Computer Training Program Gives Young Offenders a Second Chance

Computer Training Program Gives Young Offenders a Second Chance

Rena Burns

A new technology training program in California has given Jessica, 18, and Lauren, 17, hope for a better life. The teen-agers live and study at Camp Joseph Scott, a facility for youthful offenders in Los Angeles County. The 4-month-old program, spearheaded by a Covansys Corp. manager, is funded with state and local dollars and supported by a network of public- and private-sector organizations. Jessica and Lauren will be its first graduates.

"I got involved in this because this is going to give me a second chance on my life," Jessica said.

For perhaps the first time in their lives, the two women see that steady income and future education are within their grasp. They're earning A certification in personal computer repair and maintenance, and will be placed in jobs when they graduate, leaving the juvenile justice system.

"I think I want to make a career out of this because it is fun to me," said Lauren, who also wants to use her earnings as a personal computer repair technician to pay for a college degree in sociology.

For Covansys, the A program for at-risk youth means "putting our money where our mouth is. If we can't support these programs, we aren't very good suppliers," said Gerald Massey, executive vice president. Thirty percent of the company's revenue comes from its business with state and local governments in retirement, health and human services, transportation and criminal justice systems.

The program, a public-private partnership of county, state and national organizations, had its genesis when Rena Burns, a national case management practice manager for Covansys, a Farmington Hills, Mich., IT services firm, spoke at a Los Angeles County juvenile facility about three years ago.

Burns spoke frankly, telling the students that she, too, had a less-than-perfect childhood as one of five children of a single mother on welfare. Burns told the students how she later achieved professional success as a small business owner in the government IT arena. One teen-ager later wrote to Burns, "Your story really made me feel as if I can be somebody important."

"A lot of these kids who get sentenced to [juvenile detention] camps tend to have a lot of street sense or common sense because they have been protecting themselves, and they really just need an opportunity," Burns said.

She began working with Jeanne Dager, principal of Camp Joseph Scott for girls and Camp Kenyon Scudder for boys, both in Saugus, Calif. During the past two years, the pair met with teachers, students, grant writers, providers of mental health and children's services, politicians and IT executives while developing the program. They received $800,000 in state and local funds, and two months ago, the program launched with oversight from the county Workforce Investment Board. The program will serve 81 students its first year.

"As technology today is moving from the level of sophistication of rocket scientists to white collar professionals and blue collar professionals, it's opening up new fields," Burns said. "In my mind, these fields are where we can open career paths for the 80 percent of kids who are unlikely to get a college degree. If we can take someone with a high school degree and start them at $25,000 to $35,000, it's more than these kids would earn illegally, and they are contributing, stable citizens. Everyone wins."

Program partners include the Los Angeles County Chief Information Office and Probation Department and the state Employment Development Department. Supporters include the state assembly and nonprofit social services and good-government organizations, including the Washington-based Welfare to Work Partnership and the Council for Excellence in Government.

"This is a case where private industry is taking a lead and pursuing something that helps government. It's not just submitting an RFP and hoping they win. We like to point to that as a model," said Steve Cochran, vice president for technology at the Council for Excellence in Government.

"It seems like everyone is right there supporting it because it makes sense," Dager said. "Many of our children, because they haven't been in school enough, can't pass the GED and don't have the credits for a high school diploma. They need vocational training."

At least eight employers have signed on to provide paid internships and jobs for graduates, including the CIO's office in Los Angeles County, Covansys, Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., and Sun Microsystems Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. Graduates will receive on-the-job training and mentoring.

Covansys will hire six graduates during the next year, said Harvey Levin, vice president of the firm's state and local government practice.

"We're very excited about it. We feel that this is an opportunity for us to really partner with our clients and give something back to the community," Levin said.

The employers are also being asked to review their job qualifications and rewrite them, if necessary, to accommodate the at-risk youth.

"We're trying to create a bridge between where these kids will be when they graduate and what [job classifications] we currently have that will pay them a competitive salary rate," said Earl Bradley, associate CIO for Los Angeles County. He is working with the county Department of Human Resources to create a new job classification whereby an apprenticeship can give graduates the work experience they need to move into other IT jobs.

Michael Dolphin, a special projects manager with the state Employment Development Department, is working to connect the students with jobs and support services such as emergency transportation, and to ensure that their training fits employers' needs.

"If we can provide what we've promised to provide, a vocational education that means becoming self-sufficient in an industry that continues to grow, then we've really done something," Dolphin said.

The program has already gotten the attention of other state and county governments, and could get federal funds to expand to 13 more juvenile camps around the county.

"It's pretty exciting," said Burns, who has talked with government officials in New Jersey and Maryland. She has assisted Los Angeles County in applying for a $3 million grant for at-risk youth from the U.S. departments of Labor, Justice and Health and Human Services, which would be used to expand the program.

The Department of Economic Development in Gloucester County, N.J., has modeled an at-risk youth program after the Los Angeles County program, and is pursuing a $1 million grant under the Labor, Justice and Health and Human Services program to fund it, said Elaine Mahoney Kennedy, a consultant to the county. A success for both large, urban Los Angeles County and smaller, suburban and rural Gloucester County could spur replication of the model nationwide, Kennedy said.

A year from now, Dolphin hopes the first 50 graduates will be on the job in Los Angeles County.

"I hope we've created some insight within the private sector, given them some reason to believe they can open doors for young people and that there are agencies that can deliver young people who meet their employment needs," he said.

Bradley already believes the students will find jobs at the county CIO office.

"We have an enormous need for the skills these kids will have," he said. The county would save money, too, he said, because program graduates would be paid $13 to $15 an hour instead of the $50 to $70 an hour that contractors are paid when jobs must be outsourced.

"It turns out to be a great opportunity for us and for the kids, who are obviously very enthusiastic about learning these skills and turning their lives around," he said.

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