BRIDGEPORT -- Southwest Connecticut's job development board raised more than $400,000 to launch the first round of a paid internship program for still-jobless residents who have exhausted their 99 weeks of unemployment.

"These folks have nowhere else to go... but to fall into the American entitlement system," said Joseph Carbone, president and chief executive of The WorkPlace Inc., during the nonprofit's open board meeting Friday. Almost 120 people attended the launch of its "Platform to Employment" at the Holiday Inn in Bridgeport.

According to The WorkPlace, there are about 9,100 residents of southwest Connecticut who have exhausted their benefits and more than 48,000 in the state. Nearly half of those in the state who have been unemployed for at least 52 weeks are older than 55. Nationally, it's about 44 percent.

Carbone went out to the business community and found employers and private individuals willing to back the program with jobs or donations, as government funds can't be used to pay for the internships.

The first round will start with 100 unemployed residents who have exhausted their 99 weeks of support and have been dubbed "99ers." Selected from WorkPlace's files, the participants will receive up to eight weeks of training and then be placed with one of 40 businesses that have signed up.

To encourage employers to participate, Carbone said the interns will become WorkPlace employees during the program. At the end of the eight weeks, he said he expects some will land jobs.

So far, he's raised enough to cover 77 people, he said.

Glenn Marshall, the Connecticut Department of Labor commissioner, gave his support to the program, speaking at the engagement and relating how, in his previous position as head of the Carpenters Union during the last couple of years, he's seen the effects of long-term unemployment.

"It was a depression in construction," he said. "I had members who were coming into my office who were losing everything and crying."

Lewis Miller, of Wertz Miller and Associates, said he and his wife, Jean, pitched in because it was a worthwhile cause.

"We're not going to solve the problem with 100," he said. "It's going to take a group effort."

Lewis is an entrepreneur, and he said he's been out of work in the past when businesses didn't go that well, but he's never lost everything like some of the 99ers.

For information on donating or hiring these workers, call Michael Morgan at The WorkPlace at 203-610-8572.