Bridging Access to Mainstream Workforce Resources: Rockford, Illinois

-This piece was contributed by Rock Valley College

Rock Valley College—working in collaboration with Catholic Charities, The Workforce Connection and other local partners and employers— offers comprehensive workforce services tailored to the needs of refugees to create a multitude of mutually beneficial relationships and success stories. Heilman attributes some of this success to Rock Valley’s intensive case management concept. A caring case manager matched with interpreters who understand refugees’ adjustment problems all work together to make a huge difference.


Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois has been a hub for social networking, employment services, and adult education for refugees since 1978. The college’s Refugee Training Program (RTP) is imbedded in The Workforce Connection, an American Job Center (AJC) channeling mainstream workforce resources to all Rockford job seekers. RTP services and funding streams are integrated, as are programming options for refugees. This is a unique hybrid model that

illustrates some of the WIOA-funded resources refugees can access. Eighteen workforce agency partners are located under one roof at The Workforce Connection office, so refugee clients can easily navigate career opportunities while also taking care of their family’s social and educational needs. The relationship with Rock Valley College is consistent with the concept of a “one-stop-shop” upon which AJCs across the U.S. are structured.

Rock Valley, the only community college in Illinois to receive refugee social service funding, is positioned to offer a full scope of resources and services to refugees including childcare, housing assistance, food stamps, energy assistance, public school resources, and employment assistance.

The college not only facilitates access for refugees by partnering with community agencies but by also applying their connections with workforce resources to create customized career pathways. They are the bridge between training resources and the goal of getting their clients and their skill sets ready for the U.S. workforce.

Populations Served
Catholic Charities Diocese of Rockford resettles approximately 350 refugees in Rockford each year. The majority of these receive services from Rock Valley College at different times in their initial resettlement period when they are no longer participating in other programs that might involve duplication of services. The largest refugee populations being resettled in Rockford now are from Congo, Burma, and Iraq.

Facts about Rockford

The Rockford metropolitan area’s population is 348,360 and projected to decrease. The 8.3% unemployment rate is higher than the national average

Centrally located between Chicago; Milwaukee; Dubuque, Iowa and Madison, Wisconsin, the logistics and transportation sector is one of Rockford’s major industries.
Rockford is home to the nation’s first Harley Davidson Dealership, the rock band Cheap Trick and the Rockford Peaches all-women baseball team from the 1940s and 50’s (made famous in the film A League of Their Own, 1992).

Amy Heilman, who has served refugees at Rock Valley College since 1992, is now the RTP Program Director. According to Heilman, RTP has connections to clients, interpreters, and employers that result in specialized expertise in workforce development for refugees and immigrants. The larger workforce system is not set up to serve every special population that needs to access workforce services. Reliance on specialized community agencies is an approach that has proven effective elsewhere with other special populations (e.g. people with disabilities or urban youth). RTP provides this specialized expertise for refugees and immigrants at The Workforce Connection.

“From the first day of enrollment, we know who refugees’ relatives are and where they live. We might know their neighbors, and we know our clients’ backgrounds. Heilman said. “Most refugees in the community live within a five-mile radius of Rock Valley College. RTP is not only familiar with their culture and their networks, but also their general barriers to employment.”

Core Programs Are the Foundation for Success

Intensive Case Management – The strength of Rock Valley College’s program is due in large part to its Intensive Case Management, a rather stark contrast to other mainstream workforce and adult education programs. Intensive case management is the process of identifying, planning, coordinating, and monitoring services and resources to meet the individual client’s goals. As soon as an individual is enrolled in the program, a case manager begins coordinating services, based on individualized strengths and needs assessments, and establishes a service plan with that individual. Case management services are made possible with diverse funding sources including the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and Work Force Innovation Act (WIOA).

English-language Training – The college’s English-language training program is another strong success factor. All adult refugees are eligible to enroll in Rock Valley College community ESL courses. Clients are either ready for job placement or they continue their study. The next step essential for so many clients needing extra support to gain English skills, and to get oriented to the workplace, they attend the Workplace Transitions for Refugees and Immigrants class: a contextualized and blended ESL/job readiness class covering topics including American workstyles, communication on the job, pay checks, workplace rights and responsibilities, and how to write a resume. The intense course is offered three hours a day for three weeks.

Refugee Youth Program Mural located in the neighborhood. All photos provided by Rock Valley College.

Refugee Youth Program Mural located in the neighborhood. All photos provided by Rock Valley College.

This course will have 30 attendees in 2017 and in WIOA terms it is a short-term pre-vocational training. After completion of this class the participants can enroll in an Individual Training Account (ITA). ITAs are a training option available to eligible and appropriate participants when it is determined by a career planner that they will be unlikely or unable to obtain or retain employment that leads to self-sufficiency or higher wages from previous employment through career services alone. An ITA gets the participant a credential which they can put on their resume. WIOA offers the option to enroll job seekers into Individual Training Accounts which are a per capita funding mechanism paying for training to support the job seekers specific career goals. Eligible clients purchase training services from eligible training providers – in this case the Transitions class – that they select in consultation with a career planner.

