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Hardcore Job Program Helps Unlikely 'Get To Work'


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we get the cross-cultural flavor of New Orleans music, with writer and radio host Gwen Thompkins. She talks to songwriters, musicians and producers in Louisiana for her program, "Music Inside Out." And she shares their stories with us, in just a few more minutes.

But first, we're focusing on a new television series that's taking a hard look at the road back from long-term unemployment. "Get To Work" premieres tonight on the Sundance channel, and it follows the national job training program STRIVE, in San Diego. And its clients aren't just victims of the economic downturn. They've got personal stories of addiction, incarceration and abuse that have kept them out of the workforce, and at the margins of society. And it's an experience that Rob Smith knows well. He's STRIVE's lead trainer, and he was once in the same position.


ROB SMITH: We know where the clients are coming from. We've been in their shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How many people in here sold drugs? I sold dope, too.

SMITH: I hope to teach them a lot of the same lessons that I had to learn, about why can't I get a job? Why can't I keep a job?

LYDEN: And STRIVE's head trainer, Rob Smith, joins us now in our Washington studios. Rob Smith, thank you very much for coming in.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: STRIVE is around the country, some 20 sites. But we are focusing here on the San Diego program. Tell me about the people who walk through the doors.

SMITH: You know, the people that come through our doors come from a variety of walks of life. I mean, yes. They are coming out of - some of them are coming out of prison; drug addiction. Most of them, you know, have multiple barriers to employment, and our job is to help them overcome those barriers and get their lives back on track.

LYDEN: Are they mandated to walk through that door? Is this sort of like a condition of parole, or is this voluntary?

SMITH: We have great partnerships with parole, probation, the sheriff department. We actually have the chief of police and the sheriff, that actually sit on our board as part of the - you know, the leadership. You know, we do get people that are mandated to the program, but they need to stay voluntarily.

LYDEN: So how is STRIVE different than other job corps programs? Is it partly because you, as the trainer - you've lived this life. I mean, you went through a pretty gritty time yourself.

SMITH: You know, I grew up in the system. My mother was an alcoholic, drug addict. At a very young age, you know, we were taken away and, you know, it's been very tough over those years. You know, I grew up a very angry young man; you know, in and out of juvenile hall, in and out of jail, you know, going to prison. You know, I sold drugs; I've done, you know, my share of violence. It got to be to the point where I couldn't look in the mirror anymore and be proud of the person. And I wanted that. I wanted to look in the mirror and say, you've done something with your life. You made the newspaper for something more than a robbery, or a drug deal gone bad.

LYDEN: And so when you look these people in the eye, you can relate to these people. What brought about the change in you? Give us just a little bit of your own background, and what made you turn around.

SMITH: You know, I mean, you get to a certain point in your life where you hurt enough. You know, one of our philosophies is, is the pain is the only thing that makes us change. And, you know, when life is going good, you don't want to sit back and think too hard about all the difficult things because you don't want to blow that good feeling.

You know, where I was at - at that point and change in my life - I had to do some real soul-searching. And, you know, I'm standing before a judge; he's dropping the gavel, saying - you know - you're going to go away. I didn't like that. I didn't like the way that I felt. I wasn't in control of myself, and I wanted to - I wanted something different.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking to Rob Smith, and he is the lead trainer of the very hard-core, back-to-work boot camp called STRIVE, which is the subject of a new docuseries on the Sundance channel. It's called "Get to Work."

Let's play a clip from the first episode of "Get to Work," Rob Smith. This is an exchange between you and one of the students in the program, Adam Loewy(ph), and it starts with you really getting on his case.


SMITH: Since the day you walked in here, you wanted to do your program - the hat, the essay. When you got the suggestions, you didn't take it.

ADAM LOEWY: I am going to continue to be a yes man in the class. Rob is the guy you give a yes to - because isn't that what we do in the workforce, tell our bosses that we don't like yes, yes, yes, yes, yes? Nothing easier than this program. Yes.

LYDEN: With these people who have records and have been con artists - many of them - how do you know that they're not just passing through your program - being yes people, like Adam?

SMITH: I've lived that lifestyle. I've lived the yes-man lifestyle. I've lived - you know, I'm going to get over in this moment. And you know, Adam's motivation was transparent, from the beginning. And all we did was make sure that we let him know that we see that motivation. And that motivation isn't to do anything different with your life. It's just - let me get through this because I'm mandated by the court system. And that's not intrinsic change.

LYDEN: You, particularly, are pretty tough. You're called the enforcer. And I thought, are you kind of a jerk sometimes, with these folks?

SMITH: On that first day, they probably feel that way. When you look at our clients, this moment in time for them, is really crucial. You know, they said they want something different. Are they really going to commit to it? In a moment of high stress, will they - you know - still stay resolved and, I'm going to get through this; you know, this is my mistake. I own it.

And we also need to see where those pressure points are at. You know, it's one of those moments where, when I'm interacting with a student, I'm doing - I'm multi-tasking. You know, this client is our end product, to the employer. The employers are coming to us and saying, I want a particular type of person that can handle high-stress situations; that can handle, you know, customers in their face; that's not going to give up, you know, when it gets a little tough. You know, we need to know that. And also, we need to know how - what is their impulse? You know, as soon as they're upset, is it to resort back to physical, you know, altercation? So, you know, we need to know what those pressure points are.

LYDEN: And there is, in fact, a guy who - I think - drops out almost at that moment.

SMITH: Yes. Yes.

LYDEN: In the first episode, yeah.

SMITH: Yeah. And I can just imagine, you know - now, this person, if not fire-tested and we just pass him through, the moment he goes to the employer and the employer says, I'm sorry; I'm not giving you a raise. This is your 90-day review; it's not good. You know, not only is he going to close the door for himself, but he's also going to taint our good name. And he's going to close the door for a lot of other people that really do want something different, and that are willing to take a minimum-wage job to accomplish it.

LYDEN: And how is that going? When you look people in the eye, the economic picture - this program takes place in California; it's really difficult. Can you look them in the eye and say, you do this; you're going to get a job? Because even for many people - records or no - getting a job is really, really hard.

SMITH: Even right now, in this tough economy, we are still placing 70 percent of our graduates into jobs. And 70 percent of those graduates are maintaining their jobs for two years. So yes, I can - with confidence - look a person in the eye and say, if you do X, this is going to happen; you know, good things will happen.

LYDEN: Rob Smith is the lead trainer for STRIVE, a workforce training program for the chronically unemployed. And he's the focus of a new Sundance Channel series called "Get To Work." It premieres tonight. Rob Smith, thank you very much for coming in.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.