ANTIOCH — Diana Aleman had been working in a retail job when the coronavirus pandemic hit and she was laid off. She decided that she needed a fresh approach to advance her career, so she turned to Opportunity Junction.
It was a perfect match. The East Bay nonprofit not only provided her with more than the basic skills to apply for a new job, it served as the catalyst to help her launch a brand-new career as a COVID-19 ambassador for Contra Costa County.
“I had a young baby, I didn’t want to go back to retail, and I didn’t want a gap in my resume,” said Aleman, a Brentwood resident.
The organization helps job seekers acquire skills that allow them to pursue new careers or gain promotions that offer financial security, such as training for administrative careers, Certified Nursing Assistant training, career counseling services, English as a second language and technology classes. Students get help with resumes to land an interview, and coaching for the job interview itself.
Aleman appreciates that the nonprofit’s training sessions are high-level and demanding. Aleman heard about Opportunity Junction through a flyer program distributed at her daughter’s school.
“It was an intense program but I got through it,” Aleman said. “I wanted to quit many times but I’m glad I stayed with it. You go into the training program and you think you have tech skills — you think it’s enough to type fast. But they give you some incredible training.”
The career-focused nonprofit has a straightforward mission statement: “Everyone who works hard deserves the opportunity to succeed.”
Aleman already had some valuable experience in customer service, and knew how to work a multi-line phone and perform basic typing. But she had bigger dreams. She also was aware that she was shy about speaking in groups.
“I was looking into administrative jobs and I knew I needed a different set of skills,” Aleman said. “Opportunity Junction teaches you to create programs in (Microsoft) Word, how to use Excel and how to create presentations with PowerPoint.”
Antioch-based Opportunity Junction is hoping to raise $20,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit program, which provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The money will be used to support 450 job seekers and low-income alumni with food baskets and gift cards to purchase food and necessities during the holidays, and help with transportation costs, rental and phone assistance.
Now that the economic effects of the coronavirus-linked business shutdowns have begun to fade away, more people are returning to the workplace, which appears to have intensified the desire for more job skills, according to Brianna Robinson, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
“As we return to in-person work, we are seeing a huge increase in the number of people who are applying for our programs and receiving training,” Robinson said.
Opportunity Junction leaders also believe the organization is accomplishing more than simply placing people in jobs. The nonprofit is seeing evidence that those jobs are paying their clients more money. At present, the average starting wage of workers who have used the nonprofit’s services is $21.56 an hour. That’s up 12% from the year before, Robinson said.
“That means people are able to cover more of their basic needs,” she said.
And in a major departure from many career enhancement and job training programs, Opportunity Junction operates an alumni program that tracks the outcomes of employment seekers who have graduated from the nonprofit.
“We consider getting first employment after completing our program to be our mid-term outcome,” Robinson said. “We are creating robust alumni programs using coaching tools to help people navigate what is going to happen once they are in the working world. We give them workplace skills. How do I get along with my boss? How do I respond to co-workers who don’t seem to like me?”
After graduating from Opportunity Junction, Aleman took a job with Contra Costa County as a COVID-19 ambassador conducting coronavirus-linked outreach to the community, including providing information about the deadly virus and teaching people how to stay safe.
When her manager left, Aleman took on more responsibilities. Eventually, she was encouraged to apply for the manager’s job.
Opportunity Junction helped her craft a strategy to land the position, which came with a bump in pay.
“Opportunity Junction helps you with the resume, the cover letters,” Aleman said. “They do mock interviews. They fully prepare you for applying. And I got the job.”
The nonprofit recruits clients three times a year, with a focus on people who need help finding careers that will make a real difference to them, such as people trying to rise above poverty, said Hilarie O’Connor, manager of professional development. There’s usually about 20 people in each new group, although about 14-15 are usually still around at the end, O’Connor said.
And the assistance goes beyond career-focused efforts. Every Friday, program participants receive an Ikea bag filled with food, O’Connor said.
“Opportunity Junction has made a huge difference for me,” Aleman said. “They not only taught me all these skills, they helped me gain a lot of confidence. I found a job that has become my passion. I really enjoy what I’m doing. I want to go back to school to get an adult high school diploma. I want to take certificate courses. I hope to get a degree in public health.”
And she likes that the nonprofit keeps tabs on graduates’ outcomes.
“They check to see if you are fully employed,” Aleman said. “They have all of these alumni events that they do throughout the year. They truly are like a family. They keep in touch. Opportunity Junction has really inspired me.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Opportunity Junction support 450 job seekers and low-income alumni with food baskets and gift cards to purchase food and necessities during the holidays, and help with transportation costs, rental and phone assistance. Goal: $20,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.