Participants are expected to utilize information such as skills assessments, labor market trends, and training providers’ performance, and to take an active role in managing their employment future through the use of an ITA. An ITA may be awarded to eligible adults, dislocated workers, and out of school youth ages 18-24. ITAs are not entitlements and can be provided to eligible participants on the basis of an individualized assessment of the person’s needs and documented on the participant’s Individual Employment Plan (IEP). RTP applies ITA funds to help refugees gain the skills they need from among all of the training options offered.

From these courses, they are referred to job search activities which can include placement, transitional job programs, additional vocational training or OJT.

Job Development and Placement Services – Job Development staff within the mainstream workforce development system are most commonly called Business Service Representatives (or BSRs).. Rock Valley’s BSRs work with employers and identify job opportunities for job seekers who visit The Workforce Connection. One BSR and one Employment Specialist manage all employment functions for refugees as a part of Rock Valley’s staff structure. These services include interviewing refugee students about employment needs, maintaining the connection to employers, providing job leads, and referring enrollees to classes.

The program has exceeded its goals for the last program year:

  • Percentage of Participants students placed in employment – 96% last program year (goal of 75%)
  • Percentage of Participants students retained in that job after 90 days – 89% last program year (goal of 80%)
  • Average earnings 90 days out – exceeded the set dollar amount set for last program year

This tracking has continued to fuel the success of the program as they continually gather outcome information that informs the way they work with their clients. Additionally, clients in WIOA-funded programs get a 12 month follow up after job placement and it too has shown good outcomes again allowing for continued learning.

Rock Valley’s BSR maintains contact with a variety of companies, from large corporations to independently owned shops. Lowe’s Home Improvement hires for a variety of jobs – pickers, packers, loaders, unloaders, transportation and sales associates. A large commercial laundry employs many as do small business environments.

On-the-Job Training (OJT) – On average about 15% of refugee clients access On the Job Training programs. These courses provide a bridge or on-ramp to

Refugee Worker at Rock Valley commercial laundry

Refugee Worker at Rock Valley commercial laundry

allow refugees to transition into more advanced job training programs in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation or logistics. Instructors also offer specific guidance to explore career options and develop the study skills required for a certificate or degree programs. The OJT program provides refugees with a real job and subsidizes up to 75% of wages and training costs to the employer. Participants earn money while learning new job skills with an employer. “Upon conclusion of the training time, most applicants are hired with no strings attached,” said Mark Spain, Business Services Coordinator in Rock Valley’s Refugee Training Program. “The program can be utilized in a variety of occupations, from entry-level to professional,” he continued. Refugees have been placed in jobs from manufacturing to technology professionals, depending on employers’ needs and participants’ skill sets.

According to Heilman, the reason that more refugee clients do not access OJT is that they do not meet the English language proficiency requirement (the standard varies depending upon the industry but often centers around an 8th grade English level). Additionally, the paperwork required of employers sometimes discourages them from participating in the federal OJT program. The employers utilizing OJT are often employers who are struggling to find qualified workers. “[In Illinoise], it is typically manufactures who find the OJT program to be a valuable approach to filling vacancies.” Learn more about OJT programs.

Refugee Success Stories

Mu Dah

Mu Dah spent 13 years in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand. After resettlement in the U.S., initially this single mother spoke no English and lacked reliable transportation or childcare. The combination of intensive case management and an observant ESL teacher proved to be life-changing. “The ESL instructors saw in her a desire to learn and encouraged her,” Heilman said. “She slowly gained self-confidence, began attending the job readiness class consistently, and eventually achieved her first employment opportunity, at Goodwill Industries.”

The skills and training provided at Goodwill – part of a WIOA-funded work experience training opportunity – helped her transition to a job at Spider Company, a 70,000-square-foot facility in Rockford that produces small high-tech engineering parts for the aerospace, farming and healthcare industries. The Workforce Connection paid her salary at Goodwill and provided a training plan for the skills they wanted her to learn for the job. “Rock Valley College helped me get trained and then find employment at Spider Company which helped my family succeed,” Mu Dah said. “I am so happy about getting a job and now have money to afford better things.”

Mulenda Bisoga

Mulenda Bisoga left Congo in 1998, when rebel and government forces were in conflict. After a long and painful journey, Mulenda and his family came to Rockford in 2014. He began taking English classes through Rock Valley College. He soon went to work in Rochelle, Illinois and has now been working with the same employer for more than a year and enjoys his position. Out of hundreds of nominees from throughout the state, Mulenda received Illinois’ annual Workforce Partnership Award for his success.

Amy Heilman, Program Director of the Refugee Training Program

Amy Heilman, Program Director of the Refugee Training Program

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