Employees pack supplies at the Neighborhood Industries food distribution center. The NEO program has found a majority of the nonprofit’s employees, as well as some management team members. Photo via Neighborhood Industries
Written by Frank Lopez
The New Employment Opportunities (NEO) program was created in 2013 to incentivize employers to provide welfare-to-work participants with long-term and transitional employment opportunities in public, private and nonprofit organizations throughout Fresno County.
Marketed by the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. (Fresno EDC) and funded by the Fresno County Department of Social Services (DSS), the program helps participants get jobs with the goal of developing a trained and skilled workforce for the Central Valley.
Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno EDC, said the program addressed a need that was unfulfilled at the time.
“We designed this program where it’s one of a kind in the entire country,” Eager said. “We’ve been to Washington D.C. to talk about this program and they are so excited about what we are doing because it really does match up the business community with people who want to work and need to work the most.”
The program is designed to analyze the kinds of businesses that are coming into the county, what needs they might have that match the local demographic, the available type of workforce and how many people are able to work. This study work is performed by the EDC.
A company that hires an employee through the NEO program will receive 100% of their wages reimbursed for 1-13 weeks, and then 75% reimbursement for the following 14-26 weeks. Currently, there is potential for two extensions of 13 weeks each based on the discretion of county officials.
The hiring is done through the Ready2hire.org website. Once a company selects a candidate, there is a 10-business-day turnaround before they can begin working so they have time to finish their current job if they are employed elsewhere.
“We’ve tailored the training to the businesses,” said Delfino Neira, director of Department of Social Services. “We have trucking programs, logistics — the different industries that are complimentary to existing industries here in Fresno County, but also those that are a part of the new economy moving forward.”
Eager said that the program has created approximately 1,700-1,800 jobs, with that number constantly climbing. Out of the people that get a job through the program, 92% of them find a long-term job.
Because of the economic disruption triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing budget cuts that would eliminate funding for the entire subsidized employee program, which Neira said “would almost be a fatal blow to our economic development in Fresno County.”
This is not a step backwards that the area needs, Neira stressed.
The program has produced many success stories. Breanna Luna got her current job as a truck driver at Lawson Rock & Oil in 2015, receiving her Class A California Driver License after going through the NEO Program.
Before becoming a truck driver, Luna was doing in-home supportive services, balancing school and working a second job. Then she had a child, which limited how much she could work.
Luna’s father had been a truck driver. She always had an interest in the industry so when the opportunity came, she took it and ran. There are about seven or eight women truck drivers at Lawson, and Luna said a majority of them went through the NEO program.
“Having an opportunity through that program changed my life. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the opportunity that was given to me. Its been an incredible journey,” Luna said.
Neighborhood Thrift stores in Fresno, a part of the Neighborhood Industries nonprofit, gets a majority of its employees through the NEO program.
Addie Carr, admin director at Neighborhood Industries, said that they hire about three to four people each year through the program. Half of their management team also came through the NEO program.
Carr said that lots of people stay to work for Neighborhood Thrift, but it could also be a transitional point for employees before they find a better job in the future.
“It gives individuals, specifically employers, the opportunity to get to know someone that has a lot of great skillsets but maybe wasn’t noticed by other places during interviews, but are actually great workers that have great gifts and talents,” Carr said.