15 pioneer WorkFirst strategy

By Eric Stevick

Herald Writer

At the age of 40, Julie Wentz earned her high school diploma at night school.

Encouraged, the divorced Everett resident on public assistance enrolled in college classes while working as an office assistant and keeping tabs on her 4-year-old son. Along the way, she found herself wading through pre-algebra and other courses that seemed eons removed from her life.

Her career path shifted to technology last November when Edmonds Community College developed a pilot program to train students for computer jobs in WorkFirst, Washington’s welfare-to-work program.

On Wednesday afternoon, with Gov. Gary Locke there to shake their hands, Wentz and 14 other EdCC students received certificates confirming they had completed a rigorous computer-training program, including internships. Thirteen students recently passed software and hardware certification exams, which are required to work in certain computer jobs.

"It was a lot of hard work, a lot of stress, pure devotion," Wentz said.

Since November, the 15 students chosen from a pool of 47 applicants have been receiving basic information technology networking certification training from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week.

The students, with ages ranging from 20 to 45, were the first graduates in the state of the program specifically designed to help people with low incomes improve their lives through high-tech employment. Other pilot programs are offered at Bates Technical College in Tacoma and South Seattle Community College.

Although Wentz worked for Boeing in the 1980s, she felt ill-prepared for the workplace after years as a stay-at-home mother.

"I just didn’t have any skills," she said. "It was intimidating."

Today, she knows she has gained valuable technical skills and confidence.

Wentz and three classmates had a monthlong internship with the Everett School District’s information systems department. Scott Jenkins, Everett district’s information systems training and support supervisor, was impressed with the eagerness, hard work and communication skills of the students.

"They were hungry to get out into the workplace," Jenkins said.

Steve Saldana, 33, of Lynnwood moved to the area more than a year ago, hoping to find work in the aviation industry. He didn’t, and eventually found himself applying for food stamps to help support his wife and child.

On Wednesday, he told his fellow graduates, college officials and other welfare-to-work supporters they had provided "a hope we always wanted but never thought we could be part of."

"The gift of learning has awakened me," he said.

State officials touted the WorkFirst program, saying more than 145,000 people have gone to work since the program began in 1997. During the same time, the state’s welfare caseload dropped by 44 percent, they said.

Locke told the students they represented more than themselves and their families in earning their certificates. They helped other low-income wage earners looking to climb out of poverty.

"If you had not successfully completed this program, we would have declared the program a failure," the governor said. "But since all of you did complete it, we are not just declaring it an outstanding success, but we are looking for ways to expand it."

You can call Herald Writer Eric Stevick at 425-339-3446

or send e-mail to stevick@heraldnet.com.

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