Back, straight. Legs bent, 90 degrees. Feet, flat, together and parallel on the floor. Wrists raised, elevated slightly. Slightly.
Rainetta Jones says the most important thing she’s learned during her brief, albeit intense, seven days so far as a student at the Grace Institute is how to type. And to type correctly, posture is key.
“There’s a proper way to type, which I didn’t learn. I just typed,” she exclaims in her Trinidadian accent, while demonstrating proper typing form at a table in the Upper East Side all-female, vocational school. “Imagine sitting like that for two hours. Maintaining a posture like that is difficult.”
Jones, dressed the part of an administrative assistant, all in black aside from a cerulean-hued sweater, has just come from a two-hour typing course. Normally the class runs for one hour, but today, Jones says her instructor decided extra practice was necessary.
With a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, many economically disadvantaged and immigrant women like Jones have turned to the Grace Institute either to learn or to improve their administrative skills, and every extra second on the keyboard helps.
Thanks to a fund established by founder William Russell Grace, an Irish immigrant, this semester, 211 women can afford to come to the tuition-free school to earn a business skills certificate, and leave better prepared to compete in the cutthroat job market, says Director of Communications Michele McEvoy. McEvoy attributes the 17 percent rise in the number of enrollments this year to the slumping economy.
“The way things are with the economy, they are competing with college graduates,” says McEvoy. “ So our grads have to be on their game.”
To get them there, McEvoy says the institute has retooled its daytime and evening programs, extending them from four-and-a-half months to six. Students now spend more time training on computers and with the career services department, which works one-on-one with both current students and recently laid-off alums, polishing their résumés, improving their interviewing skills and sifting through the market for areas of job growth.
According to McEvoy, those areas are health care, education, and government. “Meds, eds and feds,” she jokes, adding that, now, on top of computing, typing, business math and financing, writing, and office procedures, students study legal and medical terminology, reflecting market demands for specialization.
Ultimately, McEvoy says the institute aims to have its students proficient in administrative skills by the end of the term, in this case March, when Grace hosts its biannual career fair. McEvoy says last fall’s fair resulted in 18 hires. She also says that, within three months of graduation, 20 percent of Grace students normally land administrative jobs, and within a year, 80 percent. However, due to the recession, that figures now hovers around 60 percent.
Still, many Grace students will bet on those odds.
Before coming to Grace, Jones bounced around from one short-term gig to the next. When the recession hit, she was a hostess. She says that, out of nowhere, she was shown the door, and soon after, those restaurant doors closed for good. Jones says that since then she’s been living a jobless “nightmare.”
Nothing on Monster.com. Nothing on CareerBuilder. Desperate for something, anything, Jones says she went door-to-door in Brooklyn, begging for a job after sending out more than 300 unanswered résumés. Still, nothing.
It took a chance encounter for her to figure out her next move. During a subway ride back in July, she met Gorlyn Consulting President Marilyn Hyacinth, who suggested she enroll in a business program.
“You can always say ‘I don’t have a job, but I’m in a class,’” says Jones, recalling Hyacinth’s advice to avoid gaps in her resume. “That’s why I think I wasn’t getting callbacks.”
Many immigrants like Jones have a harder time landing jobs than their native-born competition, simply because they’re foreigners. “On the one hand, they’re willing to work really, really hard. It’s part of the immigrant story, to work hard and better themselves,” says Jones’s writing instructor David Frutkoff. But, as the educator also points out, employers are often reluctant to hire immigrants because their English isn’t up to par. “Is it a little harder for them to get a job? Yeah, maybe,” he says. “But is it a deal breaker? No.”
In fact, Continuum Health Partners has continually hired several Grace graduates as administrative assistants in hospitals such as Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital, says spokesman Jim Mandler.
“They come out of their academic program very well trained,” says Mandler. “We’ve had a lot of success placing them in administrative roles in out hospitals.”
Now 30, living in South Brooklyn and studying at Grace, Jones, who came to America with her family 16 years ago, doesn’t think so. She says she has no desire to revisit either the past or her native Trinidad and Tobago. She says that she’s been too busy to be bothered with what others think of her and that she never really felt prejudice as an immigrant.
“When you’re trained as a kid to work hard, you don’t pay attention to it,” says Jones.
For Jones, immigration isn’t preventing her from getting an administrative job. Her typing is. Right now, Jones types 40 words per minute. Her goal? One hundred.
“To be a good typist, you have to really, really, really practice,” she says. “Average is 50. Good is 70.”
Evidently, Rainetta Jones wants to be great.