Carlos Martinez-Ramos is seen at his United Western Industries welding job, Friday, July 1, 2022 in Fresno. Carlos graduated from a work training program supported by Career Nexus, which placed him at United Western. Bruce Ketch, general manager at United Western was so impressed, the company hired him full-time. Credit: ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

This story is the 11th of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

Aurora Salazar, 27, did not have a clear idea of how she would attain her goal of becoming an accountant until she joined Career Nexus in December 2021.

The Madera resident was a good student until she became pregnant in her junior year of high school. Everything became a struggle – managing the baby, a job, plus going to school full time – so Salazar dropped out.

“It was kind of hard for me,” Salazar said, but she did not give up.

“I always felt the need to go back; it was always in the back of my mind. I kept on pushing back,” she said. “But it was to the point where I was like, ‘I think it’s time; I think I’m ready’.”

In 2018, after she had a better handle on things, Salazar enrolled in adult school and got her GED. For two years, she worked seasonal jobs at the Amazon warehouse in Fresno, had another child and helped out in her family’s Mexican fast food eatery in Madera.

“As it [family restaurant] kept growing, I felt the need of helping, in as many ways as possible, seeing everything they needed to do, and especially having to pay somebody else to do their payroll,” she explained, adding that taking on the extra responsibility intensified her interest in accounting.

She registered at the Madera Community College and made progress with her accounting and business management classes, but still felt she did not have a good sense of where she was headed, until the Upward Mobility counselor at the college gave her a flier about Career Nexus.

The program immediately impacted her life a great deal, she said.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do as soon as I finished my associate’s degree,” Salazar said. “I really wanted to get on and jump on any job as soon as possible because I’ve always worked, so I wanted to work, but also gain experience.”

How Career Nexus works

Carlos Martinez-Ramos (19) and Monique Pickens (30), both Career Nexus participants, tell similar stories – of drifting from one minimum wage job to another and uncertainty about the future. Like Salazar, both grew up in communities with lower rates of academic and employment success and faced various adversities in high school, and despite efforts, they did not have a clear path to attaining jobs that pay enough to elevate them from poverty. All three admitted they did not know how to forge ahead to jobs that pay sustaining wages.

Career Nexus, a part of the DRIVE initiative and the Fresno Business Council, provides training in soft skills and internships for young people, 18 to 28, focusing on people like Salazar, Ramos and Pickens and on building a “bridge between somebody who is low income or no income” and a career.

The program provides opportunities for the young people to be exposed to real working experience, thereby creating opportunities for them to develop networks, self-confidence and skills on the job that, hopefully, lead to a job at the end.

Employers offer an intern a chance to work in a field for 200 hours, during which both the employer and intern evaluate the fit for a permanent position.

Kurt Madden, founder and CEO of Career Nexus, said the organization achieves success by first determining the needs and interests of unemployed youth and then linking them with training opportunities for needed skills and potential employers.

“It has always been something I’ve been looking at and working on,” Madden said. “So when [former mayor of Fresno] Ashley Swearengin came to me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to run this thing’, I launched it.”

Madden said he had no hesitation. He had reviewed studies that show that it takes most young people at least 10 years from when they graduate high school to settle in a career. His own research reveals that the average age of a community college student is 28 years old. Likewise, the average age of someone going into an apprenticeship program such as welding or construction is 28 years old.

“So between 18, when you graduate from high school, and 28,” Kurt Madden said, “there’s a whole bunch of young adults who are kind of trapped in these low income or no income jobs, and that’s not good enough.”

Suddenly, somewhere in their 20s, Madden said, they come to some realization. “They say, ‘we’re starting a family’ or something. ‘I need a career; I need something that I can spend a number of years doing.’”

This realization may lead some to return to college or to sign up for an apprenticeship, taking up several more years. Madden said that Career Nexus aims to reduce that 10-year gap, “so that you don’t wait till you’re 26 or 27, to say, ‘oh, I should get into a career.’”

Madden could have been talking about Monique Pickens who joined Career Nexus in February. She graduated from Madera High School in 2009 and, since then, has “had on and off jobs– all kinds of jobs – just working at places like Walmart, Dollar Tree, a lot of retail, customer service jobs,” she said, plus raising two children – six and two. She averaged $400 to $500 in wages every two weeks, certainly not enough to support her young family.

Pickens did not know what she wanted to do, just “something in like business management, like an office type setting.”

