By Maya Pottiger
Hidden among a cluster of identical office buildings is a life-changing opportunity for many in the Alexandria community.
Since 1998, the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act has opened the door for many youths. The WIOA program helps young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 in Alexandria gain work experience or certifications that can lead to full-time employment and careers.
“They may have had certain barriers in their life, and we gave them an opportunity, either through work experience or through education,” said Delaney Colbert, a Youth Employment Training Specialist at the Workforce Development Center.
To be eligible for the program, the person must be below a certain income as well as fall within the 18 to 24 age-range. People with disabilities automatically qualify
for the program regardless of income. Non-Alexandria residents may also apply for admittance, but preference is given to city dwellers.
Unlike the traditional college or job application process, there is not an online
or formal application for the WIOA program. Those interested can go to the office
or schedule an appointment in advance to meet with a training specialist for an interview.
This interview will determine a person’s place in the program.
“A lot of it, when dealing with young people, is seeing if they keep their appointments, they’re coming in on time, it’s not a lot of excuses and things like that; a lot of time they’re gonna actually do pretty well,” said Octavius Fulton, who also serves as a Youth Employment Training Specialist. “It’s not a thing where you come in and I don’t get a good feel from you. It’s not like that.”
There are usually between 15 and 25 program participants at one time. The WIOA program has partnerships with a number of businesses in Alexandria. When a participant is ready for work experience, Colbert and Fulton look to these businesses to see which one has an opening that will fit the participant’s interests.
All participants are paid a wage but cannot work more than 30 hours per week.
The work experience lasts for three to four months with the expectation of the participant being hired at the end.
However, if there isn’t an opportunity at the end, Colbert and Fulton continue to work with the person to help them find full-time employment.
“We give them a fish, it can last for a day. You teach them how to fish, it can last a lifetime,” Colbert said. “And that’s what we try to do. We teach them to fish so if they don’t remain at that job, we give them the skills and knowledge so they can find another job. And that’s most important is that we teach them to fish, not give them a fish.”
Another opportunity for participants is a certification program. Classes are outsourced to local colleges, like Northern Virginia Community College, George Mason University and Strayer University.
A perk of the program is that students often don’t have to fund the classes themselves.
“If we think they’re motivated, we’ll go ahead and pay for the whole program. If we’re still unsure, we may pay for one class and see how they do,” Colbert said. “And then, if they pass it, we’ll pay for the rest of them.”
For Cindy Urguilla, the WIOA program helped her pick a path after high school graduation.
“The [certification] program gave me a lot of experience and led me to know what I actually want to major in,” Urguilla said. “At first I came in, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So when I got to do the six-week program, I got the experience of working with customers, doing the career fair. It kind of opened a path to me and directed me to who I am now.”
Urguilla graduated from T. C. Williams High School in 2015. She said she planned to take a short break, but then the medical administrative assistant certification program opened.
“It actually gave me opportunities for education, so that’s a very big one for me,” Urguilla said. “Education is very expensive, so I think if it wasn’t for the WIOA program, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”