One by one, human resources director Benita Allen calls the graduates - many in tears - to the stage to receive their certificates.
For some, this is their first graduation from anything, and it comes with a bonus: a guaranteed entry-level bellhop or desk-clerk job at a local Marriott hotel.
Since 1990, Marriott's six-week program, called Pathways to Independence, has been helping welfare recipients around the country land on their feet. In the process, Marriott has also been helping itself. Pathways graduates, whose training is government subsidized, stay in their jobs longer than other new hires, which saves Marriott money.
"[Pathways] is a good business decision on our part," says program manager Janet Tully.
But, as the nation strives to put most of its adult welfare recipients to work, Marriott's experience shows what a tough road it will be. For all its success - the White House touts Pathways as the best program of its kind at a major company - only 600 people have graduated from Marriott's program in six years. The adult welfare population in the United States is 4 million, about three-quarters of whom will have to find jobs in the next few years.
Broadly speaking, economists say the nation will produce enough new jobs for these new workers. But this hiring will come at a price.
"Since much of the work requirement is going to take place in drabs and dribbles, it's possible that we will be able to 'absorb' these people, but the quotation marks are important, because the cost of absorption is steep," says Jared Bernstein, an expert on employment at the Economic Policy Institute. "It will push wages down and depress the working conditions of people in the low-wage sector."
That economic reality could make it that much harder to keep the hardest-to-employ on the job. But placing people in jobs at all is the first task. Interviews with officials from large and small companies, and from national business organizations, reveal a nation that is still putting in place the systems needed to prepare these workers for the rigors of work.
Of the five corporations President Clinton highlighted in his State of the Union speech Feb. 4, only one - United Parcel Service - has made a concerted effort to place welfare recipients in jobs. Instead of training workers itself like Marriott, UPS is hiring workers who have completed job-training programs funded and organized by state governments. Since last summer UPS has hired 200 to 300 workers through these programs.
In interviews, officials from Sprint and Monsanto, two other companies Mr. Clinton mentioned, note that while they don't hire many entry-level workers, they are committed to hiring any former welfare recipients who meet the job qualifications. In Kansas City, Mo., near Sprint's headquarters, a new six-week program at Metropolitan Community Colleges aims to prepare welfare recipients for telemarketing and customer service jobs. But few applicants have the basic skills needed to get in the program; the first class has six participants, the second will have 12.
Burger King and United Airlines, also mentioned by Clinton, say they're still working on programs. Indeed, two representatives from Burger King attended the Pathways graduation last Friday at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Va.
At McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., spokesman Walt Riker says the company isn't planning any special initiatives. "We think we're already doing it," he says, referring to the company's role as a major provider of entry-level work and training in skills such as promptness and appropriate personal appearance. There are 12,000 McDonald's in the US, each with about 55 to 65 employees, many of them entry level. This year about 800 new restaurants will open.
Roberts Jones, president of the National Alliance of Business, describes the new welfare-reform law, which eliminates the federal guarantee of aid, as a "unique opportunity" for business, state and local government, and nonprofits to work together and develop new models for helping people prepare for work.
While businesses will always keep an eye on the bottom line, he says, they know that the strong economy means now is the time to focus on helping welfare recipients integrate into the work force. "Double the initiative now, because it will pay off," Mr. Jones says when the economy slows down, and there's pressure just to provide people with short-term assistance.
Nationwide, public-private partnerships are springing up to provide training and create jobs. The Enterprise Foundation, based in Columbia, Md., just announced new programs in Dallas, New York, and San Antonio, with funding from the Chase-Manhattan Foundation.
In small businesses, where most welfare recipients who find work wind up, employers do what it takes to find good workers. But for some, such as Barbara Turner, who owns a construction company in Washington, D.C., and Rachel Hubka, who runs a bus company in Chicago, that also means taking in people with spotty work histories and who need an extra boost to become productive workers."I come from humble beginnings myself, so I know we all have to pitch in and help," says Ms. Turner. "I don't seek out people who have been on assistance, but I don't turn them away either."