How Job Retraining Can Yield Lasting Wage Gains (It Isn’t Cheap)

Project Quest was born 27 years ago in a Hispanic neighborhood in San Antonio where poverty rates are above the citywide average. After the closing of a Levi Strauss factory there, community groups created Project Quest as a way of preparing workers for better-paying, more highly skilled jobs that were less vulnerable but still in demand.

Although returning to school is the main goal, Project Quest isn’t aimed at recent high school graduates. The average age of participants is 30. Two-thirds are women, and more than 60 percent are Hispanic. Some hear about Project Quest through job fairs, church events, employers, the public housing authority or community colleges.

“These are not the kids coming out of school looking for a job,” said David Zammiello, Project Quest’s president. “These are people looking for a second chance.”

Project Quest doesn’t do the training itself. Instead, it places 300 to 400 students each year with local community colleges and other schools where participants can complete degrees in health care and nursing, information technology and other fields where salaries and demand is high but qualified candidates are few.

This summer, it started a pilot project to train roofers in just three weeks, guaranteeing them jobs that pay $15 an hour and include benefits. Still, the bulk of Project Quest’s students — nearly 70 percent — are in health care.

Money is part of the equation, but not all of it. Project Quest provides half the cost of tuition and also helps with rent and utilities when necessary. Nearly half of Project Quest’s enrollees have children, so there’s financial assistance for child care, too.

But just as important is what staff members call the wraparound part of the program.

Participants are required to attend weekly V.I.P. (Vision, Initiative and Perseverance) sessions with Quest coaches, where they provide progress reports on classes and go over the ups and downs they experience. There are lessons in subjects like time management as well as advice on navigating coursework and college-level classes.

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