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Jobless Given a Hand : It’s ‘Alumni Week’ for Graduates of Federal Program to Find Jobs for Unemployed and BringThem Into Life’s Mainstream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of work and fresh out of jail, Sean Kingaard in April learned a bitter lesson in household economics: Nobody wants to hire a convicted felon.

“I kept trying (to get work), but I couldn’t get anything,” said Kingaard,who along with his newlywed wife, Jessica, lived in a car while he searched for employment. “It was pretty bad there for a while.”

The frustrating experience of having dozens of personnel office doors slammed in his face has led Kingaard to consider a career counseling youngsters to stay out of trouble, thanks to Jobs Plus, a county-run agency that helps the homeless and jobless get a fresh start.

As the federal Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) enters its ninth year, administrators around the country have declared this week “Alumni Week,” during which successful applicants of the program are spotlighted in cities nationwide.

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Jobs Plus is the local administrator of the JTPA program.

In Orange County, 10 former and current Jobs Plus clients, including the Kingaards, will be recognized by the Orange County Board of Supervisors today. Their stories, Jobs Plus administrators say, are representative of the type of workplace successes that they witness on a daily basis.

Others who will be recognized during the 10:30 a.m. ceremony at the Hall of Administration include a single mother of four who was on welfare but eventually landed a job as a pharmacist’s assistant, a Guatemalan woman who found employment as a Latino banking coordinator in Laguna Beach and an ex-gang member who discovered Jobs Plus while in Orange County Jail and is now a maintenance man awaiting training in computer-assisted drafting.

“We’re so busy providing services for our clients, seldom do we have the chance to highlight our graduates and salute them,” said Jobs Plus administrator Anita Del Rios. “These people’s lives have really been turned around.”

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The federal program, begun in the Reagan Administration, is administered in all 50 states through state and local governments and now has a $1.5-billion annual budget. Signed into law in 1982, JTPA’s aim was to “establish programs to prepare youth and unskilled adults for entry into the labor force and to afford job training to those economically disadvantaged individuals . . . facing serious barriers to employment.”

Take the Kingaards, for instance.

The couple came to Jobs Plus on April 15, the day after they were married. Sean Kingaard, 24, had also spent time in County Jail for robbing a store and had found it next to impossible to get a job.

“They don’t like people with records,” Sean Kingaard said. The tattoos he wears over much of his upper body didn’t help either, he said. He wasn’t sure Jobs Plus could help him overcome the problems he encountered searching for employment.

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“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said, “but I figured it was like my last hope.”

But after several days of counseling and an assessment of their skills, or lack of them, the couple were placed in a homeless shelter and were later loaned enough money--interest-free--to get themselves into an apartment.

Eventually, Sean was given a job as a mechanic’s helper at Maritime Marine in Newport Beach. Jessica, 20, who met her husband at a bowling alley several years ago, landed a job at a local Coco’s restaurant as a waitress.

In the meantime, Sean Kingaard is starting classes in auto mechanics paid for by Jobs Plus and is saving for laser surgery to remove the tattoos. He eventually hopes to go on to college and get certified as a juvenile counselor for the Probation Department.

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“If you’re homeless and in trouble, you best can understand someone who has been in the same mess,” said Sean Kingaard, who ran away from a comfortable middle-class life in Newport Beach at 15 for the excitement of drugs and gangs. “I went through a lot of problems. I want to work with juveniles and get them when they are young so they don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Overall, the Orange County agency’s job placement success rate is just above 60%, Del Rios said. This compares to a 69% national placement rate for all JTPA programs.

Jobs Plus last year signed up 2,995 clients with a total operating budget of $5.51 million. One-third of them were welfare recipients.

The agency works both as a referral and support service, offering tips on available jobs and housing while providing immediate money for bus transportation and other necessities for job searchers, Del Rios said.

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The agency also refers clients to 16 private vocational training schools and to area community colleges.

Under the aegis of of the Orange County Private Industry Council, Jobs Plus recruits employers willing to take a risk on the so-called unemployable. But the recession, as in all other areas, has taken its toll on the agency.

Del Rios said that over the past year, the number of employers signing up for the agency’s job placement service has fallen while the number of clients has continued to grow. “It’s definitely an employers’ market,” Del Rios said.

Employers’ relationships with local JTPA programs is also the subject of a congressional investigation over the overall effectiveness of the program.

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Sigurd Nilsen, assistant director for employee and training issues at the General Accounting Office in Washington, said his staff has investigated JTPA programs in 16 states, including California. The study included programs in the Los Angeles area but not Orange County, Nilsen said.

What the staff found was that women and blacks are more likely to be placed in lower-paying jobs than white men, partly because of bias among employers.

“We found that there are discriminatory actions taken by employers, and the staff acquiesces,” Nilsen said, adding that some employers were found to call JTPA offices and use subtle hints to indicate their racial preference for a particular job.

“They know that they can’t do that (discriminate),” Nilsen said. “Once in a while an employer says, ‘I want somebody for up front,’ or they say, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s only a stockroom job,’ ” Nilsen said.

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In addition, he said, some case studies showed that white males are more likely to receive training for higher-paying jobs than blacks.

In one such study in an unidentified state, Nilsen said, 55% of white male clients versus only 26% of black males received electronics training. Almost 50% of the blacks were enrolled in food services-related training classes.

Women who were given classroom training were most likely enrolled in clerical programs, where they would be expected to make less money than male whites enrolled in more technical classes.

The overall study, which is expected to be completed in February, will also investigate possible bias against Latinos and Asians, Nilsen said, adding that he still believes that the JTPA generally offers what is sometimes the only opportunity for disadvantaged job hunters.

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He suggested that states should increase their participation in the program, offering oversight that appears to be lacking at the private industry council level. “They should be tightened up a little around the edges.”

Del Rios said she believes that Jobs Plus’ local success is based on her staff’s ability to place clients based not on race but on the client’s financial need and qualification.

“If (employers) give us those kinds of signals, we won’t work with them,” Del Rios said. “It is our philosophy to work with employers who are responsive and do not discriminate.”

“We work well because we develop a realistic plan of action (for the client) that will then help them move into the mainstream,” Del Rios said. “There are no false expectations. We just offer a helping hand when they need it the most. That makes me feel really good.”

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