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February 16, 2011

Grads of JVS program banking on a brighter future

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/grads_of_jvs_program_banking_on_a_brighter_future_20110216

Sandra Vasquez has a longer job history than many 28-year-olds. When she was 10, she began working with her father, a contractor who didn’t speak much English. She served as his translator and all-around assistant. Vasquez is the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and she went on to earn an associate’s degree and complete two quarters at University of California, Santa Cruz.

A health issue forced her to drop out, but it didn’t stop her from working. She got a job at a Santa Cruz Home Depot, where she drew on her past experience in order to satisfy the store’s most demanding customers: professional contractors.

She’s not wearing the orange apron anymore, though. On Feb. 9, Vasquez and her 17 classmates from the Jewish Vocational Services’ (JVS) BankWorks program were dressed in conservative suits, muted-colored shirts and sensible dress shoes. It was graduation day, and the students looked like the future bank tellers that they’re all hoping to be.

“I wanted to be here to acknowledge a program that works, a program that changes lives,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a speech to the 20th BankWorks class, their families and representatives from city and state agencies that support the program.

The bulk of the funding for the tuition-free BankWorks program comes from seven banks, and recruiting teams were also in attendance. Following the ceremony, they would be interviewing all — and hiring most — of the BankWorks graduates.

In the past five years, more than 450 people have made it through BankWorks’ rigorous eight-week training course, designed to prepare participants for careers in the retail banking industry. Among the graduates, 80 percent are hired by one of the banks that help sponsor the program. And six months after graduation, 60 percent of those hired are still employed.

In other words, for the graduates, the banks and the city of Los Angeles, it’s a win-win-win. “If you can marry a need of the business community and a need of the community at large, you have the formula for a really successful program,” said Les Biller, who together with his wife, Sheri, helped JVS establish the program. Federal stimulus dollars also contributed to the program, although those are running out.

In his speech, Villaraigosa noted some hard facts about the employment situation in Los Angeles, including the current unemployment rate (12.5 percent), the peak unemployment rate of a year and a half ago (14 percent) and the year that the unemployment rate is projected to return to normal (2016).

Most of the BankWorks graduates were represented by those statistics at some point. The group includes a former cashier at McDonald’s, a former photo specialist from Walgreens and a slew of former salespeople. Most had been quite successful at their jobs before being laid off when the economy turned sour.

Vasquez regularly met and exceeded sales goals at the Home Depot in Santa Cruz, but she moved back to Los Angeles last year to take care of her mother, who was recovering from surgery. She took a temporary job with the U.S. Census, and when that ended in October 2010, she filed for first-time unemployment benefits. That month, about 450,000 other people across California did the same.

“It was weird,” Vasquez said of receiving those benefits. “I know it’s the money saved up for us, but it still feels awkward.” So when she heard about BankWorks, she didn’t hesitate. “I kept on calling,” Vasquez said. “I probably made four phone calls in a week.”

Thousands make that first call to BankWorks. Between 300 and 500 interview over the phone. About 30 started in Vasquez’s class, and 18 completed the program. It costs about $4,000 per student to run, a sum that includes not just training but other support as well. For instance, if a committed student needs a bridge loan to pay that month’s rent, JVS will help them out.

“Every one of you has a story,” Villaraigosa told the graduates. “It’s the story of climbing up a mountain and sometimes falling back down, but the good ones keep climbing up.”

Even after the pictures were taken and the certificates had been handed out, there was more climbing to do. The banker hopefuls walked down the hall for a speed-dating-style interview session. Recruiting teams from Bank of America (BofA), Citibank, City National Bank, Pacific Western Bank, US Bank, Union Bank and Wells Fargo were in attendance.

“You get an associate with a different work ethic and a different motivation level,” BofA Business Support Executive Karla Lee said of the graduates. BofA would love to hire 50 BankWorks graduates every year, Lee said. The jobs they’re interviewing for offer salaries between $11 and $12 an hour — higher than the minimum-wage jobs the graduates held previously.

Bank teller positions also offer opportunity for professional growth. Lee, who focuses on strategy, risk management and other initiatives for BofA, also presented a $50,000 check from BofA to JVS. She started her career with BofA in Seattle 10 years ago — as a teller.

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