Boston's OIC: training inner-city residents for high-tech jobs

Kevin Singleton, a black high-school graduate with a quick step and a gleam of enthusiasm in his eye, hits the blue button. The IBM 5211 high-speed printer rolls out a paper copy of the practice computer program he's just written. As he tears it off, Mr. Singleton talks about the job-training program he's about to complete - and why, recently, President Reagan stepped into this very room to see it for himself.

''I think this is excellent,'' Singleton says with great conviction. ''Roxbury needs more programs like this.''

The place: the OIC/IBM High Technology Training Center - a half-dozen newly renovated rooms full of computer terminals, occupying one floor of a 1906 brick structure among run-down storefronts of inner-city Roxbury.

The purpose: to turn jobless, disadvantaged Boston residents into employees with salable skills in word processing, data entry, computer operations, and computer programming, at no cost to the students.

The course: 12 weeks of seven-hour days (16 weeks for computer programming) in a simulated office environment - complete with a dress code and penalties for being late.

The sponsors: the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a 16-year-old , nonprofit community organization specializing in minority job-training programs; and IBM Corporation, the computer multinational.

Last February, the OIC/IBM program was just ''a twinkle in someone's eye,'' program director Howard W. Yenke says. IBM, which set up its first inner-city job-training program in 1961 in Los Angeles, was looking for a Boston location. Mr. Yenke, eager to find a partner among the city's community-based organizations, hit upon the OIC - a branch of the Philadelphia-based OICs of America.

The Rev. Leon Sullivan, contacted at his office in Philadelphia, says he founded the Philadelphia organization as ''a self-help program in an old abandoned jailhouse in 1964.''

''There were skills that our people never had,'' he says, ''and I realized that integration without preparation is frustration.''

So with no initial government funding, he began training inner-city minority residents in such fields as carpentry, bricklaying, auto mechanics, and secretarial skills. The program, which has now spread to 120 US cities and eight third-world countries, has so far placed 500,000 people in jobs. Most enrollees, Mr. Sullivan says, are black - although he adds that the OIC program is largely Portuguese in Rhode Island, Indian in Arizona, and Appalachian white in West Virginia.

The program is fairly selective, Clarence W. Donelan, Boston's OIC executive director, says. ''Sixty-five percent of our applicants can't get in because they can't meet the academic criteria,'' he adds. He sees a pressing need for more adult basic-education courses to help enrollees learn the reading, writing, and math they never mastered in high school. But he worries that federal cuts have endangered the program: His office has taken a 48 percent cut in federal funding in two years, and has dropped from 110 staffers to 28.

Nevertheless, two years ago the OICs began moving into high-technology-skills training. By the time Mr. Yenke found the Roxbury branch, it was doing what he calls a ''just outstanding'' job. Others, however, aren't so sure: Several private-sector officials who work closely with Boston's many nonprofit organizations fault the local OIC for haphazard management - and point out that IBM may have selected it partly because, as a nationally known organization, it represented a ''safe'' choice.

In any case, IBM supplied roomfuls of state-of-the-art office equipment and agreed to fund three instructors and a program director for three years. The program began last October at a cost of about $500,000 a year.

And by the time President Reagan saw the Boston OIC/IBM program on his visit to high-technology centers here Jan. 26, the program had already placed more than half of the 29 students who graduated from its first two classes Dec. 23, says OIC job-placement officer Patrick Tracy.

Accompanying the President through classrooms full of astonished students, Sullivan was pleased with his enthusiasm. ''He said that this is the kind of program we're going to support more and more,'' Sullivan recalls.

Predictably, students and staff at the Roxbury facility were impressed by the President's visit. ''It was just thrilling,'' says IBM instructor Sharon Hinton, adding that ''I think there's (now) an optimism that maybe a few more funds may be channeled into programs such as this.''

But others are less sure. ''I was shocked,'' says Regina Gilmore, a young black woman in a bright red jacket, who said that in making the visit the President was just ''setting up for the next election.'' OIC administrator Rose Mendez, asked whether the presidential visit had made any converts, replied, ''I don't think so.''

Has the visit made any major difference to America's job-training programs? Sullivan, who says he met the President at the White House two months ago and invited him to look at the OIC program, hopes so. ''I was encouraged,'' he says, ''but now we must wait and see what happens.''

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