15 Apr Key to a good tomorrow – a job today
Break the cycle of poverty by focusing on vocational training.
In recent weeks, this column has focused on critical issues facing an alarming number of local residents—issues that ultimately affect everyone in Orange County. We’ve examined high school dropout rates and the education achievement gap, children without access to adequate healthcare, and our county’s largely invisible homeless population.
Each of these topics echoes an underlying theme: Orange County is not an easy place to be poor.
We’ve also highlighted organizations that are moving the needle in addressing these issues.
But there is one solution that can forever break the cycle of poverty: steady employment with potential for advancement.
According to the Orange County Community Foundation’s “Our Orange County” report:
“From 2002 to 2012, average unemployment has risen from approximately 5 percent to 8 percent in Orange County, with already-impoverished communities bearing the brunt of the recent recession.”
The long-term solution all comes down to a job with a living wage.
“The dream of college or trade school is often not an option for young adults who have seen generations of family, economic and employment instability,” says Shawna Smith, executive director of Taller San Jose, an organization founded by Sister Eileen McNerney of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
McNerney created the organization 17 years ago after a night of violence in the gang-ridden area of Santa Ana where she lived. It was a lightning-bolt moment that propelled her to develop a program that could move young people from violence to productivity.
The idea involved bringing together public and private industry, faith-based organizations and individuals to help open an educational and job-training center in downtown Santa Ana for high-risk youth ages 18-28.
The center was named Taller (pronounced ty-YER) San Jose—Spanish for St. Joseph’s Workshop—after St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers.
McNerney knew poverty was the biggest barrier to advancement, and she became an expert in developing programs to break down the barriers to a practical education, of which vocational training is a huge part.
This is true now more than ever, with soaring tuition costs putting a college education or trade schools out of reach for many at-risk young people.
“One of the problems we face in this country is that vocational training has been considered almost taboo,” says Dr. Alberto Manetta, professor emeritus at UC Irvine School of Medicine and a board member of the Community Foundation.
“This is evident through the elimination of high school classes like shop or automotive, leaving young students with no exposure to specific trades. Because vocational training is not available on a wide enough level, there exists a large need for a workforce with specialized skills.”
Taller San Jose recognizes this need and has chosen to focus on three key industries: healthcare, business administration and building trades. Participants engage in an intensive 16- to 20-week program followed by support with job placement and retention.
“We stand alongside a young person until he or she is able to be successful,” says Smith. “And we work hard to help develop traits employers want—timeliness, teamwork, good communication and problem-solving abilities.”
The model has proven extremely successful through the contributions of business owners who hire graduates, and individual volunteers who coach students for interviews and provide tools for workplace success.
“In order to move forward to address this gap in the workforce, we must see businesses involved,” Manetta says.
“Companies need to invest in training with funding from public grants and private industry.”
Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation in Newport Beach. She can be reached at