It was graduation night at the LAX Marriott Hotel last week, and 175 students from five high schools wearing caps and gowns traipsed across a ballroom stage as giant photos of each student flashed on a screen behind them.
It was a march of heroes. These Latino and African American students from some of the city's lowest-income areas had worked part-time jobs as interns, gone through job training and passed career-related classes at school. Now they celebrated completion of the special program.
Also being celebrated--as a corporate hero--was Shell Oil Co., which has spent $14 million during the last five years in the Los Angeles Unified School District's "school-to-career" program. That night, Shell executives beamed and a Shell publicist handed out news releases.
But another bunch of heroes also sat among the celebrants: small-business owners who had made a leap of faith and opened their shops and offices to give jobs to these kids. Business owners such as Century City attorney David Hoffman and Dorothy Redmond, owner of Aloha Nursery School in West Los Angeles, smiled like proud parents as they watched their young employees.
"There's nothing that a 17- or 18-year-old kid who wants to learn can't do," Hoffman boasted.
A medical malpractice attorney who employees three, Hoffman nonetheless found room during the last five years to take on eight interns, hiring one permanently as a legal secretary after her internship was over.
"When I see the quality of the work they do, I don't really want to give them up," he said.
The Shell Youth Training Academy is one of 42 such "academies" in the school district. Some focus on jobs in the film industry, manufacturing and business. They are funded in part by the federal school-to-career program begun in 1994 by President Clinton but modeled after the Shell effort that started in 1992.
Basically, the program allows high school students to take career-related classes in school, learn work values and behavior in special training sessions and earn minimum wage as interns in part-time jobs. Money comes from corporate and foundation donors, as well as the school district and federal government.
Larger companies and institutions, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, provide thousands of jobs. But in the Shell academy and at a manufacturing academy at Van Nuys High School, small businesses are the job providers.
"The reason is there are no large employers in those areas," said Jim Konantz, the school district's director of career development. "Some students are with lawyers, some with doctors, department stores and hotels."
The nationwide program has its share of critics--those who decry schools shunting students into jobs and job-directed classes. But it exists in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties to remedy a problem documented in report after report about the failing state of California's school system. Students were, and still are, graduating from high school without basic math and language skills. They also lack "soft skills," such as good attendance, punctuality and motivation.
These young people are ill-prepared to tackle a full-time job. The result is that even as California's economy is booming again, employers, both large and small, complain about entry-level workers who can't muster the skills required for the job.
Small businesses are especially affected because they often provide first jobs for young people who lack the six months to two years of experience required by larger companies. And a small business of five employees with one worker who can't cut the mustard bears a heavier burden than a corporation of 500 employees with one ill-prepared worker.
Which is why small businesses owe it to themselves to check out the school-to-career program, Hoffman said.
As a board member of the Consumer Attorneys Assn. of Los Angeles, he speaks frequently in public and at every opportunity promotes the program, to the point that his colleagues have begun protesting, he said.
But he calls it a "no-lose situation" for small businesses. In the Shell academy, half of each student's salary is paid by the oil company. Paperwork and costs for benefits, such as workers' compensation and state disability, are borne by PDQ Personnel Services Inc., in the mid-Wilshire area. PDQ is itself a small business of 35 employees that also takes on interns.
For small-business owners too busy earning a living and who lack the time or money to attend charitable events or contribute to community service, the school-to-career program is a perfect solution, Hoffman said.
"It not only saves you money but you can look someone in the eye and say you did something for the community," he said.
Nursery school owner Redmond agrees.
To help staff her two schools, Redmond hires about five interns a year. The extra help allows her to care for more children and, at the same time, provides jobs for young people who otherwise might not find employment.
The program is one small, concrete answer to an often ill-prepared, entry-level work force and Redmond, like Hoffman, preaches its merits to other small businesses. Both have persuaded others to come on board.
"I don't think [small-business owners] realize the importance and the help they can give to the students and the help the students can give you," she said.
Added Hoffman, "The benefit here is that you are touching individual lives."
For more information about the school district's school-to-career program, contact Jim Konantz at (213) 625-6680.
Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.