Skill-building in a community setting

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, February 15, 2016

A new effort is exploring skill-building opportunities for immigrant workers who are seeking stable employment in Northern Westchester County, NY. The project is a collaboration between Westchester Community College and the nonprofit Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, both located in the suburban New York City area. 

It is one of more than a half-dozen similar projects supported by the Building Community Partnerships to Serve Immigrant Workers (BCPIW) initiative of the National Council for Workforce Education. The initiative is funded by the Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Each of the BCPIW projects is receiving technical assistance from NCWE, and teams from each project have made a visit to a model program at Casa de Maryland or Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago. In addition, project partners have participated in peer-learning opportunities with each other.

Identifying the Need: Home Health

The New York project team began by examining labor-market trends and identifying a growing need for home health workers. Job openings in that occupation in Westchester County are expected to increase by 29% by 2022. Other data-gathering documented an aging population, particularly an increase in those age 80 and older, and an expanding local pool of immigrant workers.  

Many of those workers pass through the doors of Neighbors Link, which serves more than 2,700 immigrant and low-income families every year. Among the organization’s services are a worker center that includes a hiring site and a job bank. “Employers are used to calling here to look for workers in areas like landscaping or construction,” explains Carola Otero Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link. “And some of our clients are very entrepreneurial; they were already doing informal private-duty [home care].” 

Designing the Program

Initially, project partners anticipated creating a Home Health Aide (HHA) training program. Such programs follow an established process in New York State, which licenses HHAs and which requires that training classes be taught by a Registered Nurse with home health experience.

It quickly became apparent that a more tailored approach would be needed. “We had to back up and realize that our clients had some foundational skills needs,” says Otero Bracco. “Many Neighbors Link clients have limited formal education, perhaps at the 3rd or 4th grade level. When we looked at the textbook that was being used by [other] Home Health Aide training programs, we realized that you really had to have a [higher] level of English in order to participate.”

The partners went back to the drawing board. “We ultimately developed a new Home Companion Certificate that provides 20 hours of training, preparing participants to go into the homes of people who have disabilities or are elderly,” explains Kathy Graf, ESL coordinator at Westchester Community College. “The English as a Second Language [ESL] component is interwoven within this program.”

The certificate provides an initial step on the career ladder for immigrant workers, Graf adds. “After they complete the Home Companion training [at Neighbors Link], we hope that will be the foundation that allows them to enter the [existing] Personal Care Assistant 40-hour training program” currently offered at the college. The next step for PCA graduates is to take an additional 35-hour course to become Home Health Aides.

“It’s about meeting our clients where they are,” says Otero Bracco. “We want them to be successful. Kathy and Robert [Nechols] have worked very hard to develop the contextualized ESL component of the Home Companion Certificate, and the program is being taught by an ESL instructor along with a volunteer who has a background in home health.” (Nechols serves as Director of the English Language Institute at Westchester Community College.) 

What Training Includes

The Home Companion Certificate training consists of eight 2.5-hour classes. “Each class period is really three hours, because we added 30 minutes for dinner for the participants,” explains Luisa Granda, director of adult education and operations at Neighbors Link. “We have learned through our own experience, as well as our site visit to Instituto in Chicago, that providing dinner and childcare is really vital in making sure that people can participate in training.”

The program is also providing other wraparound services to help students persist. Most notable is the learning facilitator, Ramiro Rincon, who serves as a combination counselor, adviser, and troubleshooter. “Commitment [to the training program] is important,” says Granda. “We know that retention can be an issue…life gets in the way. We're trying to work with participants to make sure they can stick with the class.”

Applying a National Model in a Local Context

“We learned when we visited Instituto that each partner should do what they do well. Let the community-based organization do what it does well, and let the community college do what it does well,” says Granda. “So Neighbors Link will engage with employers because that’s one of the things we do well…. We’re developing marketing materials right now.”

Eventually – like Instituto – Neighbors Link hopes to expand eligibility for the program to US-born participants. “Our mission is about integrating the whole community — not only the immigrant community, but also longer-term residents,” says Otero Bracco. “We take very seriously the concept of integration in the whole community.”

Eligibility Requirements

Participants must have an intermediate level of English. A modest enrollment fee of $50 is charged to ensure participants’ investment in the class. Because Home Companions are not a state-licensed occupation, and training participants are not being directly placed with employers, the program is open to all immigrants.  Learn more about the program.

Previously on the Skills Blog, NSC profiled another program in the Building Community Partnerships to Serve Immigrant Workers project, focusing on immigrant day laborers in Pasadena, CA.