Workforce Collaboration Case Study: Connecting Refugees to WIOA-Funded Programs in Omaha

staff-photoLutheran Family Services of Nebraska’s Refugee Education & Employment Program (REEP) staff members have long been aware of resources available at the local American Job Centers nationwide. Many clients qualify for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funded programs, but until recently the process to fully participate in and benefit from these programs remained out of a reach.

During the past few years, the REEP team has focused on identifying and overcoming the barriers that prevent refugees from accessing WIOA-funded programs through a concerted effort to understand and collaborate with their local American Job Center (AJC).

Why Collaborate?

Brain waste, inaccessibility to higher skilled jobs, lack of transportation, language barriers, unfamiliarity with US workplace culture, and difficulty navigating assistance programs are all challenges faced by resettlement programs across the nation.  Another challenge for programs with limited resources is how they can best connect refugees to training that will put them on a career path that can take them beyond an initial job to pay the bills.

classroom-photoHow can refugee employment programs best help the young Iraqi engineer, who just arrived and expressed to his career counselor that his main desire is to finish his U.S. degree and specialize in robotics? Or the Afghan SIV recipient with a large family who needs a job while working towards U.S. certification in the IT field?  What about the Burmese client who worked for 10 years as a welder in Malaysia, but never got a certificate? How can he apply his skills here?

How can we help foreign-trained professionals and those with backgrounds in the trades discover career pathways that lead to fulfilling work that pays a living wage and capitalizes on their skills?

The mainstream workforce development system is often described as a highway with many off-ramps that job seekers can take to pursue their career goals, and its WIOA-funded programs in particular offer an abundance of opportunities and benefits.

Opportunities within the Mainstream Workforce Development System

WIOA-funded programs provide a variety of workforce development options designed to help individuals with barriers to employment receive training and certification in “H3 jobs” (high demand, high wage and high-skill). With some assistance, refugees with the right aptitudes and skill-sets can access these resources and obtain certifications that can increase their hourly wage by up to 30 to 40 percent.

career-pathwaysIn addition to training programs such as Registered Apprenticeships (RAs), On-the-job Training (OJT) and Individual Training Accounts (ITAs), WIOA-funded programs also provide additional resources that can offset some of the costs associated with starting a new job or career.

Some examples of supportive services include tools, work apparel, and other initial required items normally paid for by the employee through payroll deduction. Participants in WIOA-funded programs may also be eligible for transportation assistance in the form of gas vouchers, car registration fees, repairs or other transportation services.

In some cases REEP clients enrolled in WIOA-funded programs have also been eligible for emergency rental assistance or utility assistance. Eligibility for these temporary supports is determined on a case-by-case basis, and often are a one-time benefit. Tuition, books, and study related costs & supportive services are covered for those pursuing a certification or degree in high-demand careers.  In eligible cases, both WIOA & PELL funding are available.

Partnership between Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska and Heartland Workforce Solutions American Job Center

To capitalize on this amazing opportunity for newly arriving refugee populations, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska’s Refugee Education & Employment Program (REEP) began collaborating with a local American Job Center (AJC) operated by Heartland Workforce Solutions (HWS) in early 2013.

The first thing the REEP team did was set up an initial meeting to learn about the resources that the AJC offered and familiarize the AJC management with the LFS refugee resettlement program. Following the initial meeting, the REEP team provided an orientation for AJC frontline staff new to serving refugees. More meetings followed to discuss individual participants the REEP team would be bringing for enrollment and to set expectations for communication between the two organizations.

Because of the complexities involved in the AJC eligibility and enrollment process, refugee employment service providers cannot simply direct their clients to AJCs, cross their fingers, and hope for successful outcomes. Developing a clear understanding of the AJC process and setting clear expectations for communication between the two organizations was essential for the REEP team in order to ensure that they were providing adequate support to clients they would refer to the AJC.

Going through this process of mutual learning was critical in building trust and developing effective ways to collaborate, including working together to address barriers preventing LFS clients from accessing AJC resources.

Benefits of the Collaboration

Both the REEP program and the AJC benefited from this collaboration. The REEP program successfully enrolled 12 clients into WIOA-funded programs through the AJC. Three of these clients were enrolled in On-the-job Training, five clients received skills training, and 5 clients received other supportive services through the AJC.

refugee-at-workSeveral of these clients have been successful in retaining the high-paying jobs that they obtained through participating in these mainstream workforce development programs. Afghan SIV recipients, for example, proved to be a great fit for apprenticeships in the construction field because of their previous work experience with the U.S. military.

