An innovative pipeline to electronics-assembly jobs

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, January 21, 2016

As implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act moves forward, many localities are seeking to identify program models that respond to employer demand while effectively serving jobseekers who have barriers to employment. One Seattle program has a nearly two-decade track record of success in doing just that.

The nonprofit Refugee Federation Service Center provides immigrant and refugee jobseekers with training in Electronics Assembly. The three-month, 150-hour course provides jobseekers with customized, employer-informed training in the skills they need to find employment in Seattle’s robust manufacturing industry.

Graduates of the program go on to work for employers such as Boeing and CarlisleIT, earning $12 to $15 per hour – an impressive outcome given that many arrive at the Refugee Federation with limited English proficiency, and little or no American job experience.  Staff member Mengstab Tzegai explains: “We do an intake to assess their level of education, their English level, their mathematics ability. Based on the intake, we know whether our program can serve them.”

Focus on Jobseekers with Barriers

The demographics of Electronics Assembly training participants vary, but most are newly arrived refugees or asylees (that is, immigrants who have been granted asylum in the US) with low incomes, limited English proficiency, few transferrable skills, and little American work experience. A minority of participants have high levels of education from abroad (such as former engineers), but most have much more limited formal education. In addition to the variety of educational backgrounds represented among participants, the program serves a diverse mixture of men and women from countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and East Africa.

Classes meet for three hours a day, four days a week. Each quarter, the Refugee Federation servces two cohorts of approximately 40 students each, with one class meeting in the morning, and the other in the afternoon.

Participants in both cohorts have the option of also participating in an hour-long lunchtime English class.  This Vocational English for Speakers of Other Language (VESL) class focuses on industry-specific vocabulary as well as the communications skills that participants will need to successfully obtain and maintain employment in the field.

“We created this program because we want to promote long-term self-sufficiency and self-reliance for refugees and immigrants, not place them in dead-end positions,” explains Tzegai.

Employer-Driven Training

Employers have been involved in the program since its inception, says Tzegai, helping to inform the curriculum and providing feedback and guidance on program design.

The feedback helps ensure that classes are providing the exact skills that participants will need on the job. “We are teaching people how to assemble motherboards…how to solder the components that are put on the motherboards,” says Tzegai, emphasizing the practical nature of the coursework.

The program is careful to hire instructors with content-area expertise. “One of our teachers is an engineer who graduated from the University of Washington, who is also a former refugee himself,” explains Tzegai. “Our lab teacher is a woman who has been working with companies in this industry for a long time. And our blueprint teacher worked in assembly for many years.”

An Intentional Path Toward Employment

Each element of the program is designed to lead toward employment, says Tzegai. In addition to the content-area instruction and lunchtime ESL classes, the program provides extensive coaching in job-search skills.

“Before they graduate [from the program] we prepare their resume, teach them how to dress for an interview, what to expect in the job interview,” says Tzegai. “We talk about how they are supposed to work with an employer. And after their training, we send their resumes to the companies, and we schedule their interviews.”

The intensive effort works. Tzegai says more than 90 percent of program graduates find employment within three months. Some start as temporary employees through Kelly Services, a well-known temp agency, making $12 or $13 per hour. Others move directly into permanent employment with major companies, earning $14 or $15 per hour.

Paying For It All: Braided Funding 

Funding for the program is provided from a variety of sources, including private foundation support, state refugee funds, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, and the Washington State Basic Food and Employment Training program. (The latter program is Washington’s iteration of the federal SNAP Employment & Training program. Learn more about SNAP E&T funding.) In addition, some participants self-pay the class’s $450 materials fee.

But beyond the mechanisms of program funding, Tzegai says, is the question of commitment. “You have to have the willingness to do programs like this. The Refugee Federation was created by small mutual aid associations. All of the executive directors of these agencies are refugees themselves. They care…you have to take it upon yourself to make it work.”

Tzegai’s message is likely to resonate as states move forward with implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which encourages greater adoption of demand-driven job training program models. Meanwhile, the Refugee Federation is gearing up for the next round of Electronics Assembly training — now nearing its 20th year of operation. 


*Photo courtesy of Refugee Federation Service Center