Eight short weeks of job training pulls people out of hopeless poverty and gives them the tools they need for a new, infinitely better life


JVS BankWork$ graduate Trevon Porter (right) gets interview coaching from an employee at KPMG. Photo by Ann Bogart

Alma Zavala, a bright-eyed Navy veteran who holds a degree from UCLA, was on the edge of poverty. The crumbling economy and loopholes in unemployment benefits for veterans left Zavala without an income, and with less than $5 to her name, she needed help.

“When I approached Jewish Vocational Services [JVS] at a workshop for veterans, I was on the verge of losing everything — getting evicted from my apartment — and I had literally $2 in my pocket.”

JVS, a Los Angeles-based organization that runs free programs that train people vocationally and place them with employers, was able to help Zavala get back on track immediately through its Veterans First program.

Upon returning to civilian life after twice being deployed to Iraq as a Navy hospital corpsman, Zavala became a full-time college student at UCLA. By 2011, she had completed her degree in international development studies and was confident that she’d find employment.

“I struggled immensely finding a job, and I applied for unemployment because I heard veterans got 16 months of unemployment. When I got out of the service, I only used six months, but since I got out in 2006, I was no longer eligible for benefits,” Zavala said.

Luckily, Zavala’s Navy hospital corpsman experience made her a perfect candidate for the JVS HealthWorks program. JVS provided the guidance and funding for Zavala to earn state certification as a phlebotomist, and as of March 2012, she has been working as the office manager for a private neuromuscular practice. Soon she will be working with clients using cutting-edge holistic, therapeutic physical therapy tools as well as her phlebotomy skills.

“JVS helped me unconditionally overcome some of the harshest times in my life,” Zavala said. “To this day, I still reach out to them, and I feel I’ve found an organization that has my back.”

Jay Soloway, director of training for two of the JVS programs, BankWork$ and HealthWorks, emphasized the important social and life skills being taught in the JVS programs. “We start by teaching ‘Workplace 101’ — the students might not know much about white-collar work environments, so we teach them what’s appropriate and basic expectations with regard to appearance and behavior,” Soloway said.

Few people understand how important these small lessons are when seeking employment, but according to Soloway, they make a world of difference.

Throughout the eight-week training programs, students also get the necessary skills and certifications to find employment in that field. And they get direct access to real job openings. In the BankWork$ program, for instance, several partner banks use the pool of JVS applicants as the first place to search for new employees.


Alma Zavala, JVS Health Works graduate. Photo by Marvin Steindler

“In our BankWork$ program, we have an 80 percent job-placement rate,” Soloway said. “We’re even more proud of the fact that the job retention rate is over 80 percent for six months, and we see a lot of our graduates moving up through the professional ranks.”

Les Biller, the former chief operating officer of Wells Fargo, founded the BankWork$ program as a way to help inner-city adults launch meaningful careers. “I designed a training program for teller jobs that pay salaries above a living wage, plus benefits, to provide a real opportunity for these young adults — many who are future parents — to escape the cycle of poverty,” Biller said.

JVS helps individuals overcome what might otherwise seem like insurmountable barriers to steady and fulfilling employment: language barriers or lack of financial means to obtain the necessary degrees or certificates. After JVS provides the know-how, participants can thrive on their own.

Melissa Byrd, another JVS graduate, in 2004 moved to California, where she went to school to become a dental assistant. After graduating as valedictorian of her class, she immediately found a job, but within a couple of years, had to quit to help take care of her two ill grandparents.

Upon returning to California after they died, Byrd found it difficult to find a job, although she eventually was hired at a Hemet hospital in the ER admitting department.

“It was short-lived because the recession hit. I was laid off due to being the last one hired,” Byrd said.

She then applied for unemployment and desperately tried to find work. Byrd, fearing her professional life was becoming unsalvageable, decided that she needed to take action.

“I did my research and found JVS. They were offering the HealthWorks program. I called and met with them and enrolled in the class. I passed my exam and received my certified nursing assistant license.”

By 2011, Byrd had been promoted to manager of client services and field supervisor at Community Care at Home, an affiliate of JVS — a far cry from the dead end she had been stuck in when she moved to Los Angeles.

“If it wasn’t for their support,” Byrd said, “and the support of the community, things like this couldn’t happen to people like me.”