The AJC also experienced many benefits from this collaboration, including a link to a pre-screened and motivated talent pool that does not typically access mainstream workforce development services, ongoing wrap-around support from the REEP team for refugee participants, and higher success rates (successful outcomes for refugee clients were double that of the general population in the first two years of the collaboration).

Challenges and Collaborative Solutions

While much progress has been made in accessing WIOA-funded programs for refugees, this endeavor has not been without its challenges. Below is a summary of the five most significant challenges faced during this collaboration and the solutions that the REEP team and the AJC developed to overcome these barriers:

Challenge #1: WIOA program enrollment process delays: The WIOA program enrollment process has historically required a significant amount of time. The complexity and time demands inherent to the current enrollment process directly impacts the clients’ ability to take advantage of employment opportunities and fails to meet the staffing needs of employers offering “living wage jobs.”

Solution: Effective communication and collaboration between the REEP team and the AJC was the best strategy in overcoming these systemic barriers. REEP staff work with AJC staff to streamline the process and provide support where needed

Challenge #2: Scheduling Problems: Scheduling conflicts often resulted in significant delays between Orientation and completion of the TABE test (a math and literacy test participants must pass in many states to qualify for training programs). This was primarily due to the fact that both TABE tests and Orientations were only offered once a week and only during scheduled work hours. Even for the unemployed, the schedule was problematic because it conflicted with the beginning and ending of their children’s school day.

Solution: After the REEP team brought these issues to the attention of AJC management, they agreed to make adjustments to the schedule that resulted in adding more orientation options that could better accommodate the schedules of clients. The AJC also allowed for individual orientations or specially scheduled testing to meet the needs of clients.

Challenge #3: Selective Service Registration Eligibility Requirement: Selective Service registration requirement for males has often been a barrier even though most of the refugees enrolling in WIOA-funded programs are not required by to register since they arrived in the US after their 26th birthday. In order  to receive federal education and training assistance, males under 56 years of age are required to obtain a Status Information Letter from Selective Services verifying they are not required to register with the SSA. SSA processing and procedural complexity often results in significant delays in obtaining the requisite Status confirmation.

Solution: Collaborative efforts between the AJC and the REEP team helped reduce the impact of this issue. The AJC agreed to accept a copy of the Status Information Letter, along with the certified mail receipt from sending the Status Information Letter to SSA through certified mail in cases where participation could not move forward.

Challenge #4: Income Eligibility Problems: Verification of income can be a challenge even though the AJC and federal authorities accept that anyone receiving SNAP or food stamp benefits as meeting the qualification to receive WIOA benefits.  Problems can occur when the client presents DHHS verification documentation that is unfamiliar to WIOA staff and therefore may not be accepted as verification of income. A related issue is determining the actual start date for receipt of benefits. It is often not clear what date is to be used as the client’s application to WIOA date or what effect their post SNAP/TANF earning will have on their eligibility and enrollment delays exacerbate this problem.

Solution: Ongoing collaborative efforts of AJC staff and REEP program staff to mitigate response delays by key outside entities can help to reduce some of the delays in the overall verification process.

Challenge #5: Jobs obtained during the enrollment process: Jobs obtained prior to finishing enrollment can make clients ineligible for WIOA programs. Often during a protracted enrollment process clients are found to be ineligible if they receive a promotion or wage increase. Significant delays in enrollment processing can affect a client’s ability to meet regulatory compliance and ultimately impact their eligibility for needed resource assistance.

Solution: Close communication and cooperation between the AJC and the REEP team helped to mitigate the impact of enrollment processing delays and address this challenge.

Tips for Collaboration with AJCs

The LFS REEP team has learned a lot from their experience collaborating with an American Job Center, and suggests the following tips for refugee employment programs around the country who may be considering similar collaborations:

  • Always have a liaison or navigator who can dedicate time to cultivating the relationship with the AJC and provide support to refugees and AJC staff during the complicated enrollment process. This can be an employment team member, an intern, or a volunteer—anyone who can take the time to learn the process and provide the needed support.
  • Job Developers can play an important role in opening up On-the-job Training and Registered Apprenticeship opportunities for refugee clients by making employer partners aware of these federal programs and connecting them to appropriate staff at the AJC. The subsidies that employers can receive through these programs can serve as a great incentive for taking a chance on hiring a refugee.
  • Invest the time to become familiar with how WIOA is administered and its requirements in your local Workforce Development region through research and look at labor market information to identify the high demand jobs in your area.
  • Be prepared to articulate the benefits of working with refugees and also to provide ongoing support to mainstream workforce development partners, just as you would with employers.
  • Keep up with changes in WIOA policies and meet regularly with AJC leadership to share updates and address challenges.

