Workforce Collaboration Case Study: Ready for Retail Training for Refugee Youth


Ready for Retail is a job readiness training program designed to equip young adults with practical skills needed for working in the retail industry. Started by the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s (ECDC) African Community Center of Denver, CO (ACC), the training program is housed in Safari Thrift Store, a social enterprise of ACC, so that participants gain realistic experience in an active retail environment.

Photo Credit: ACC-DEN

Photo Credit: ACC-DEN

Although training programs at Safari Thrift Store were primarily funded by the Colorado Refugee Services Program (CRSP) in the past, a change in the state’s refugee employment model in 2013 resulted in a 95% budget cut for Safari-based training programs. Since then, ACC has partnered with the Jefferson County (JeffCo) American Job Center and Arapahoe/Douglas County Workforce Center Youth in the Works! to continue offering additional Ready for Retail training sessions.


Program Partners

ACC is a non-profit refugee resettlement agency in the Denver Metro area, and has the longest running youth program serving the diverse needs of refugee young adults. ACC’s youth programming ensures that refugee students have the academic, professional, and socio-emotional support they need to thrive in their new community.

With the ultimate goal of economic self-sufficiency, ACC’s employment and training teams support refugees of all ages in their efforts to gain employment. ACC helps prepare refugees for the U.S. workforce through career counseling, job readiness training activities, and exploration of different job choices.

Arapahoe/Douglas County Workforce Center Youth in the Works! program has four workforce centers within the Denver metro area. One of the centers, located in Aurora, is easily accessible by public transportation and close to the area where much of the refugee community resides. Through this Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funded program, young adults are offered a variety of services including mentoring, grade incentives, GED tutoring, job readiness workshops, and one-on-one assistance with workforce specialists. Financial assistance for meeting educational and career goals is also included in the WIOA program.

JeffCo American Job Center is based in Golden, CO. While nearly all of the metro Denver’s refugee community lives outside of Jefferson County, JeffCo services are available to young adults living in other CO counties as well. The workforce specialists are willing to meet participants onsite at ACC or at the Mango House, where ACC’s youth program is based. This is extremely advantageous for the refugee population as there is limited public transportation available to reach the JeffCo American Job Center.

Populations Served

The community served by Ready for Retail includes refugee youth in the Denver metro area. Refugee youth from Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Burma/Myanmar are all represented in Ready for Retail cohorts.

Trainee learning cash register operation.

Trainee learning cash register operation.

Ready for Retail participants are primarily current high school students seeking part-time employment to help support their families.

Additionally, the program has been opened up to all WIOA-enrolled participants, also including non-refugees up to the age of 24.

em>WIOA Program Eligibility

To be eligible for WIOA funding, youth must be 16 – 24 years old and identify barriers to self-sufficiency such as low income, or English as a second language. While young adults either in or out of school can be eligible, AJCs have more funding (75% of WIOA-related funds) to invest in opportunities for Out of School Youth (OSY).

Program Structure

Ready for Retail is a cashiering and customer service job readiness program held at ACC’s Safari Thrift Store. Participants use classroom and storefront space to conduct customer service, merchandising, and loss prevention activities, in addition to supervised time at the store’s cashier station. Prior to partnering with AJCs to co-host the training, ACC hosted a shortened Ready for Retail pilot session, funded by private donations, in March 2015.

The success of the Ready for Retail pilot session prompted a longer summer cohort. In preparation for a June session, ACC staff met with JeffCo and Arapahoe/Douglas Youth in the Works retail ETPLworkforce specialists to discuss the possibility of funding the program by charging a registration fee. Arapahoe/Douglas Youth in the Works could only provide participant registration reimbursements once ACC was recognized on the eligible training provider list (ETPL) through a state database.

The online application for inclusion on the Colorado Workforce Center’s Eligible Training Provider List took one hour or less to complete and approximately one week to receive approval.

Once approved as an eligible training, ACC was able to charge WIOA-enrolled youth a $300 registration fee that was paid for through WIOA funding. Other ACC youth participants not currently enrolled in the WIOA program were considered scholarship participants.

Although four Ready for Retail participants had started or completed the WIOA enrollment process, the JeffCo WIOA program only reimbursed one participant’s registration. The June Ready for Retail session had a total of 8 program graduates.

