UpSkill OC provides the underemployed a pathway to careers that provide a living wage

Jasmin Negrete, 26, seen with her daughter Ruby, was able to find a job as a dialysis technician through United Way’s pilot program, UpSkill OC, which helps underemployed and unemployed individuals find better-paying jobs.
(Photo by Lou Ponsi)

Jasmin Negrete felt stuck. The 26-year-old mother of three didn’t immediately see a way out of a relationship, especially with a low-paying job as a retail sales clerk.

“It was a little fearful, because without him, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” Negrete said.

For the record:

1:00 p.m. May 3, 2019A previous version of the story misstated the organization the paid for the cost of Vincent Sojourday’s truck driving school.

United Way Orange County stepped in and helped Negrete find affordable housing through the nonprofit’s Rapid Re-Housing program. But stable housing only solved half of the equation.

Average rent in 2018 for a one-bedroom apartment in Orange County is $2,189 per month, according to the Orange County Workforce Investment Board. According to United Way, a prospective renter needs to make nearly $28 per hour to afford a median-priced one-bedroom apartment in Orange County.


Negrete’s job as a retail sales clerk wouldn’t be enough to sustain a mother and children.

In October, United Way launched UpSkill OC, a pilot program which connects underemployed or unemployed workers with the training and resources needed to qualify for middle-skill careers.

Jocelin Jimenez, United Way OC workforce engagement manager, left, and Brenyale Toomer-Byas, its senior director of housing and workforce development, oversee UpSkill OC, a pilot program which helps unemployed and underemployed individuals find good-paying jobs.
(Photo by Lou Ponsi)

“Our goal is to provide job opportunities that provide middle-skill positions, which are positions that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree,” said Brenyale Toomer-Byas, United Way’s senior director of housing and workforce development, referring to jobs that provide a living wage.

With the help of UpSkill OC, Negrete, who always wanted to work in the medical field, started identifying potential careers for which she could qualify. She recently began working as a renal dialysis technician for Fresenius, a medical facility that treats patients with kidney disease.

The average hourly rate for a renal dialysis technician ranges from $17 to $21. She would like to eventually become a registered nurse.

“I’m not stopping here,” Negrete said. “I can do it on my own. I don’t have to depend on anyone but myself.”

The availability of middle-skill jobs is growing in Orange County, especially in the areas of healthcare and technology, Toomer-Byas said.


To be eligible, all prospective UpSkill clients have to be referred by United Way’s Rapid Re-Housing partners: Families Forward, Mercy House, Project Hope Alliance and Serving People in Need.

Vincent Sojourney, who had been earning $18,000 per year as a security guard, was able to train for a better paying job as a commercial truck driver through UpSkill OC. The higher salary will allow Sojourney to better support his wife and 18-month-old daughter.
(Photo by Lou Ponsi)

UpSkill OC also connected Vincent Sojourney, 29, who had been earning $18,000 per year as a security guard, with WHW (formerly known as Women Helping Women), an Irvine-based nonprofit employment readiness program.

WHW helped Sojourney get into commercial truck driving school, United Way picked up the $4,800 cost and WHW provided a suit he could wear to job interviews.


Now, with a commercial truck license in hand, Sojourney has been interviewing for driving jobs that could pay him roughly $60,000 per year and better help him support his wife and 18-month-old daughter.

“They really get you ready for that next step,” Sojourney said. “It’s a breath of fresh air. Without the help, I’d still be dreaming.”

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Lou Ponsi is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow him on Twitter at @louponsi.


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