shirley Ortiz said.

She said another 30 workers who lost jobs applied for training at the office at 951 E. Main St., but did not qualify because they are in the country illegally.

Ortiz expects the number of people seeking retraining at both offices to escalate steadily as fieldworkers and fruit packers return to Ventura County from monthlong holiday trips to Mexico.

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She said they are surprised to find that Ventura County’s $805-million agriculture industry is laying off workers rather than hiring them to pick and pack lemons, oranges, avocados and strawberries.

The county’s agriculture commissioner has estimated that 15,000 jobs have been lost to the three-day freeze, which caused $128 million in crop damage.

“We are looking for an onslaught of people toward the end of the month,” Ortiz said. “They are still just learning about the freeze.”

Farm workers who come to the federally funded center to learn English and computer, office or machine skills face a tougher struggle to enter the work force now than at any time since the center opened 12 years ago, Ortiz said.

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The nationwide recession and its local repercussions caused Ventura County’s unemployment rate to soar to 7.5% in November, indicating that about 28,000 people were out of work, state Employment Development Department figures show.

At least five major companies pulled out of Ventura County last year, Ortiz said, leaving a pool of trained workers for hire.

“It’s going to be harder for companies to hire workers from our center who are limited in their English when there is saturation of skilled workers already existing,” she said.

Rosa Ramon, 19, of Oxnard is enrolled in the center’s free six-month training program to learn how to operate a computer word-processing program.

She hopes to get enough training to get an office job that is higher paying and less difficult than her sister’s work at a Somis orange-packing plant.

Ramon knows that she will be looking for work at a time when companies are looking for ways to cut costs.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “But if I’m dedicated and work hard, I trust that there will be an opportunity for me.”

Still more disappointments await unemployed farm workers who have more immediate and pressing needs than job training, Ortiz said.

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One man who had worked in area fields in previous years came to the Oxnard center Thursday and asked for a few dollars because he had not eaten in two days and had no home, she said.

“We have stopped sending people to Catholic Charities, Project Understanding and United Way because they have told us that they have already depleted their normal funding,” she said. “I am concerned that there will not be sufficient help for these people.”


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