Chelsea’s Jose Iraheta sat next to one of the most powerful women in global finance last Thursday and calmly told Federal Reserve Bank Chair Janet Yellen what it was like to graduate from a quality university and still struggle to find work – what it was like to come from humble beginnings in Chelsea and try to break out into a working world where the margins were very thin.
“Why would I be nervous?” he asked. “It’s pretty unbelievable that I got to talk to her, but it was just my story and that’s easy to tell.” The story Iraheta told was one main reason Yellen made her historic visit to Chelsea – breaking the typical mold of a Fed Chief in talking with regular people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Iraheta and others involved in The Neighborhood Developer’s (TND) CONNECT job training program told about how they had trouble finding jobs or trouble gaining skills that employers wanted – some having trouble doing the simplest things like writing checks – before coming to the ground-breaking program.
After growing up as a “child of Chelsea non-profits and after school programs” such as the Collaborative, ROCA and Centro Latino, Iraheta graduated from Chelsea High in 2006. He received the prestigious Posse Scholarship and was able to attend Hamilton College in New York, but had to take some years off to help his family out by working.
In 2013, he graduated from Hamilton, but taking the next step wasn’t so easy. “It was really hard and I didn’t even know where to start,” he said. “My family didn’t go to college. The jobs we knew were laborer work. It was really tough going to an interview for the first time. It was really tough to navigate the system to get the jobs I wanted.” That, he told Yellen, was the case until he got into CONNECT. “A year ago I didn’t have a job and now I have a job at Citizen’s Bank and bought a house and am able to give back to the community I grew up in by working at the Food Pantry,” he said.
“You should be very proud,” Yellen told him with a big smile. With the red carpet fully rolled out, Federal Reserve Bank Chair Janet Yellen came to Chelsea with much fanfare last Thursday afternoon to visit with TND and learn about housing opportunities and job training programs.
Yellen appeared humble and asked more questions than she made comments.
She started off the whirlwind tour with a walk-through of the classrooms, computer room, and even the daycare facility – briefly waving at the little tots in nursery.
Following that, Yellen sat in on a roundtable discussion where City Manager Jay Ash explained the history of Chelsea to the Fed Chief, noting the great fires of Chelsea and how the last great fire was the best thing to ever happen to the City – as it allowed redevelopment.
He and TND Director Ann Houston explained to Yellen – as they looked out over the Box District – how the housing market meltdown in 2007 and 2008 really hit Chelsea hard. It was a subject that seemed to interest Yellen quite a bit, as she brought up the issue of subprime mortgages and homeowners taking out equity to fix dilapidated properties.
“There were a lot of bad subprime mortgages here,” Houston said. “We were, unfortunately, deeply affected by the subprime mortgage market.” That followed up with a discussion about CONNECT and the six partners that make up the organization.
Marissa Guananja, director of CONNECT, and Linda Rohrer of CareerSource told about how they train and place workers into jobs with partnering employers.
Yellen was particularly interested in how the job market looked and what skills were in demand. “We’re seeing a good increase in people who have access only to part-time jobs and a slow increase to availability of full-time jobs,” said Rohrer. “We see a good growth among all sectors from last fiscal year to this fiscal year…Math skills seem to be really important.
The STEM occupations are really high. People’s math and reading skills are not what they need to be to move into those jobs that are there. Some are coming in with a minimum eighth grade education. Even in advanced manufacturing training, it’s difficult because people don’t even have English language skills, but mostly it’s math and reading.
That’s what we really have to work on to get people into these higher paying jobs.”
However, great hope was found in the roundtable with CONNECT clients such as Iraheta. CONNECT client Christine Torres, a Revere resident who is very involved in Bunker Hill’s Chelsea Campus, told Yellen about how she had burnt out on college at UMass Boston and, believing she could never finish college, pursued a career in cosmetology. However, after having an epiphany and wanting to do better, she turned to CONNECT and found confidence first – and then skills.
“I had been going to UMass Boston for four years and still only had two years worth of credits,” she told Yellen. “I had quit and I did not believe I could finish school and I gave up on myself. When I came to CONNECT and met Ann Houston, I began to believe in myself. I realized I had to believe in myself again before I could get the skills I needed. Now, I’m going to Bunker Hill Community College and I plan to transfer to Boston University for a degree in Urban Affairs and Theology. My life is on a whole new course.” Yellen nodded, with clear sentiment showing for the young woman’s story. Clearly, it was a model she hoped could be replicated all through the country.