Job Corps searching for partners

Job Corps culinary arts student Marshae Willis stirs a pot of beans as she does an apprenticeship at the Center for Independence on Gunnison Avenue.

Today, she’s running the kitchen at the Center for Independence. But someday, 18-year-old Marshae Willis is certain she’ll run her own restaurant.

“Eventually I know it will happen,” she said this week, resting her elbows on a counter during her shift at the center at 740 Gunnison Ave.

Willis is about a year into the culinary program at Collbran Job Corps and a few weeks into an apprenticeship at the Center for Independence, where she trains special-needs clients in food service as part of the center’s New Horizon vocational program. She is one of about four of Job Corps’ 220 students at a time who are assigned throughout the year to a six-week apprenticeship as part of the Job Corps program. The apprenticeships are typically in an industry related to their area of study. Apprentices have been placed at St. Mary’s Hospital, the U.S. Forest Service, the Center for Independence and Habitat for Humanity.

Some students gain job experience at the Collbran campus by running the school’s maintenance, construction and dining hall operations while the apprenticeships are typically reserved for students in the school’s office administration program. Collbran Job Corps Vocational Development Specialist Kerry Lucas wants to change that and add more apprenticeship opportunities at more businesses and in more industries. Even if businesses don’t want an apprentice, Lucas said he wants Job Corps to have a relationship with more businesses so he can get more feedback from companies about what would make his students, all ages 16 to 24, more employable in today’s labor market.

“The goal is to get (students) a job after they leave here,” Lucas said.

The change may be difficult. Students can spend up to two years at the live-in center in a vocational training program in carpentry, cement work, Cisco networking, culinary arts, facilities maintenance, floor covering, office administration technology, painting and welding. With more than half of Job Corps’ vocational programs in construction-related fields, apprentice placements have been harder to come by since construction employment suffered a blow in the recession, Lucas said.

“In the construction industry, I believe there’s less demand for people so they’re not really looking to train someone they’re not going to hire later,” Lucas said.

He added some workplaces have downsized due to economic difficulties and say they don’t have time to train students.

Apprentice placement can also be difficult because Job Corps students usually drive down from Collbran for apprenticeships in Grand Junction and typically can only spend 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the city.

Despite some hurdles, Lucas said he usually “has pretty good success placing our students” in limited fields.

The apprentices are sometimes unpaid, although that usually changes if a student is working more than 32 hours per week. Students typically spend two weeks getting trained and the next four working.“I figure four weeks of work kind of pays them back for the training they put in,” Lucas said.

Jana Hill, the vocational program manager for the Center for Independence and Willis’ supervisor, said she usually gives Job Corps apprentices one day of orientation training, then tells them to “learn by doing.”

“I’ve been running the program a little over five years and I’ve had over a dozen students,” Hill said. “I haven’t had a Job Corps kid I didn’t like.”

Hill said students learn from the program how to handle the legalities of employing people with disabilities, master disability etiquette and teach others how to work in the kitchen.

“We’re not just creating cooks,” she said.

Lee Ann Loupe, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service for Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, said at a recent meeting of the corps’ Local Industry Advisory Council that she has had positive experiences with Job Corps students who worked for the Forest Service.

“We have several graduates go on to work for the Forest Service or become firefighters,” she said. “Job Corps will work with you even if it doesn’t exactly match one of their vocations.”

Job Corps student Tawnie Milender, 21, completed a six-week apprenticeship at St. Mary’s about three months ago. She started in the office administration program at Job Corps after graduating high school in Texas, where she had worked as a housekeeper. She said she wanted a different line of work and welcomed the chance to spend each Monday, Tuesday and Thursday as an apprentice filing papers at the hospital. “I learned how to socialize (as an apprentice) with more people and be more communicative toward more supervisors because I had three bosses,” she said. “They kept me pretty busy. It was a fun experience.”

Willis said her apprenticeship has helped her become a leader, cook for large groups of people and learn to take criticism when people aren’t a fan of what she cooks.


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