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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

TRAINING–Inner-City Success Story

nonprofit chief creates much-needed Pc training facility in pacoima Mario Matute had only been working at the Pacoima Workforce Development Initiative a short time when he realized the key stumbling block in the way of finding jobs for his clients: Most of the available jobs required computer skills, and most of the people using the center for referrals had none. “I started thinking, what could I do?” recalled Matute, director of the 18-month-old Workforce Development Initiative, a project funded by Los Angeles Urban Funders. “I had no money.” Matute began hatching an idea for launching a computer training center that would prepare workers for today’s jobs, and it wasn’t long before the Pacoima Community Technology Center was born. The center which opened March 30 with 20 computers, three dedicated servers and a full-time instructor is currently training about 40 students in two, 20-hour-a-week programs that run from four to six months. Another full-time instructor will be added shortly for a third, evening program, and Matute is working on a plan to run still another class on weekends to accommodate a waiting list that has grown to several hundred. Most nonprofit endeavors take months and even years of working through red tape and bureaucracies for funding, but it took Matute only about two months from the time he put his ideas to paper until the doors of the center opened, almost entirely with private funds. “It’s not very typical. But given that it’s Mario, I’m not surprised,” said City Councilman Alex Padilla, whose northeast San Fernando Valley district includes Pacoima. “I think that just speaks to who Mario is in terms of his vision, his determination, his work ethic and his philosophy.” Matute has made it a practice to carve his own programs from city bureaucracies. Before signing on to develop and run the Pacoima Workforce Initiative about a year and a half ago, he had worked for the Housing Authority of Los Angeles. As director of San Fernando Gardens, the only public housing facility in the San Fernando Valley, he set up a reading program for elementary school students by working a deal with Mission College that gave students majoring in education and child development college credit for teaching at the center, and securing donations of books and materials from local merchants and Time Warner Inc. Matute also set up a computer learning center while he was with the Housing Authority, but that one, mostly publicly funded, was far less elaborate and took much longer to get off the ground. Matute’s current position, with the backing of Los Angeles Urban Funders, a nonprofit consortium of private companies like Prudential Insurance Co. and Bank of America, gave him better access to the private sector. “Normally, it’s done with matching grants,” said Matute. “But there are strings attached. I didn’t want to do that. If you really want to make it happen, there are people out there who can help you.” Matute wanted to be certain that the equipment at the technology center mirrored the hardware and software that students would find in the working world, and he knew that to do that, he would need to approach the private-sector companies that could provide up-to-date technology. “If you really want to have fine high technology, you need to go to Silicon Valley,” Matute said. “So I did some research on the Internet and started talking to people.” Matute knew he would have a hard time convincing the big technology names to come on board, so he sought out smaller, niche companies, ultimately setting his sights on Maxspeed, a Palo Alto-based maker of hardware for Linux operating systems. Matute started an e-mail correspondence with the company, initially explaining that he was seeking advice on how he could set up a technology learning center. “People like to be asked for help,” said the former psychology major. “I asked them to give me their ideas based on their years of experience.” Matute offered information about Pacoima and its needs to Maxspeed executives. About 80 percent of Pacoima’s population of 65,000 is Latino, a community that’s been largely left behind in the computer revolution, and more than 40 percent of area families have annual incomes under $15,000. “It was hard for them to understand,” said Matute of the effort of describing Pacoima to techies in Silicon Valley. “I told them how disconnected this community is from the rest of the world. I told them, ‘I want you to come to Pacoima. Once you see it, you will feel it.'” David Stacy, MaxSpeed’s strategic alliance business manager, did just that, and when the tour was over, the company decided to contribute hardware and technical support to the venture. “The main reason we got involved is, it gave us another reason to bring Linux to the forefront,” Stacy said. “The second one was, we wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. That community center will make a difference.” At MaxSpeed’s suggestion, the center was set up with three separate servers, one for a Microsoft operating system, one for a Linux system, and another server dedicated to the Internet. Linux provided the software and engineers to set up the center. The National Home Trust, which receives funding from the Department of Labor for a Welfare-to-Work program, provided the computer terminals and furniture, in exchange for the ability to use the center for its welfare-to-work clients. Matute estimates that the bill for the equipment and installation came to $175,000, but he still needed teachers. “Teachers cost $35 to $40 an hour,” Matute said. “But I didn’t have the money.” He approached the Pacoima Skill Center, which, with its Los Angeles Unified School District funding, agreed to provide instructors. Students are referred to the center from the Pacoima-area centers that work with the Workforce Development Initiative, but anyone can walk in and enroll. As might be expected of someone who has always approached his jobs as an entrepreneur, Matute wants to keep the red tape out of the enrollment process as well. “We don’t have criteria,” he said. “We encourage people who are serious about changing their life, who are looking for employment and don’t have the skills. If someone comes in and says, ‘I never touched a computer before,’ we’ll let them in.”

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