The Immigrants’ AssistanceCenter and MassHire Greater New Bedford Career Center have recently partnered in hopes of helping reverse that trend. The two have formed the first Citizenship and Workforce Readiness program, which is aimed at offering new citizens the opportunity to develop job-based computer skills, contribute to the workforce and increase economic mobility.
“The goal is to have MassHire come in and do some of the trainings for jobs that are available, using the center as a satellite office,” said Helena da Silva Hughes, the Immigrants’ Assistance Center executive director.
The new program is being made possible by a recent $23,000 capital grant the center received from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation to establish a technology-based learning environment for English language, citizenship classes and workplace readiness training.
“This is a great opportunity to serve this population; they have not been served in the past. It’s a forgotten population,” said James Daniels, the systems director at the MassHire Greater New Bedford Career Center.
Daniels estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the individuals who could benefit from the services offered at the MassHire New Bedford office may not be fully utilizing them because they don’t speak English or don’t know how to use a computer.
“It’s a big number,” he admitted. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to come here [center]. They won’t come to our center, but they will come here. If I have a person here, I can still reach that population.”
Under the new program, the IAC’s multi-lingual team of teachers, case managers, tutors and volunteers will take individuals through all levels of learning.
“We are in the process of buying some computers and tablets and getting an IT person with the grant money,” said Hughes.
She said the new computer classroom, which should be up and running by July, will enable students to take advantage of online tools for learning English and U.S. civics and to practice citizenship test-taking in an online environment, as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is planning to start using tablets during naturalization exams. MassHire will provide computer-based job training in the IAC’s computer classroom and workshops for job seekers.
“We really saw this need and this barrier. The grant is a wonderful and powerful piece,” Daniels said. “We must respond to people. Sometimes in this world we lose touch with the humanity of what we do. We put processes together, put procedures together, but we don’t think about people.”
That’s something he is committed to change.
“That’s where my folks come in — they know this technology, they know how to job search, they know how to use the tools,” he said. “Once we teach people, they will be able to do it. They just need the extra tools to move forward. We have the desire and motivation to move forward. Thanks to this grant, we now have the facilities and equipment to help them.”
Hughes said the new program will offer new approaches to preparing immigrants for career advancement and increased integration.
“We hear employers constantly mentioning that they cannot find employees to fulfill some of the positions that are available. One of the things they mention quite often is the language barrier and low literacy skills. And now, with all this technology being used, that’s also a barrier for our immigrant community,” she said, noting the increasing number of jobs that are coming from the high-tech sector.
Initially, Daniels plans to have two MassHire employees conducting trainings at the Immigrants’ Assistance Center on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons.
The computer classroom will be located on the second floor of the building that houses the center at 58 Crapo Street, New Bedford.
But Hughes said the ultimate goal is to move the whole operation of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center to the third floor, which is currently unoccupied.
“The third floor has lots of space,” Hughes said. “Our first floor office is very tiny. And we deal with a lot of personal issues and many times my staff has to use my office because it’s the only place in the center that has a door.”
Hughes said the center is currently working with City officials to make that move a reality.
“We are working with the City through the Community Development Block Grant,” she explained. “We are hoping that within a year and a half or two years we will be moving to the third floor. At the same time, there is enough space on the third floor for MassHire to do some trainings.”
Since taking the helm at the MassHire office, Daniels said he has made an effort to hire bilingual staff. He is also in the process of developing a video in Portuguese to inform Portuguese-speakers about the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment (RESEA) Program.
“I hope to have it done by this summer,” he said, adding that Dartmouth Community Television (DCTV) is donating their time and facilities to help produce the video.
Once completed, the video will also be used by the Citizenship and Workforce Readiness program.
In the upcoming weeks, Hughes plans to visit the Ser Jobs for Progress Inc. in Fall River, which has offered some language and workforce development programs targeting underrepresented minority groups.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “Maybe there is something they are doing that might work here.”
For more information about the new Citizenship and Workforce Readiness program, call the Immigrants’ Assistance Center at 508-996-8113.