Many thanks to the staff at Lutheran Family Services Nebraska (especially Ryan Overfield, Carol Tucker, and Rich Surber) as well as the staff at Heartland Workforce Solutions for contributing this case study!

Have you collaborated with an American Job Center or other mainstream workforce development partner in your area? Share your success story by emailing us at information@higheradvantage.org.

 

Higher’s Holiday Gift Guide

Earlier this month, when we asked for suggestions to inform our annual gift guide, we hoped to learn about one or two new businesses or products that help refugees earn more than minimum wage in jobs that offer dignity, training opportunities and supportive work environments. Thanks to the incredible response from across the refugee employment network, we received more recommendations than we can list, so here are the top 12. Enjoy!

anchor-of-hopeAnchor of Hope – A subscription service to receive monthly or quarterly boxes filled with items lovingly handmade by refugees, survivors of human trafficking and others in vulnerable situations, most living right here in the United States.

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Beautiful Day Granola – Tastes great. Employs and trains refugees. They have several flavors to choose from, but if you’re new to Beautiful Day, try Keith’s Originala – it’s so good!

blb3Better Life Bags – Located in Detroit, Better Life Bags employs workers with barriers to employment including refugees/asylees.

broadwick-fibersBroadwick Fibers – We work with ACC here in Denver to employ refugees (well, just one right now but plans for more in the near future) who have come here from East Africa.    -Camille McMurry, owner of Broadwick Fibers

 

edEkata Designs – A Memphis based Jewelry business that exists to provide employment, income and training to refugees as they transition to a new life in America.

 

Kei & Molly Textiles A small, women owned and run business who has hired two of our Congolese clients!   -Kiri Mathsen, Job Developer at Lutheran Family Services of Rocky Mountains in Albuquerque, NM  

 

15056691_1142776845843269_4146344282048954368_nGAIA Empowered Women – Through a living wage and continued training and development, the goal of this Dallas-based social enterprise is to lead the women to financial independence and self-sufficiency.

 

knotty-tie-co-2Knotty Tie Co. – This company hires refugees who graduate from ECDC’s African Community Center of Denver’s “We Made This sewing program and teaches them to make beautiful, high quality ties and scarves.

 

artisan_candle_compactProsperity Candle – Refugee women help select the scents and make the gorgeous candles in collaboration with their artisan colleagues in Iraq.  Read more in a previous Higher blog post.

 

Threadies – Threadies are hand-sewn by a team of women in the West Bank who receive a living wage and valuable job training. When you purchase a Thready teddy bear, its twin goes to a child refugee, along with tools vital to help them cope with trauma.

 

usful-glassŪsful Glassworks – A Denver-based nonprofit with a mission to help people with employment barriers find jobs by providing on-the-job and vocational training to those in the community who need help, including refugees. 

 

wornWorn – A socially-conscious business of Catholic Charities Fort Worth with a mission to provide refugee women living in the United States a supplemental source of income, empowering them to rise above poverty. All products are hand-knit in the U.S. by women who have survived the afflictions of their war-torn and poverty-stricken homelands.

Greetings from the new Program Manager of Higher!

Hello everyone! Last Monday, (November 14, 2016) I became the new Program Manager for Higher. I’ve received a wonderful welcome from my co-workers Sarah and Daniel, as well as from the blog comments and network at large. Thank you for making me feel so welcome!

nicole-headshotPrior to coming to Higher, I worked in employment for a number of years with USCRI in their North Carolina field office. When I began with USCRI, my first project was to revitalize a Match Grant (MG) program with an 11% self-sufficiency rate (out of a 200 slot program). I worked as a job developer to establish new employer relationships and to design a job readiness curriculum that would lead my clients on a path to success. My network of peers, headquarters staff and the Higher team helped support me with the resources and connections I needed to build successful programs.

For four years I worked hard to secure funding to increase our capacity, while designing effective programs that would better serve our clients. I’m happy to say that when I left USCRI, we had four successful job programs and a job upgrade program that I established and saw funded before I left. The site now has a 96% self-sufficiency rate, a seven week job readiness curriculum, four programs and six staff.

I’m excited to take my work to the national level. I look forward to learning from all of you as well. At times employment staff can be both loved and hated by clients because our job links clients to their financial, social, and permanent success in the U.S. I know how hard the work that you do is, but I also know how talented and passionate every one of you is about the clients you serve. I hope that each of you will reach out to me at any time. I would like to hear your success stories so that I can celebrate you at a higher level.

