The first class for the forgotten class

The first day of class isn’t usually in May, the average age of students isn’t 46 and class doesn’t usually involve a personal call for feedback from the mayor.

But this was the case for 175 Chicagoans who were the first to begin the six-month Chicago Career Tech program Monday.

“What can we do for the forgotten class?” Mayor Richard M. Daley asked the students, “That’s you. You worked hard, you went to school, you worked, you paid your taxes. … But you don’t fit into all the poverty programs. You don’t fit into all the rich programs.”

To qualify for the program, which retrains workers in technology skills, participants must be receiving or have exhausted unemployment benefits, have made between $25,000 and $75,000 annually in a previous job, be a Chicago resident and have at least a high school diploma or GED.

Robert LaLonde, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy whose research includes workforce education and training, said targeting these workers sounds like a good idea. “Those are people who are likely to be employable afterwards and they’ve already demonstrated that they’re trainable,” he said. But researchers have very little data to evaluate programs that target previously employed workers receiving retraining, LaLonde said.

Every week, program participants will get two days of classroom training, two days of job shadowing at a business and two days of service learning at a not-for-profit or government organization. During the program, participants will receive a weekly stipend of about $400 in addition to any unemployment benefits.

Kelly O’Brien, vice president of marketing and communications at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, the organization coordinating the service learning portion of the program, said technology skills from program participants would be an asset to the partner organizations. However, she said, organizations were required to provide projects that had a teaching component that would also benefit students.

Service learning projects  from dozens of partner organizations may teach skills including  web development, database management and working with social media.

Amanda Luther, acting director of marketing and recruiting for Chicago Career Tech, said participants will receive training in areas including health-care information technology, digital media, project management and technical certifications. “We wanted to give them the skill set to go out to be placed into a new position in an industry that is hiring,” Luther said.

Over the next three years the city will provide $25 million in funding from its Parking Meter Human Infrastructure Fund, Luther said, with additional funds coming from foundations and the private sector.

Chicago Career Tech is accepting applications for the second group of students, which is expected to begin the program in late October with 325 available spaces. Potential students can apply for the program by filling out a screening application on the initiative’s website.

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Photo by Brooke Collins/City of Chicago

This was originally published on Medill Reports Chicago on May 19, 2010. It was published in the Chicago Journal as First Class for the Middle Class on May 26, 2010