California program connects day laborers to community college

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, December 18, 2015

A new program is experimenting with ways to help immigrant day laborers build additional skills through community college courses. Launched in early 2015, the pilot effort is a joint project of Pasadena City College, the Pasadena Community Job Center, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).

To date, approximately 75 individuals have participated in classes, which are held onsite at the Pasadena Community Job Center, a worker organization. Individuals who complete 120 hours of course work earn a California State certificate in Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL), focusing on a topic such as Green Housekeeping or Green Construction.

The program is designed to provide an effective on-ramp to community college for workers who may have limited formal education, and little if any experience in a US classroom environment. The program is structured as one building block in a longer career pathway that can enable workers to progress over time. Classes are taught by community college instructors, and attendance – an often variable issue, given the realities of day labor – is tracked rigorously.

“A lot of workers are focused on the short-term ‘Am I going to work today?’ question,” explains NDLON staff member Xochi Flores. “Shifting to a longer-term perspective [by investing in their own training and education] is a process. Our staff is having a lot of one-on-one conversations with workers.”

Partner organizations worked extensively to ensure that the program would be accessible rather than intimidating. “We wanted to make sure classes were pertinent and relevant to the workers' lives,” says Flores, “and that they would contribute to workers attaining more gainful employment.”

While many participants are day laborers who work out of the Pasadena Center, others are neighborhood residents who learned about the classes and wanted to join in. Demographically, participants are primarily Latino or Asian immigrants. Class enrollment is evenly divided between men and women.

The program was created under the auspices of California’s AB 86 law, known as the Adult Education Block Grant, which among other goals encourages community colleges to partner with local organizations.

Pasadena’s program is supported by competitive funding from the Ford Foundation’s Building Community Partnerships to Support Immigrant Workers (BCPIW) initiative. The initiative is overseen by the National Council for Workforce Education. Pasadena is one of eight pilot sites funded by BCPIW nationwide.

As befitting a pilot initiative, the program is still very much in an experimental stage. “We plan to keep up the Green Construction VESL class because we eventually want to implement a pre-apprenticeship program,” says Flores. “We also experimented with having a driver’s license VESL class over the summer, and that went well.” In addition, she says, the center offers a popular English conversation class, which provides a more informal way for workers to build their language skills.

And while the program was conceived and implemented by the community college and nonprofit partners, Flores is frank about its true constituency. “It’s really important to engage workers in every step of the process, to ensure that they are in charge of their own education plan. We are there to facilitate and support with resources. They are the stakeholders.”

Learn more about the Pasadena program in the original project proposal description.