NORWALK — Chris Evans is more than a teacher to her students, whose ranks include the hard-core unemployed, welfare recipients and laid-off workers.
They call her "Mama Chris" out of love and respect.
They snap to attention every morning when the soft-spoken, bespectacled woman with the quick smile rings a tiny bell and starts to lecture them on how to get a job and keep it.
She stresses the importance of being well-groomed, well-behaved, punctual and courteous.
"Every morning before we start actual training, we talk about some of the things they must do to be good employees," said Evans, who helps run an employment training program for the United Auto Workers.
"No curlers, report to work on time, no shorts, no see-through blouses, no drugs, no alcohol," Evans warns the more than 50 students attending a 12-week course in electrical assembly for the aerospace industry.
The students are taught how to build electrical circuit boards, which are basic components in the controls of spacecraft and other mechanical devices. They are also taught to do electrical wiring and practical math and to read blueprints.
"I'm mother, counselor, head instructor and job developer," said Evans, a resident of Compton who has been employed by McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Long Beach for 30 years. Evans is on a special leave, arranged through the union and McDonnell Douglas, to provide this training.
"And I love every minute of it," said Evans, who will not reveal her age. "Somebody might get the idea I'm too old to do this job if I gave my age. I don't want that."
Evans moved to California from Missouri in 1946 with her husband, John. She worked at odd jobs and as an electrician's helper in factories and shipyards in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Later she attended Cerritos College and took courses in electronics before landing a job as an electrical assembler at McDonnell Douglas.
She spent 10 years as an instructor there, training workers in electrical assembly before going on special assignment for this UAW program four years ago. She is assisted in the program by Bill Mahoney and Arthur Gomez, who are also on special assignment for the UAW.
Knows How to Motivate Students
Not only is Evans technically qualified for the job, but her students say she cares for them and knows how to motivate them.
"We call her Mama Chris," said Bernice LaCour, 45, a member of the class who lost her job as an auto assembly worker after 14 years when General Motors Corp. closed its South Gate plant in 1982.
"She cares. She is strong. She is just great," said LaCour.
LaCour said she decided to take the course after a daughter, Renee, 19, successfully completed it and was hired by Rockwell International's Satellite Systems Division in Seal Beach.
"My daughter has a temper. I was unable to talk to her. But Mom did. Renee is a different person today," LaCour said.
Evans does not see herself as some kind of heroine.
"The students are the ones. They are the ones who are struggling to survive without jobs while they learn, to pay the rent, to feed their kids. I care for them. I can feel their hurt," said Evans.
Students Receive No Pay
The students are not paid during the training but receive a small stipend for public transportation and child-care expenses.
Set up by the United Auto Workers more than four years ago to train low-income persons for entry-level jobs, the program is financed by U.S. Department of Labor grants dispensed by the city and county of Los Angeles and the city of Long Beach. Union personnel coordinate and run the program.
"The program allows individuals like Chris, with extensive practical experience, to share them with others," said John Szymanski, West Coast director of industrial relations for McDonnell Douglas.
The budget for this year's program, which is housed in two classrooms of the campus of now-closed Excelsior High School, is a little more than $1 million, said Lou Settles, program administrator. Every 12 weeks, as many as 65 students are given training, and by the end of the fiscal year June 30, 195 students will have been trained, Settles said.
Settles said that about 95% of the more than 465 students who have gone through the program have found jobs. Most were hired by large companies, with Rockwell taking 165, Hughes Aircraft Co. in El Segundo 95 and McDonnell 70, Settles said.
"We are very pleased with these employees," said Dick Deskin, manufacturing and test manager for Rockwell's Seal Beach plant.
"In the beginning we had to convince them to take a break. They have good work ethics," he said.
"Mama Chris" is pleased with their success. "All they need," she said, "is a chance."