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Alex Wignall was looking for a career change when he came across a job posting on Craigslist.

A company called "Energuy" was looking to hire workers to evaluate the energy efficiency of appliances like air conditioners in homes.

What Wignall didn't know was that Energuy, a Canadian company with offices in the United States, had specifically sought out new hires in Sonoma County to take advantage of federal funds for training through Sonoma County JobLink.

Through that program, JobLink pays half of the salary of new hires that companies agree to train on-the-job.

"This is the first job that really has career potential for me, so I'm excited," said Wignall, 25, of Santa Rosa. "And a lot of people aren't working right now. It's hard to find work, so I'm grateful that JobLink was able to help me out."

JobLink began the program, known as "subsidized employment," in March. So far, 20 new hires have been placed in companies throughout the county, said Steve Czegus, manager of Sonoma County JobLink, which provides job placement and guidance services.

"It's taken off. It's done really well," Czegus said. "The type of companies that we have are a fairly wide range ... We have insurance wholesalers, textile processors, drivers, administrative assistants, shop supervisors, interior design and sales, and laborers. There's a good range of jobs and industries that people are going into."

The program is funded through the Workforce Investment Act, which makes federal money from the U.S. Department of Labor available to local groups for employment assistance. JobLink received about $624,000 to spend on training during the current fiscal year, which ends in June. It plans to spend about half of those funds on the subsidized employment program, Czegus said.

JobLink pays half of the new employee's salary for up to six months. Wages for those placed so far range from about $12 to $24 an hour, Czegus said.

"More of our job seekers were interested in getting actual employment than pursuing vocational training programs," Czegus said.

Goodwill Industries, which works with JobLink, acts as a liaison to help connect employers with employees.

"They have a lot of connections with local employers and local nonprofits, and because they've built up those relationships we contract with them so we can benefit from all the connections they already have made," Czegus said.

To qualify, potential employees must be eligible for or have already exhausted unemployment benefits, or they must have such a low income that they meet federal poverty guidelines. Employers provide a training plan in their application to participate.

"We want to make sure they're carrying workers compensation insurance, that it's a regular position, that they have a real job there at the end of six months when the subsidy ends," said Laurie Petta, vice president of workforce development at Goodwill Industries. "We want to make sure that there's training involved, that they have skills at the end."

Cameron Hiscock, president of Energuy, is expanding his company in parts of California that have programs similar to JobLink's subsidized employment, he said. The company's U.S. headquarters is in Sacramento, where similar funding is available.

"It's really helped us as a company, for sure," Hiscock said. "It's allowed us to be more aggressive in our growth in our hiring. ... We've actually had meetings where we've said we'll only move forward if we can get a subsidized employee, otherwise we'll have to wait until we're financially ready."

Candidates for Sonoma County Sheriff

Name: Mark Essick

Age: 48

Career: Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office for 23 years; had visible roles representing the Sheriff’s Office in the past; was a member of the community task force created in the wake of the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting

Name: Ernesto Olivares

Age: 60

Career: Santa Rosa Police Department for 30 years; Santa Rosa City Councilman has garnered endorsements from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and fellow Santa Rosa councilmen John Sawyer and Tom Schwedhelm

Name: John Mutz

Age: 68

Career: Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years; after retiring in 1999, Mutz developed a mediation program for racial profiling cases for the Los Angeles Police Department

Energuy prefers to train its employees on-the-job, instead of hiring more experienced candidates, so that it can steep employees in its own way of performing energy evaluations, Hiscock said. After a training period, newer employees earn about $35,000 to $40,000 per year. They can work their way up through training and experience to earn up to about $80,000, he said.

After Wignall applied for the job, Hiscock asked him to see if he qualified for the JobLink program.

"I never thought I'd say this, but luckily I'd been unemployed for over six months because of some medical issues, and so I qualified for the program," Wignall said.

Moneca Molina found out about the subsidized employment program after attending career counseling sessions through JobLink. In her case, she applied for and got a job as an administrative support worker at insurance wholesaler RIC Insurance General Agency without mentioning the program.

"We thought it was pretty cool that the county does that," said Gail Novelich, vice president at RIC, which is based in Santa Rosa. "We didn't know about it until after we had hired her, but it seems to be a well-received program in Sonoma County for people who are looking for jobs to help them along with the process."

JobLink has been making presentations about the program to local chambers of commerce and the word is still getting out, Czegus said.

"Anything that we can do that encourage jobs and encourage employers to hire anybody is good," said Onita Pellegrini, CEO of Petaluma's Chamber of Commerce. "I'm sure there are a lot of businesses that would like to take advantage of it. And it's good for the employee. Sometimes it's so hard to get over that 'You don't have the experience' part of it."

The manufacturing sector, which has a shortage of skilled laborers, can benefit from the program, said Ed Barr, president of equipment manufacturer P&L Specialties, who sits on the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board. The program can help offset the cost of the on-the-job training that inevitably happens, Barr said.

"When you hire somebody, even if they're a perfect fit, there's always that investment that happens, and that's always the unknown," Barr said. "You can do all the best interviewing in the world, but the amount of time it takes someone to come up to speed and become proficient, it's always different."

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