Preparing people for gainful employment has long been a passion of Raul Soto-Valenzuela’s.
It’s why he enjoyed his role as an instructor at a post-secondary vocational school, where he taught accounting and computer literacy to dozens of students ranging in age from their late teens to their 60s — people looking to transition into new careers. And it’s why he dreamed for years of starting his own company to train prospective workers.
In some ways, the pandemic — which forced the vocational school to close and left Soto-Valenzuela without a job — has made him even more committed to starting that business. More people than ever will need know-how and guidance to reenter the hobbled American workforce.
“The desire to [open a business] is tenfold now. I’m done with corporate America,” he said. “The motivation is there because I feel like this is my only way out at this point.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t be an uphill battle for the 54-year-old, who lives near Los Angeles.
Losing the gig with the vocational school was a considerable blow. Aside from the fact that the job aligned with his interests and expertise, the owner of the company had previously agreed to pay for Soto-Valenzuela to take an exam to become a certified tax preparer. (Soto-Valenzuela said he’s not sure whether the school will reopen1 — he offered to write a financial-assistance application for the small business but never heard back from the owner.)
And besides losing a job that paid him almost $28 an hour, Soto-Valenzuela feels disappointed for the students enrolled in his classes who had completed 10 of the course’s 12 weeks but now can’t finish.
He’s been getting $600 per week in unemployment, and just this week he got a stimulus payment. But as a father of seven children — five of whom are adults — and with more than $3,000 a month due for rent, he didn’t want to simply cross his fingers and hope for the return of the vocational school as the coronavirus crisis played out. So Soto-Valenzuela, with his master’s in accounting and financial management, took a job with Amazon at one of the company’s distribution centers.
At $15 an hour, plus a $2-an-hour bonus for hazard pay, the Amazon job pays a little more than half the hourly wage of his last gig, and it gives him about 10 fewer hours of work each week. Beyond that, working in a warehouse with so many other employees during a pandemic could be a cause of concern, but Soto-Valenzuela appreciates the job — and he isn’t griping.
“The way I see it, I’m basically getting paid to work out,” he said, adding that Amazon strictly enforces distancing at the warehouse and has an abundance of masks and disinfectants available throughout the facility. “Of course, I want to get back to my true profession, and that’s what I’m pressing for.” But Soto-Valenzuela feels fortunate to have gotten the gig so quickly — Amazon signed him three days after he applied — because he had no other income at the time. He also views it as a plus that he’ll be able to walk away from the Amazon job whenever he’s ready — a key factor since he’ll be officially capable of representing tax clients2 once he passes his IRS exam, which he’s preparing for now.
But even after he completes that test, he has little to no interest in finding a job with someone else’s company. Instead, he’s focused on starting his worker-training program. He wants to spend time researching how to obtain federal funding for a small, minority-owned business, and he also needs to find affordable office space that he can set up in the area — he would eventually like to spend between $1,200 and $1,400 per month in office rent.
“It may need to be a bigger space now because there will need to be enough room for everyone to distance properly,” Soto-Valenzuela said. “But more than anything, I just want a space where I can put my name on the wall, so people know we’re here to help them get back to work.”
Soto-Valenzuela said he has already saved about 20 percent of the $50,000 to $60,000 he’ll need to get that business fully up and running, which he hopes to do by the end of the calendar year.
“I’m excited,” he said, “because between the people I can hire and the people we’ll be able to retrain for work, I think this can have an immediate impact for people in my community.”