|Easing the way for immigrant workers
Group targets training, language
By Patrick Gerard Healy
Wellington Lousada speaks three languages and is learning sign language. His co-worker Diego Condori studied electrical engineering at Universidad Tecnica de Oruro. Both perform janitorial services at a graduate residence at MIT.
On Nov. 18, the two immigrants participated in a forum that gave them hope they will someday be able to attain jobs that better suit their capabilities. Held at the Paulist Center in downtown Boston by the Workforce Solutions Group, the forum attracted almost 150 employers, employees, union members, immigrant advocates, and education and training providers.
The main objective was to work on drafting legislation to help remove the obstacles that keep workers from reaching self-sufficiency and prevent employers from securing skilled employees.
''The lack of skills is a challenge for both Massachusetts workers and employers," said Beverly Sobers, manager of workforce development at Brigham and Women's Hospital. ''Workers need additional education and skills in order to secure better wages and employers need skilled workers in order to fill vacancies in critical shortage areas such as nursing, allied health, and technology."
Lousada, 27, said he wants to go into nursing someday, but he can't afford to take the time off from his custodial duties to get the proper training.
Lewis Finfer of the Organizing and Leadership Training Center said this is the sort of problem he's been seeing a lot of lately.
''Community colleges are limited to nights and weekends for courses," he said. ''We want to try to change policy so more courses could be given at times that might be more feasible for people who work nights and weekends."
Lousada said many of the people around him are working in jobs below their level because they don't know how to speak English. If employers could cooperate with training centers to offer English classes, it would be a huge step forward.
''When most immigrants come to this country they start to do cleaning jobs because they don't need to speak that much. Instead of trying to jump to a better job like an office job or a translator, they think it's best to start from a job where they don't have to speak," he said, which often leads to isolation in their new country for smart people who have the ability, just not the training, to do more specialized work.
This problem is not limited to immigrants, either, said Coleman Nee of The Strategy Group.
''It's not like they're going to open the mill again when the economy goes up, and all the blue-collar workers are going to go back to work," he said. ''Any new business is going to be technology, and particularly new Americans and blue-collar workers that were laid off don't have the needed skills to jump in. . . . The economy could be great, but the workforce has never improved."
Nee said the Workforce Solutions Group is not blaming anyone for the way things are, simply trying to put as many groups together as possible to fix the situation. The group is led by the Women's Union, The Massachusetts Workforce Board Association, the Organizing and Leadership Training Center, and The Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
''You need to have a coordinated effort to do this. It's not a government solution, it's not a business solution, and it's not a union solution. Everyone has to work together and identify where the problems are," he said.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, agreed.
''If there is one thing we learned today, it's that there is not a simple solution," he told the crowd. He also asked that everyone come back in January to share the group's legislative strategy.
Finfer said the group will draft five to 10 proposals by Wednesday, out of the 50 or so ideas to come from the nine forums the group has held throughout the state this year.
''A lot of issues came up, and what we file is specifically based on the proposals people came up with," he said. ''We asked these people 'What's the barrier that you have in front of you?' and then, 'What should be done about it?' "
Among the proposals was a workforce training fund through which employers would receive grants for onsite job training. The employer would give employees an hour off for class if they were able to commit to an extra hour of work during the week.
This is the sort of proposal that Condori said would work perfectly for him.
''If [the instructors] come in on weekdays, we need that day as a pay day," he said. ''No dollar [should be] discounted, because if $1 is gone from the bucket, it's no good."