Jobs program helps youths and businesses

Seventeen-year-old Christa Brunetti has what seems to be a pretty standard summer job.

As a hostess at Modesto's Uno Chicago Grill, the recent Enochs High graduate answers phones, seats guests and doles out menus. It's her first job and her first paycheck.

And it all comes courtesy of the federal government.

The Modesto teen is one of almost 1,000 Stanislaus County youths taking part in a summer jobs program funded directly by the federal stimulus package. The Stanislaus Youth@Work Program is a $3.89 million initiative designed to give the county's low-income youths summer jobs and career training.

"I have a lot of friends who are still looking for work this summer," Brunetti said, while on a break from her hostess duties. "I had been looking for work anywhere but not having any luck. Because of the economy, I probably wouldn't have found one. I never thought I'd be part of the (federal stimulus)."

The program is administered by the Stanislaus County Alliance Worknet. Director Jeff Rowe said the stimulus act provided funding to all Workforce Investment Act programs, such as the Alliance Worknet, across the country. Funding amounts differed by population size and poverty levels.

The county's $3.89 funding increases the Alliance Worknet's annual operating budget of $2.8 million.

"We were pleasantly surprised with the amount," Rowe said. "It is even more important now because the unemployment rate is so high, adults are trying to get the jobs that are available to youths. So they need every advantage they possibly can."

The program has placed 922 youths, ages 14 to 24, in jobs at some 400 work sites across the county. To qualify, each applicant must be low income and have at least one barrier to employment. That could be anything from education level to disabilities or single parenthood.

Learning while working

Most of the youths have limited or no prior work experience. Part of the program teaches them basic job skills, from writing a résumé to interviewing to basic workplace behavior.

The jobs are all minimum wage and for the most part full time. The length of placements vary, but most last about eight weeks and end this month. Some already are over. Others extend into September.

The employers are a mix of private, nonprofit and government operations that include the Howard Training Center, Habitat for Humanity, Stanislaus Literacy Center, convalescent hospitals, restaurants, retail stores and insurance agencies.

The jobs range from clerical to janitorial, teacher's aides to cafeteria workers.

Brunetti works at a private company, but others are like 24-year-old Ceres resident Ana Torres, who has spent her summer at the nonprofit Catholic Charities.

While there, Torres worked as a children's health initiative program assistant. She met with families to educate them about what help was available and walk them through the application paperwork. It's the kind of work Torres hopes to make a career of through her behavioral-social science studies at Modesto Junior College.

Torres' previous work experience was a six-month stint at Famous Footwear, though she has done a lot of volunteer work with her church.

"It was so difficult to find work. I'd been applying to places all over," Torres said. "It has helped me out for the future so much. Being an ad- vocate for the people has been such a great experience for me."

The money has come in handy, too.

"This helps pay rent, pay gas," said Torres, who lives with her mother and older sister. "It's so hard out there finding jobs, and this helps so much."

Businesses benefit, too

Employees get a steady paycheck and hands-on work experience, but the employers have benefited from what boils down to free labor. All wages are paid and administered through the Alliance Worknet. The six community agencies it has contracted with select the youths and run the program.

Employers said Stanislaus Youth@Work has helped them by giving them an extra pair of hands at a time when hiring is, for the most part, on hold. Without the program, many of the businesses and organizations said, they would not have hired this summer.

Catholic Charities program director Monica Ramos had three program participants, including Torres, with her this summer. The addition boosted her paid staff by 25 percent. The extra help came when state budget cuts had eliminated one full-time position.

"I know there are some folks who had reservations about how valuable it was for an eight-week program like this," Ramos said. "But from our prospective it has been wonderful. We wouldn't have been able to serve as many clients as we did this summer, or serve them in the same way."

Many private employers felt the same way. Uno Chicago Grill manager Tracy Wilkinson said the program has allowed the restaurant to take someone it might not ordinarily hire and give that person valuable work experience.

For some, job continues

In the case of Brunetti, that experience has turned into permanent employment. Wilkinson offered Brunetti a part-time hostess job once her placement ends this month.

"We didn't want her to go anyplace else," Wilkinson said. "She just fit in so well. We never would have found Christa if it wasn't for this program."

Alliance Worknet director Rowe said that though post- program employment isn't guaranteed, he expects several firms, especially those that are private, might opt to permanently hire the workers.

Even if the youths aren't able to stay on, they leave with solid recommendations and new skills.

"(Getting hired on) is the ultimate positive outcome. But the real outcome we wanted, whether or not they (get hired), is their overall work readiness," Rowe said. "Now they have work experience. The value of this is beyond something you can quantify monetarily."

Possible career?

Participants agree. While the paycheck is the most tangible benefit, workers like 21-year-old Arturo Avila and 18-year-old Edward Millan, both of Riverbank, said being in the program has helped them discover their future careers.

Both young men work at the City of Riverbank Public Works Department with city mechanic Curtis Myer. Their responsibilities include servicing all of the city's equipment, from weed whackers to tractor trailers. They've done everything from welding and fabrication to repair and inspections.

Neither Avila nor Millan believed he would have found summer work without the program.

"It feels good to be able to help my family, because they need it," Avila said. "Pretty much all of my money goes to my family. The only thing I'm going to do is buy a pair of shoes. But if I didn't have this job, we wouldn't have as much food. Now bills get paid and I can take a hot shower."

Like Brunetti, Avila said he never dreamed he would be part of the federal stimulus package, let alone benefit from it.

"Out of all the people, it's helping me," he said. "It's teaching me real-world responsibilities. I think what I've been able to learn will be an asset to any company.

"It's fun, too," he added. "I'd rather spend my summer working here with Curtis than going to an amusement park. I never even knew I liked this kind of stuff."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or 578-2284.