To think of his high school career, sometimes Giovanni Montalvo is surprised he even graduated from South Park High School.

After he missed a lot of classes and did what he thinks of now as bad things, he got a $7.25-an-hour job cleaning toilets, which he hated.

“Ah, man, never mind,” he sighed, thinking of it.

Back then, when he looked at successful, well-dressed people, it seemed like there was a gulf between him and them. He thought he was not the sort of person they could possibly care about.

Last summer, his perspective, and even his personality, changed when a friend persuaded him to go to a training class at the Moselle Street CRUCIAL community center on Buffalo’s East Side. There he met men working with the Skyview training program, learned about how to interview with eye contact, met a GEICO insurance recruiter who seemed genuinely interested in helping, and things started to change.

“I think I was a rebel to everything,” said Montalvo, 19. “I didn’t think that people that had good jobs really cared … It changed my whole thought process.”

The Skyview training centers, founded four years ago by former collection agency manager Orlando Perez, feature an eight-week program that teaches “soft” people skills used to answer phones and interact with others responsively, along with more technical skills, like computer basics. Another downtown center, a division of the University at Buffalo, has a similar emphasis, along with a sharpening interest in medical-related training to supply workers to the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“My goal is to see what is needed related to the allied health field,” said Julius Adams, executive director of the University at Buffalo’s downtown Educational Opportunity Center, adding that this will include technicians and other emerging needs. “It’s an exciting time to help people reinvent themselves.”

Skyview’s “soft” focus has been helping its clients qualify for a range of jobs at call centers, security firms and the expanding downtown casino. So far 150 have graduated, with about 90 percent still employed. A $250,000 grant from the state Department of Labor helped Perez expand to four community centers this year and last – the Moselle Street center, Hispanics United on Virginia Street, FLARE Community Center on Leroy Avenue and the Matt Urban Hoper Center on Paderewski Drive. Funding lasts through August and targets 124 at-risk young people, 18 to 24, in need of work.

“There are thousands of open jobs in Buffalo,” said Perez. “There’s truly a skill gap between the jobs that are available and the people that need them.”

Skills that work

The region’s employee prospects can be seen in two parts, he said: Well-educated alums who graduate from highly ranked schools like City Honors, go to college and get good jobs at banks and businesses, and those left behind.

Students like Montalvo, who have gone through a failing school like South Park, one of the lowest ranking in the city, need basic math, reading and interpersonal coaching.

“I had an employer tell me that somebody answered their cellphone during an interview,” said Perez, 40. “Nobody ever told a person that that’s not appropriate.”

He thinks of his clients as his children. Many have not had parental support that can help with success in school and the workplace.

“I do a lot of the employer outreach,” he said. “I bring the employers in. I do a lot of the matching of kids to job opportunities.”

Employers who work with Skyview graduates include health care and hospital companies like Catholic Health and Kaleida, and banks like M&T. “The skills that we teach are transferable,” Perez said.

A young woman who finished Skyview training about two years ago got a career after starting out taking food orders at Buffalo General Hospital. Yanely Reyes is now studying hospital business administration at D’Youville College and earning about $20 an hour dispatching hospital services from a Kaleida Health Services call center to clean spills and deliver food. “She loves it,” Perez said.

UB’s Educational Opportunity Center lures about 1,900 people every year, including immigrants and refugees, who come for its job services: from high school General Equivalency Diplomas, to the “soft” people skills and training in Microsoft software, Adams said.

Employers have been asking for training in professions that require certification, such as how to follow federal safety policies. Classes at the Educational Opportunity Center, which are free to those who qualify, lead to certification in dental assisting and nursing assisting, he said.

By this summer, the Washington Street EOC will be open in a new location along the medical corridor, an opportune spot for job-seekers as it is next to potential employers and the Buffalo Education Training Center on Ellicott Street.

“Our goal is to take advantage of the fact that we’re moving,” Adams said.

Seneca Gaming Corp. is also gearing up for change. When its new city casino is finished in the fall, it will have almost 500 positions to fill – from table games dealers, cashiers, kitchen staff, servers and executives to accountants, maintenance workers and electricians.

Some of the casino’s difficulties in finding qualified candidates relate to basic work habits and the so-called soft skills: The casino is open 24 hours and workers need to fill three shifts, yet some don’t come to work on time.

“I know as simple as that sounds. You need to have phenomenal attendance,” said Brandy Owens, director of recruitment for Seneca Gaming. “From the moment that we hire everybody, we cannot stress it enough. It’s critical.”

Owens met with Perez before the winter holidays and was thrilled at the prospect of hiring workers trained at Skyview.

“We really are, honestly, excited,” she said. “To be able to have these people, that’s going to save us so much time in recruitment.”

Going big

As Christmas approached, Montalvo got a warm reception from prospective employers, too. It seemed that after almost every stop, he was asked back for a second interview. “I’ve got employers calling me constantly,” he said. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘No.’ ”

He soon accepted two job offers that came within a week of each other: a part-time limo driver at the casino and a full-time post as a security guard with U.S. Security Associates.

That was a big change from last summer’s experience. At an interview for a job at Walmart he didn’t get, he wore dirty sneakers, an untucked shirt and pants drooping below the waist. When he was asked to describe a long-term goal, he said it was to work at the store.

He’s since learned the importance of dress pants and wing-tip dress shoes and ambitious goals. “I had to go big,” Montalvo said.

He also learned that getting a specific job at a specific place, like Walmart, is a short-term goal. In the almost six months that have gone by since his Skyview training, his ambition has grown.

Now, he says, as his career unfolds and he tries different jobs, he’d like to work toward starting a business, being an entrepreneur and having something to do with helping young people like him.

“I want something to do with at-risk people,” he said, “helping teens trying to be someone in life.”