ACC’s Employment Team followed up with Ready for Retail graduates to offer job search support. Graduates were employed at customer service-focused companies including Red Lobster, Seasons 52 Restaurant, and Hilton Garden Inn.

July 2015 Session

Although WIOA financial support for the Ready for Retail June session was extremely limited, both JeffCo and Arapahoe/Douglas AJCs expressed interest in partnering for future sessions after witnessing the interest and outcomes from the March and June sessions.

JeffCo’s Youth Outreach Ambassador requested a one-day training incorporating core activities from the customer service and money-handling Ready for Retail units. The training was considered part of a Governor’s Summer Job Hunt program that provided a variety of one-day career exploration workshops. Approval to open the training to all youth, regardless of WIOA-enrollment status, was obtained. This was the first time Ready for Retail included both refugee and non-refugee participants.

ACC contracted with JeffCo to provide the training for a flat fee (rather than a per-participant fee), to cover all costs associated with training materials, a contracted trainer, and curriculum. Seventeen youth participated in the program, which was held at the JeffCo American Job Center. Only three refugee youth attended, in part due to transportation challenges to reaching the AJC in Golden.

October 2015 Session

ACC staff met with the WIOA Youth Program Supervisor at Arapahoe/Douglas Youth in the Works to discuss a fall Ready for Retail session. The October session, timed to prepare job seekers for the retail holiday push, was held at Safari Thrift Store and was open only to WIOA-enrolled participants, including refugee and non-refugee youth. Arapahoe/Douglas Youth in the Works used a voucher system for participant registration cost reimbursements that required submitting a simple invoice for each participant.

As the most thorough collaboration between ACC and a county WIOA program yet, this Ready for Retail session included additional support from Arapahoe/Douglas Employment Specialists, who presented an overview of application and interview strategies during the last day of training. The one-week session, with five graduates, culminated in a retail-focused job fair hosted by Arapahoe/Douglas Youth in the Works.

Ready for Retail Participant feedback:

Retail quote oneIn a post training survey, graduates were asked what the training helped them feel ready to accomplish that they did not envision for themselves before. They cited confidence about the job search, importance of customer service, preparation to reach their personal goals and skills to get a customer service job.

Lessons Learned

Each Ready for Retail session completed over the past year has looked different from the previous session, in course length, participant numbers and demographics, and differing levels of partnership with the two AJCs, as ACC continues to learn from challenges and successes.

Coordinating the WIOA Enrollment Process

It was challenging for ACC youth to complete the WIOA enrollment process and for the refugee resettlement agency to coordinate enrollments. Participants are required to submit a lengthy application with several required documents, take the TABE test (only for OSY) and attend 1-2 AJC case management meetings.

For participants who had already completed WIOA enrollment, the process for obtaining approval for the Ready for Retail registration included getting in touch with a workforce specialist/case manager and arranging an in-person meeting including career counseling to confirm the training fit into participants’ longer-term goals.

The process is time-intensive, multi-tiered and often abandoned because of difficulties in reaching youth participants to schedule meetings or obtaining correct paperwork. A minimum timeframe of two – four weeks is required to complete the enrollment process.

“The application for enrollment is quite extensive even for mainstream youth”, says Lisa MacClure, former ACC Youth Career Counselor. “The number of questions on the enrollment application asked to determine eligibility can be very confusing for a youth who is an English Language Learner.”

“Also, the boxes checked to indicate which eligibility criteria apply can seriously affect the processing time. For each eligibility criteria you mark, you must provide proof of that factor. Collecting this type of documentation can be time consuming and challenging for refugee youth who are unfamiliar with our systems here in the U.S.”                                         .

AJCs benefit from having an agency like ACC-DEN to help facilitate the enrollment process. Elizabeth Ramsey, Arapahoe Douglas Youth in the Works! Workforce Specialist, is grateful for the refugee agency’s assistance in the registration process and hopes for better coordination of the process in the future. “I’d like to organize some kind of intake/informational session schedule with [ACC]. Because of the time-consuming nature of intakes, it’s really helpful to work with organizations like ACC that can help us streamline groups of intakes into trainings.”