Have a wonderful holiday and thank you for your service and partnership with refugees and immigrants!

Please keep in touch,

Nicole

nredford@lirs.org

Holiday Gift Guide – Any Recommendations?

Do you know of any businesses or products that should be featured in Higher’s annual holiday gift guide?  We have a great list started for this year’s guide, but it can always be better!  

Stay tuned for our annual holiday gift guide blog post. We’ll put all of your recommendations into one post to make your holiday shopping as easy as possible.  

Please submit your recommendations by commenting below or by contacting us.

Welcome Nicole Redford, Program Manager for Higher

Today is Nicole’s first day! Nicole Redford joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Nicole has spent the last few years with USCRI as the Employment Coordinator overseeing six staff working in four programs: Matching Grant, Refugee Assistance Program, Targeted Assistance Grant, and the Cuban Haitian programs. She started the agency’s first job upgrade program securing grants and private donations. She has also worked with refugees across the spectrum of service areas as the Youth Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in NYC, and as the Program Manager for Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.) for three years. Nicole has a Master’s in Global Affairs from NYU where she focused on Human Rights.

Please join us in welcoming Nicole!

Higher’s December Webinars

Financial Literacy: How to Teach the Basics

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

2:00 – 3:15pm EST

Financial literacy is an essential component of economic self sufficiency. This webinar will explore what topics are most important and will feature resources designed to be used as job readiness activities. Panelists will share financial literacy initiatives and examples of community partnerships that can be replicated. Financial literacy curriculums will be highlighted throughout the training.  

Register here


Collaborating with Mainstream Workforce Development and Taking Advantage of WIOA-funded Training Opportunities

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2:00 – 3:30pm EST

Higher has made a concerted effort over the past couple years to educate our network about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) and has highlighted mainstream workforce development resources and collaboration case studies on our blog. In this webinar, Higher will continue building our network’s awareness of WIOA-related opportunities by highlighting specific career pathways opportunities within the mainstream workforce system that have potential to help refugees move beyond “survival jobs.” Speakers are still being confirmed, but Higher is hoping that this webinar will feature both government WIOA experts, as well as refugee field staff that have successfully collaborated with the mainstream system.

Register here

Friday Feature: A Refugee Family’s First Month in the U.S.

Erika Shultz/Seattle Times

Erika Shultz/Seattle Times

Although our posts typically focus on the employment search of our clients and not on what they experience in their first days or weeks in the U.S., it’s good to keep in mind the extreme adjustment (with all the hopes, fears, and uncertainties) that our clients are going through when we begin working with them.

Take a few minutes this Friday to check out this fantastic multi-media piece from the Seattle Times on the first 30 days of a Bhutanese refugee family in Washington state:

http://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/bhutan-to-tukwila/#/

Webinar Announcement: International Perspectives On Connecting Immigrant and Refugee Youth to Employment

Looking for ideas and inspiration for connecting immigrant and refugee youth to employment? Tuning in to ideas from other countries resettling refugees can be a helpful way to get some fresh perspective and think outside the box.

This Wednesday at 10:00 AM EST, Canada-based Cities of Migration will host a webinar featuring “enterprising ideas from Stockholm and Paris that are connecting talented young people to jobs while helping businesses tap the diversity advantage.”

The webinar will highlight strategies such as social enterprises, vocational training and mentorship programs that help prepare under/un-employed immigrant and refugee youth for the labour market while promoting the values of corporate diversity and leadership to employers.

To register, click here: http://citiesofmigration.ca/webinar/youthemployment/

Soft Skills: A Fundamental in Our Work

We think a lot about skills and what employers are looking for in new hires.  Even though this data was published by the Confederation of British Industry, it closely mirrors what we experience in our job development efforts with employers and job readiness preparation with clients.  Take a quick look at this graphic to remind yourself of the importance of “soft skills” and characteristics over specific technical skills and experience.

education-skills-infographic-02

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to spend more time thinking about soft skills and how to help clients understand why they are valuable and how to convey that value to employers?  Check out Higher’s eLearning course How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions. Also, review these three previous Higher blog posts:

The U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment

The initial resettlement period is action packed for refugees and employment service providers.  Everything is new.  Much of it is exciting and scary. Multiply that experience by however many clients you resettled this month and it’s easy to forget the typical emotional journey of anyone who experiences life in a different culture.

This 2011 resource from the Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange (CORE) is a quick reminder of a less tangible part of the new arrival experience.  When clients express unrealistic expectations, don’t show up for interview practice or don’t seem fully engaged in their own job search, their experience of cultural adjustment might be part of the reason.

ucurve-of-cultural-adjustment