She tried college, “went to Heald (which closed in 2015) for like a year or so. Then I had some health issues, so I had to drop out.”

On why she chose Heald instead of a community college like Fresno City College or the Madera Community College, Pickens said, “I don’t know. I just wanted something quick, in and out; I’m not a real school person.”

She admits she “didn’t do too much research on it [Heald or any college].”

“I thought you could get a career or a degree in a year or so, or 18 months,” she said. “I think they tell you that you can get a degree. So I’m like, ‘OK, I’m all for it’, and I went ahead and I signed up, and I thought it was going to be a good school.”

Pickens’ health declined, and she couldn’t go to school anymore. When she got better and tried to go back, “They wanted to charge me a few thousands [of dollars] to come back, probably like $6,000 or $7,000,” she said. “I couldn’t afford that, so I just didn’t end up going back. So now, I’m stuck with the student loan and a degree that I never finished.”

She reported that her college loan, with interest, is now about $40,000. “I haven’t paid anything on it,’‘ she said. “I can’t afford to pay a student loan and take care of my kids.”

She did not have family or others to whom she could go to help her sort through the problems. Her mother, she said, was “in and out” of her life and “has been on drugs and not been around like she’s supposed to be.”

Pickens was raised by her grandparents, and “they really didn’t know any better; they didn’t go to college.” She added, “Not many people in my family went to college, so I knew very little to none.”

Unsure of what else she could do, Pickens “just ended up trying to get on and off jobs, whatever would hire me, pretty much.” Her gap was 13 years, until sometime in February when she saw a message on Facebook about Career Nexus.

Young people & career uncertainty

Statistics show that, like Pickens, a majority of people who start college fail to succeed. A 2015 study by David Laude at the University of Austin, Texas which was reported in the New York Times, found that college success is not related to how hard a student studies or how well they did in high school, but that sadly, the greatest predictor of academic success is their household income.

As reported in the LA Times, a 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Cal State Sacramento revealed that 70% of students seeking degrees at California’s community colleges failed to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution within six years.

The most common traits of the students who failed, according to the study, included, being raised in low-income families, being first-generation college students and being a person of color. Only 26% of African-American students and 22% of Latino students were able to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college within six years.

These are the same demographic that Salazar, Pickens and Ramos come from and which Career Nexus serves – 46% Hispanic, 19% Black, 16% Asian and Pacific Islander, and 7% white.

Why is it so difficult for some youth to get a career going? In addition to a lack of qualifications and experience, young people can struggle because of factors, including where they live, their gender, or if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds – race and ethnicity, poverty and other factors that the young person did not contribute to.

“Sadly, I would say ethnicity is a barrier; it shouldn’t be, but it is,” Madden said. “There’s still ceilings everywhere; there are ceilings for race; there are ceilings for gender; there are ceilings everywhere.”

He said that Career Nexus tries to avoid placing their candidates in job situations with obvious obstacles. “We’re looking for the ones where there’s a number of rungs on the ladder, and there’s no kind of ceiling.”

Another impediment to a successful career, Madden added, is “not having ever worked,” and being raised in families with many members without steady employment.

“We have young adults who nobody in their family, in their house, has ever held a job,” Madden said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon, so they don’t get the idea that you’re going to show up every day.”

Some young people never master the simple task of calling their workplaces to report an absence or lateness. Madden explained that in a typical school setting, parents are responsible for calling the school when a child is going to be absent or late. “It’s just like it didn’t occur to them, because in their background, they never had to call in for school.”

‘Something different, but equally compelling’

Kurt Madden was the chief technology officer with Fresno Unified School District for 15years.

“I loved it,” he said, “but when the opportunity came up to launch Career Nexus, I realized it was time for a change and do something different, but equally compelling.”

He left Fresno Unified “on a Friday and started launching Career Nexus the following Monday.”

Madden said he knew the program would make a difference in many lives in the central San Joaquin Valley and started with a few pilot studies to figure out the areas of need.

“From March through December [2021], we did about 30 internships, but we didn’t really do any tracking because we were still experimenting,” Madden said.

Since January 2022, Career Nexus has had 208 candidates start the internship training with 159 completing it. They are partnering with the City of Fresno on a grant for more than 100 internships, paying from $17-$19 per hour.