Adapting Training Programs to Fit Non-Refugee Participants

ACC is continuing to adapt the Ready for Retail curriculum to fit both refugee and non-refugee participants. The original curriculum was written specifically for an English Language Learners audience, with additional support around new vocabulary and American money values. One non-refugee Ready for Retail program participant commented that the trainer “sometimes acted too childish, like we didn’t know what some easy words meant.”

Possible solutions that will be tested in future sessions include:

  • Offering an additional day of background knowledge training for refugee Ready for Retail participants prior to the session start date, to pre-teach key vocabulary, concept of a thrift store, and American money values that non-refugee students already grasp.
  • Purposeful grouping during training sessions, so that participants have opportunities to interact with participants who speak different native languages, as well as groupings according to native language for different types of peer and language support.
  • Scheduling additional training time at the end of each session day to provide additional reinforcement and practice opportunities for refugee participants.



retail quote twoOnce participants are enrolled in the WIOA program, they have opportunities for additional financial support around career and educational development. “The benefits do outweigh the challenges,” says MacClure.

Additional Resources for Refugees

“The WIOA program is able to provide refugee youth with a number of opportunities that resettlement agencies do not have the capacity to assist with or fund. For example, each youth who is enrolled can receive up to $7,500 worth of assistance towards employment, training, and educational activities.

This funding can also pay for transportation assistance, uniform expenses, supplies for work, on-the-job paid internships, training programs or certificate programs, even paying for certain in-state higher education programs or books and school supplies.

Social Bridging and Cultural Competency Opportunities

Opening up the Ready for Retail training to non-refugees in addition to the refugee community has been both a challenge and an incredible benefit.

The diverse group of Ready for Retail participants offers opportunities for even greater social bridging and enables refugees to build networks with native English speakers who can offer additional language practice and American cultural perspective.

Moreover, non-refugee and refugee participants alike are provided with opportunities to increase their cultural competency skills. They are exposed to new beliefs and perspectives, and gain a broader understanding of how to interact with their future customers and co-workers.

AJC staff also voice growth in cultural competency through working with a refugee resettlement agency. Elizabeth Ramsey, Arapahoe Douglas Youth in the Works! Workforce Specialist, comments, “To be honest, most of what I know about the refugee community has resulted from working with ACC! I’ve learned a lot about working with individuals from other cultures.”

Broadening the Employer Pool

The partnership with AJCs has also resulted into access to a broader pool of local employers and job opportunities for refugees who graduate from Ready for Retail trainings without placing additional strain on refugee resettlement employment teams. The AJCs have offered additional job search support in the form of hosted job fairs targeting the retail industry. Employer-specific needs and wants have been shared by the AJCs to inform curriculum adaptations for Ready for Retail.

Diversified Funding Source

For partnerships around specific training opportunities, contracting with an AJC for a specific training session is more financially feasible than assessing a per participant fee. Obtaining approval as a Colorado Workforce Center’s Eligible Training Provider List participant was a relatively quick and easy process, and submitting a program cost proposal up front led to confidence in session funding.

As ACC continues to develop its partnerships with local AJCs, the benefits grow for refugee and non-refugee participants, the resettlement agency, and the AJCs. This partnership is a clear example of how a connection between entities fosters greater resources and benefits for an entire community.

Tapping into AJC’s WIOA resources has enabled ACC to resurrect a job readiness program that continues to see success in employment outcomes and soft skills development. Building partnerships with AJCs provide greater chances for program sustainability.

Additional Opportunities for Collaboration

Working with experienced AJC staff has provided additional ideas and brainstorming opportunities that have benefited the Ready for Retail participants and program. While ACC brings specific cultural competency knowledge and trauma-informed care skills and techniques, the AJC has provided knowledge on the broader employment market and mainstream job readiness best practices.

This initial partnership also lays the foundation for collaboration between ACC and AJCs for future job readiness training sessions.

“The retail academy was one of our most successful partnerships so far,” said Elizabeth Ramsey, Arapahoe Douglas Youth in the Works! Workforce Specialist. “We were able to get a good group together that really benefited from the training. It would definitely be beneficial to continue with the retail academy around major retail hiring seasons.”

CarrieheadshotCarrie Thiele is a Higher Peer Advisor and the Training Program Manager at ECDC’s African Community Center (ACC) in Denver, CO. She teaches daily job readiness classes and supports additional training programs including Ready for Retail. Carrie holds a master’s degree in International Studies and Economic Development from Oklahoma State University.