After years of being outside of the workforce, job seeker Beverle Lax was at a loss for which skills she needed in a constantly changing employment market. It was the East Palo Alto Career Center where Lax said she was able to find services that helped her feel more secure about putting herself out there again.
"Going to the career center is like being able to go to school to learn new skills, so that when you do look for a job, you're not floundering," Lax said. "It's a go-to place."
The East Palo Alto Career Center finally opened for business last November, eight months after East Palo Alto City Council members and community groups clashed over its founding. The center, located at 2100 University Ave., will be holding an open house on Friday, June 1, from 3 to 7 p.m. to make its presence known in the community.
Operated by the Menlo Park-based employment nonprofit JobTrain, the career center provides individual counseling, job listings, workshops on a variety of job-related subjects and referrals to companies looking for applicants. Since November, the center has served around 100 people, according to staff. Lax was able to find part-time work using a job-search database that center personnel showed her.
According to East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica, the center is crucial for helping people in lower-paying jobs advance to better-paying positions so they can afford local living costs.
"To me, having a physical place where anybody in the community can come, whether people are looking for better jobs at the semi-skilled level or in the high-tech world, will address those needs," he said.
The career center is financed by The Sobrato Organization, a development firm that was hired to build the Amazon campus on University Avenue in East Palo Alto. In the initial stages of development last year, The Sobrato Organization and Amazon requested that the City Council waive the city's first-source hiring policy -- which requires 30 percent of an East Palo Alto company's employees to be hired from among the city's residents -- in exchange for establishing a career center on the Amazon campus and accessible to East Palo Altans.
The council adopted the proposal in early 2017, which triggered a backlash from local residents who preferred adherence to the hiring policy. In March 2017, community members organized a protest outside of the Amazon building. Had Amazon followed the first-source policy, the company would have had to hire around 365 to 390 East Palo Alto residents. The city, however, determined that Amazon would not be able to successfully follow the policy, considering the qualifications required of its employees, according to Art Taylor, chief program officer for JobTrain. The goal of the career center is, therefore, to raise job seekers' qualifications and employability.
"We are not just focused on getting people jobs," Taylor said. "We want people in careers where they can build a sustainable living and have career pathways that will move them up so they can live in this expensive part of the state."
Taylor said the career center aims to refer people to jobs in the $18 to $20 per hour range.
While the center will be funded for 10 years by The Sobrato Organization, the council hired JobTrain and, according to Abrica, will use this year to study how effective the center is. The council has already overseen the creation of a technical advisory committee to provide strategic assistance to the career center. The committee is composed of 10 members -- five selected by the council and five by JobTrain.
For Lax, the center has already been an important and effective resource.
"Knowing a place to go for help has been comforting," Lax said.