Building and enhancing specific skill sets is important to a robust and stable economy, officials said Wednesday night during the first ever ACCORD Community Development Awards.

ACCORD (Advanced Center for Community Opportunity Resources and Development) is a nonprofit in downtown Long Beach that was formed in 2006 to help foster workforce development.

Inspired partially by Mayor Bob Foster’s ACE Academy for youth — which puts an emphasis on learning vocational skills through the educational curriculum — ACCORD’s board set out to make partnerships and earn grants to help the out-of-work and the people whose skills were becoming outdated.

“How do we get these folks qualified to pass employment interviews and make sure they had the appropriate certifications?” said Larry Uyeda, executive director and chairman of the board for ACCORD.

The first major grant of significance the nonprofit received was in 2008, from the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network, with a focus on at-risk youth and the utility sector. Then, in 2010 ACCORD received more funding through the Utility Workers Union of America/AFL-CIO, which had received grant money from the U.S. Department of Labor.

About $1.5 million at first, and then about $2 million total, has gone toward about 300 incumbent workers (those who are in danger of being laid off or displaced) and 100 new workers. The goal of the program is to help educate those people with new skills so that they can continue in their workforce, or start in it — specifically with an eye toward growing utility work in water, gas and electric, Uyeda said.

ACCORD, with the grant money, has partnered with a number of educational institutions to accomplish this process, including the Los Angeles Trade Technical College (ACCORD actually services a nine-county area). The grant lasts for two years, and was originally scheduled to end in January, but organizers were given a little more money to continue through this July.

“Two years goes by so quickly — we’re really focusing on getting these people placed,” Uyeda said. “These caseworkers will continue to follow up whether they have been employed or not, to make sure they always know they have someone they can call. These people are not just numbers. Sometimes you need that person to go to for additional resources or as a mentor — that’s what we try to provide.”

Wednesday night, Uyeda and his fellow board members honored partners Michael Langford (national president of UWUA/AFL-CIO), Leticia Barajas (acting vice president of academic affairs and workforce for LA Trade Technical College) and Henry Wind (district manager of Rancho Dominguez for California Water Service Company).

“We have some good successes that are taking place, putting people in real jobs with good pay and good skills,” Langford said, noting that the utility field, especially in gas, was only set to grow the economy further. “It really helps jumpstart the training process for people.”

Overall, since it began getting these grants, ACCORD officials estimate they have helped about 570 participants earn about 475 professional certifications — many times that education can count for college credits. Organizers and guests of the event lauded the many partnerships that have made that possible.

“You’re helping build not just jobs, but sustainable employment,” Mayor Bob Foster said, noting he was a small business carpet layer at one time. “What has enabled me to take risks is that I always had something to fall back on — I had that skill.”

For more information on ACCORD, visit www.accordnow.org.

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