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Help Wanted

Tysons job-training program helps recent immigrants and lower-income individuals get a fresh start.

Although Fairfax resident Rubenia Portillo was good with numbers, ever since she came to the United States from El Salvador 14 years ago, the only jobs she could find involved menial labor. The English classes she took helped her language skills, but they didn't lead to a secretarial job like the one she had in El Salvador.

"I had to start with three jobs to survive," said Portillo.

Last February, Portillo was laid off from her cleaning job with United Airlines. A social worker pointed her in the direction of Training Futures, a job-training program whose mission is to get its lower-income participants out of dead-end jobs by teaching them administrative skills. Since she's been in the 22-week program, Portillo has learned how to answer phones, file, type and use Microsoft Office programs, skills that are needed to work in a corporate setting.

"I've been learning a lot of stuff," Portillo said.

Portillo is one of 33 students who spend four hours each morning, five days a week, in the basement of a Booz Allen Hamilton building in Tysons Corner to learn job skills with Training Futures, a program affiliated with Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS). The program, which has had classes in Tysons since 2001 and in Springfield since 1996, aims to recruit participants of lower income who have a drive to climb the job ladder. By teaching basic office skills and etiquette, program coordinators and volunteers hope its alumni can start out in entry-level jobs within the business sector but move up with more education and experience.

Almost 90 percent of the program's graduates have found jobs since the program's inception. According to a 2003 NVFS report tracking the graduates, the incomes of graduates increased an average of 75 percent, from $16,000 to $28,000.

"This is a way for people to get out of dead-end jobs," said training coordinator Marla Burton, who helped found the program, after witnessing the success of a similar program in Washington, D.C.

Although many of the participants are recent immigrants, the program also includes native-born Americans who seek to improve their office skills.

"These are not people who have nothing to offer," said Velma Booth, an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton, who has volunteered for Training Futures as a mock interviewer. Booz Allen Hamilton is one of 500 companies with which Training Futures has a relationship, either through its volunteer program or as an internship host site.

Booth explained that what hinders many immigrants from getting an office job is cross-cultural confusion when it comes from translating their skills into an American business environment.

"In this global society, many of us expect the world to be the same," said Booth. "I think a lot of them don't have a frame of reference."

ONE PARTICIPANT who has experienced difficulty in finding an office job like the ones he had in his native Nicaragua is Jose Navarro, a Manassas resident. He had worked in that country's central bank, as well as with an export-import machinery company.

"All the time, my wish was to get a job doing what I did in my country," Navarro said.

Navarro discovered Training Futures by reading a Hispanic newspaper describing the program. He had spent his 10 years in the United States working odd jobs as a carpenter, a cook and a dishwasher.

After reading about the program, he applied and was accepted to the program, even though classes would start the following day.

"I was very lucky," Navarro said.

Another participant, Yeshiwork Kumlachew of Alexandria, also found it difficult to get a job in an office as an immigrant. In her native Ethiopia, she had been a secretary and worked in personnel. But for the 13 years she spent in the United States, Kumlachew had worked as a cashier and a baby-sitter, among other jobs.

Kumlachew had wanted to get another job, but she couldn't afford the training that would help her move up from her situation.

"It was a hard feeling, and I didn't think I would get a job because the timing wasn't good," said Kumlachew, who learned about Training Futures through a friend.

Since she's been in the program, Kumlachew looks forward to the future.

"My instructors are wonderful people," Kumlachew said. "There's nothing we can't do if we can try."

Once participants complete their training, which includes classes and a two-week internship, they are expected to get a job as a receptionist, a file clerk, a customer service representative, an administrative assistant, or an accounts payable clerk.

"It gives them the idea of how it's like to work in a corporate environment," Booth said. "It gives them the opportunity to network."

Booth recently supervised a participant who was in charge of answering Booz Allen Hamilton's switchboard as part of the internship. The intern needed to answer incoming calls to the company's main switchboard, which receives between 25,000 and 35,000 calls a month.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for them," said Booth, who added that program participants can put the internship on their resumes.

Indeed, Kumlachew looks forward to a future in which she wouldn't have to juggle herself between two or three jobs.

"Whenever you don't have hope, that kills you; and when you have hope, that's a life," Kumlachew said.