The organization works closely with many Fresno-area institutions, including Fresno Unified and Fresno City College, State Center Community College District, Fresno State, Tree Fresno and Advance Peace.

Learning soft skills – ‘You just need to show up’

While there isn’t a universal agreement on what “soft skills” really means, most believe they include behaviors, personality traits and work habits that are sometimes intangible – working well with others, communication, courtesy, critical thinking and persistence – that help people succeed.

A 2019 study by LinkedIn reports that as much as 89% of recruiters say that when employees fail at work, the failure is often related to a lack of soft skills. Additionally, employers reported in The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlookthat soft skills like dependability and problem-solving are the top traits they look for in employees.

According to Madden, while completing school is one important factor in getting a job, sometimes, it is not always the case. Even with the completion of high school or a post high school training, some people require training in soft skills to improve their awareness in navigating the world of work. A Career Nexus internship is one way of developing them.

Former intern, Carlos Martinez-Ramos, now an employee at United Western Industries, said he gained more knowledge about “business, like good hygiene, making eye contact, communication skills and group teamwork” – skills he had not had and didn’t even know he was lacking.

With Career Nexus, all interns go through “a soft skill training,” requiring them to watch about 25 videos, each 10 to 30 minutes long.

“They watch five a day, and then they have a one-hour session with one of our trainers” to discuss the videos. Madden said this allows interns to “begin to understand” some of what is holding them back and how they can succeed. They also begin to understand the qualities that make them employable and desirable to employers.”

Interns must show up for those five days when they watch the videos, but “some of them only make it through three days,” Madden said.

If they fail to show up for five days, doing the one hour face-to-face session to watch the videos, “they’re not going to make it at work,” Madden said.

Monique Pickens said that before she watched the 25 videos and participated in numerous mock interviews at Career Nexus, she “was a mess at interviews.” Now, she’s an intern at RJ Miller Construction and doing general office work such as writing and sending emails, making phone calls, running and picking up plans to and from construction sites and feeling confident about being in the right direction.

Pickens said the soft skills acquisition made a huge difference for her and that she learned “how do you interview? How do you dress for an interview? How do you respond to the questions that the employer gives you?”

The Career Nexus trainer Nehemiah “Neil” Fane was very reassuring, Pickens remembers. “I told him, ‘I’m so nervous. I’m not really good at interviews’, and I was just being honest with him, and he was like, ‘it’s OK; just take a breath, and it’s just gonna be OK. I got you,’ and I’m like, ‘OK’.”

Madden recalls an employer in a “fairly big company” with a dozen of entry level positions defining his criteria for recruits.

“They need to show up every day; they need to show up on time, and they need to show up ready to work,” he said the employer had said. “If you give us somebody who will show up every day, on time, we will teach them how to do any of the jobs that need to be done.”

Some young people lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. “Many of our young adults have this kind of negative narrative, and they say, ‘I could never get a job at Fresno Unified’, but they just would never walk in the door; it would not occur to them,” even though all these places are equal opportunity employers, Madden said.

“They would not walk into Community Hospital; they would not walk through the doors of Bank of America and say, ‘I’m interested in a job’.”

Madden said part of what Career Nexus does is build confidence or “equity opportunity” and connect them “to places they would never walk through the doors.”

The Career Nexus counselor stays connected with the employer and intern to ensure that both parties are satisfied with the progress.“It’s not just an internship, like we would go to some – like where they find the jobs, send you off to your job and then that’s it. That’s not how it is,” Pickens said. “I check in with Neil once a week about my job placement to see how I’m doing, do I like it? Am I comfortable?”

Pickens said, “It feels good to have somebody on your side, rooting for you to do good.”

Aurora Salazar said her Career Nexus counselor Timothy Lowe guided her through everything. “We meet once a week; I’m always texting him. He’s always texting me, always making sure I am doing good. I know that if something goes wrong or something happens, I could always count on him.”

Recognizing the difference in entry level positions

Madden said the secret to Career Nexus is in recognizing the differences in entry level positions. “Some of them are in career sectors – industry sectors – where there’s really not a lot of upward mobility numbers on the career ladder, maybe there’s one or two rungs,” Madden said, “and then, you’ve topped out, and you’re still not making a living wage, and you’re stuck.”

But there are some industry sectors, Madden said, that are focused on manufacturing, health care, as well as the public sector and banking that provide enduring career paths, “where there is that potential for upward mobility, that you could start somewhere at a very entry level position, where you really don’t have to have a lot of skills; you just need to show up.”

