Giving untrained workers a leg up onto career ladder

Former bartender Raymond Conner is now a senior analyst in the computer division of Chicago's prestigious Harris Trust and Savings Bank. The bridge between those two jobs was a free four-month computer training course that he took a few years ago. Chief sponsors of that program when it was launched in 1977 were the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and the Chicago Urban League, which had set their sights specifically on training unemployed poor people - usually the last hired, first fired.

Mr. Conner says he didn't think the bartending job had enough of a future or paid well enough to take care of his family. He had taken some computer courses in a junior college. But he says he could never have afforded commercially available training to update and expand his skills.

Still, he stresses that it was not just the technical skills taught under the free program, but the practical job-hunting advice he picked up that helped him turn the corner on a new career.

''Never in my college studies did I learn how to write a resume or be interviewed,'' he says.

He recalls being specifically taught in the Chicago Urban League program to stay cool during job interviews - even if asked what his mother did for a living or how many children were in his family. ''I'd lost my temper (in some interviews) because I thought it was nobody else's business.''

In some ways the league's Chicago Computer Training Center exemplifies the kind of private-public partnership that Washington hopes to see more of under the new federal Job Training Partnership Act. It replaces the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which funded training costs in the Chicago computer center. But the shaping of the curriculum and placement of graduates was handled independently by the center's Business Advisory Council.

Over the last 15 years, IBM has launched similar computer training centers in 22 other cities and will add seven more before year's end. The corporation provides equipment, supplies, and personnel, and teams up in each case with a community-based agency - the local government in Kansas City, Mo., and Opportunities Industrialization Centers in several other cities. The local agency eventually takes over the teaching and administrative parts of the job.

Other local businesses are tapped as members of project advisory councils to help tailor training to local needs and, often, support the programs with needed dollars. So far more than 6,000 economically disadvantaged Americans have been trained in the IBM programs. About 80 percent of them have been placed in jobs.

''The intent has always been that IBM would be a catalyst and that in time we'd be able to pull our own instructors out,'' explains IBM spokesman Brian Ditzler. He adds that IBM, which last year hired a total of 15,000 people from some 1 million applicants, has no interest in the program as a source of recruits. ''We have more than enough qualified applicants as it is.''

Serving on the advisory council with IBM in the Chicago Computer Training Center are representatives from four major Chicago banks, Standard Oil (of Indiana), International Harvester Corporation, Montgomery Ward, and Digital Equipment Corporation, which supplies equipment and materials.

Linda Royster, manager of the Chicago Urban League's computer training center , takes a visitor on a tour of the project's rented space in Malcolm X College on Chicago's West Side. She explains that IBM no longer staffs the facility. Students are required to have a high school diploma or the equivalent, are taught language arts, and are expected to read at the 12th-grade level by the time they finish the course.

Those entering the program range from postal workers to typists. Few have any previous computer training.

''Their motivation tends to be very high,'' says instructor Patricia Ash. She is teaching a word-processing course to students, who are trying to sort a list of names and addresses on their computer screens into various ZIP-code groups.

Dr. Royster stresses that there is almost constant testing of student proficiency in technical skills to be sure that the teaching is hitting the mark. Sometimes students do well enough to land jobs before the course actually finishes.

''It's kind of like a wave of hysteria hits the class - everyone is so happy when someone really gets a job,'' she says. ''Many are very discouraged when they come. They've lost a lot of their self-esteem and confidence and really look on this program as their means of improving their life situation.''

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