“If you want, it’s up to you, but you’re not limited by race, by ethnicity, by income or by culture. These are industries that look at how you worked in that entry level position. And if you want to keep moving up, you can.”

Moving up the economic ladder, Madden said, requires patience and willingness to start at the bottom.

“I saw this happen many times where somebody might start at an entry level position, maybe a two-hour-a-day yard duty person, who is just out there during lunch hour, watching the kids for two hours a day. That gets them into an office assistant job in the school office, and then in 10 to 15 years, they’ve got 50 people, they’re running a department; they’re making six figures.”

“But they started as a two-hour yard duty person; somebody I know that started at a community hospital as a part-time, nighttime custodian, and then 15 years, you could be running the place,” Madden said.

“The person who gets the middle wage job is the person who had the job below that. And they have the job below that,” he explained.

“In these places where there are career paths, where there’s upward mobility, you really have to start in the mailroom. There’s no shame in that; you can start as a yard duty person, you can start as an assistant, and then, you start to learn, and you move up, and if you work hard, people notice.”

Employers’ Role

Bruce Ketch, general manager of United Western Industries – a metal fabrication and parts manufacturing industry in Fresno – said that the most important traits he wants in a new employee or intern is “soft skills – attendance, willing to learn, follow directions – that’s pretty much it.”

Ketch added, “If you’re willing to learn and willing to follow directions, I can teach you what you need to know.”

Ketch’s organization has employed three Career Nexus interns and he has found them ready.

“They’re very prepared when they come out to the interview, so you can tell that they’ve been taught how to dress, and the things they need to do,” he said. “And they also come to me with soft skills which is something that a lot of adults don’t seem to have any more.”

United Western Industries has been in business since 1971 and currently has 27 employees building parts for the heavy duty truck industry. Ketch said he started to hire interns because of “their eagerness to want to learn; it’s just amazing.”

He explained, “They come here; they’re so excited, and they bring in a whole new level of enthusiasm into my company, every time I get one here.”

Incoming interns need not have prior experience, he said, and that, to some extent, as well as the career goals of the candidate, affects the assignments they get – office work, in the warehouse or out in the shop.

“We bring them in; if they have no experience, we spend time with them,” Ketch said. “We teach them all the safety things that they need to learn, and then we teach them how to run the machine and how to measure parts.”

A major goal of Career Nexus is that interns fit in so well in the places they are posted and form a strong bond that they are retained for permanent employment. Ketch said that it hasn’t always worked that way.

“I hired a couple a while back, and they just ended up not working out,” Ketch said. “It’s unfortunate, but most of them are very young.”

He said he strongly believes in showing interns what the real world is like. “Sometimes they don’t realize that. They’re sitting in the classroom all the time, and they don’t realize it’s gonna be cold during the winter in the shop and that it’s going to be hot during the summer, and that, sometimes, it’s not the greatest environment to work in the real world.”

Martinez-Ramos completed two internships before he was offered a job. His first internship was with MALAVAC where he learned some technical skills involving forklifts and measurements. He admits, “I was kind of struggling on that, but I got it.” He liked his supervisors and they taught him additional welding skills. After six weeks, however, “They decided to let me go,” he said. “They saw that I wasn’t a good fit with the company.”

He did not give up. He returned to Career Nexus and was posted at UWI for a second internship. He lucked out. He managed to impress his supervisors and they decided to keep him. “I had a little bit of difficulty” with meeting all the welding assignments,” Martinez-Ramos said. “It was an obstacle.”

He had taken classes in welding when he was a student at Duncan Polytechnic High School. Despite the challenges at the second internship, he learned many new skills and felt valued.

Aurora Salazar’s first internship was at Kool Breeze Solar Hats, doing mostly office work, answering the phone, emails and processing orders from retailers and the public. “They showed me how to work with QuickBooks and also helped me understand a little bit more about QuickBooks accounting,” Salazar said. “They got me learning a little bit of the whole process of what their business is.”

As of July 1, Salazar is waiting to hear about an internship with the city of Fresno in a position that can turn into a permanent full time job. She completed two internships with Career Nexus.

Of the internships, Salazar said she liked the work experience and the opportunity to learn from others. “I’ve gained a lot of knowledge,” she said. “It’s been really great and has really helped me evolve in the career I want.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.