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

Please follow and like us:

Workforce Collaboration Case Study: Connecting Refugees to WIOA-Funded Programs in Omaha

staff-photoLutheran Family Services of Nebraska’s Refugee Education & Employment Program (REEP) staff members have long been aware of resources available at the local American Job Centers nationwide. Many clients qualify for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funded programs, but until recently the process to fully participate in and benefit from these programs remained out of a reach.

During the past few years, the REEP team has focused on identifying and overcoming the barriers that prevent refugees from accessing WIOA-funded programs through a concerted effort to understand and collaborate with their local American Job Center (AJC).

Why Collaborate?

Brain waste, inaccessibility to higher skilled jobs, lack of transportation, language barriers, unfamiliarity with US workplace culture, and difficulty navigating assistance programs are all challenges faced by resettlement programs across the nation.  Another challenge for programs with limited resources is how they can best connect refugees to training that will put them on a career path that can take them beyond an initial job to pay the bills.

classroom-photoHow can refugee employment programs best help the young Iraqi engineer, who just arrived and expressed to his career counselor that his main desire is to finish his U.S. degree and specialize in robotics? Or the Afghan SIV recipient with a large family who needs a job while working towards U.S. certification in the IT field?  What about the Burmese client who worked for 10 years as a welder in Malaysia, but never got a certificate? How can he apply his skills here?

How can we help foreign-trained professionals and those with backgrounds in the trades discover career pathways that lead to fulfilling work that pays a living wage and capitalizes on their skills?

The mainstream workforce development system is often described as a highway with many off-ramps that job seekers can take to pursue their career goals, and its WIOA-funded programs in particular offer an abundance of opportunities and benefits.

Opportunities within the Mainstream Workforce Development System

WIOA-funded programs provide a variety of workforce development options designed to help individuals with barriers to employment receive training and certification in “H3 jobs” (high demand, high wage and high-skill). With some assistance, refugees with the right aptitudes and skill-sets can access these resources and obtain certifications that can increase their hourly wage by up to 30 to 40 percent.

career-pathwaysIn addition to training programs such as Registered Apprenticeships (RAs), On-the-job Training (OJT) and Individual Training Accounts (ITAs), WIOA-funded programs also provide additional resources that can offset some of the costs associated with starting a new job or career.

Some examples of supportive services include tools, work apparel, and other initial required items normally paid for by the employee through payroll deduction. Participants in WIOA-funded programs may also be eligible for transportation assistance in the form of gas vouchers, car registration fees, repairs or other transportation services.

In some cases REEP clients enrolled in WIOA-funded programs have also been eligible for emergency rental assistance or utility assistance. Eligibility for these temporary supports is determined on a case-by-case basis, and often are a one-time benefit. Tuition, books, and study related costs & supportive services are covered for those pursuing a certification or degree in high-demand careers.  In eligible cases, both WIOA & PELL funding are available.

Partnership between Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska and Heartland Workforce Solutions American Job Center

To capitalize on this amazing opportunity for newly arriving refugee populations, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska’s Refugee Education & Employment Program (REEP) began collaborating with a local American Job Center (AJC) operated by Heartland Workforce Solutions (HWS) in early 2013.

The first thing the REEP team did was set up an initial meeting to learn about the resources that the AJC offered and familiarize the AJC management with the LFS refugee resettlement program. Following the initial meeting, the REEP team provided an orientation for AJC frontline staff new to serving refugees. More meetings followed to discuss individual participants the REEP team would be bringing for enrollment and to set expectations for communication between the two organizations.

Because of the complexities involved in the AJC eligibility and enrollment process, refugee employment service providers cannot simply direct their clients to AJCs, cross their fingers, and hope for successful outcomes. Developing a clear understanding of the AJC process and setting clear expectations for communication between the two organizations was essential for the REEP team in order to ensure that they were providing adequate support to clients they would refer to the AJC.

Going through this process of mutual learning was critical in building trust and developing effective ways to collaborate, including working together to address barriers preventing LFS clients from accessing AJC resources.

Benefits of the Collaboration

Both the REEP program and the AJC benefited from this collaboration. The REEP program successfully enrolled 12 clients into WIOA-funded programs through the AJC. Three of these clients were enrolled in On-the-job Training, five clients received skills training, and 5 clients received other supportive services through the AJC.

refugee-at-workSeveral of these clients have been successful in retaining the high-paying jobs that they obtained through participating in these mainstream workforce development programs. Afghan SIV recipients, for example, proved to be a great fit for apprenticeships in the construction field because of their previous work experience with the U.S. military.

The AJC also experienced many benefits from this collaboration, including a link to a pre-screened and motivated talent pool that does not typically access mainstream workforce development services, ongoing wrap-around support from the REEP team for refugee participants, and higher success rates (successful outcomes for refugee clients were double that of the general population in the first two years of the collaboration).

Challenges and Collaborative Solutions

While much progress has been made in accessing WIOA-funded programs for refugees, this endeavor has not been without its challenges. Below is a summary of the five most significant challenges faced during this collaboration and the solutions that the REEP team and the AJC developed to overcome these barriers:

Challenge #1: WIOA program enrollment process delays: The WIOA program enrollment process has historically required a significant amount of time. The complexity and time demands inherent to the current enrollment process directly impacts the clients’ ability to take advantage of employment opportunities and fails to meet the staffing needs of employers offering “living wage jobs.”

Solution: Effective communication and collaboration between the REEP team and the AJC was the best strategy in overcoming these systemic barriers. REEP staff work with AJC staff to streamline the process and provide support where needed

Challenge #2: Scheduling Problems: Scheduling conflicts often resulted in significant delays between Orientation and completion of the TABE test (a math and literacy test participants must pass in many states to qualify for training programs). This was primarily due to the fact that both TABE tests and Orientations were only offered once a week and only during scheduled work hours. Even for the unemployed, the schedule was problematic because it conflicted with the beginning and ending of their children’s school day.

Solution: After the REEP team brought these issues to the attention of AJC management, they agreed to make adjustments to the schedule that resulted in adding more orientation options that could better accommodate the schedules of clients. The AJC also allowed for individual orientations or specially scheduled testing to meet the needs of clients.

Challenge #3: Selective Service Registration Eligibility Requirement: Selective Service registration requirement for males has often been a barrier even though most of the refugees enrolling in WIOA-funded programs are not required by to register since they arrived in the US after their 26th birthday. In order  to receive federal education and training assistance, males under 56 years of age are required to obtain a Status Information Letter from Selective Services verifying they are not required to register with the SSA. SSA processing and procedural complexity often results in significant delays in obtaining the requisite Status confirmation.

Solution: Collaborative efforts between the AJC and the REEP team helped reduce the impact of this issue. The AJC agreed to accept a copy of the Status Information Letter, along with the certified mail receipt from sending the Status Information Letter to SSA through certified mail in cases where participation could not move forward.

Challenge #4: Income Eligibility Problems: Verification of income can be a challenge even though the AJC and federal authorities accept that anyone receiving SNAP or food stamp benefits as meeting the qualification to receive WIOA benefits.  Problems can occur when the client presents DHHS verification documentation that is unfamiliar to WIOA staff and therefore may not be accepted as verification of income. A related issue is determining the actual start date for receipt of benefits. It is often not clear what date is to be used as the client’s application to WIOA date or what effect their post SNAP/TANF earning will have on their eligibility and enrollment delays exacerbate this problem.

Solution: Ongoing collaborative efforts of AJC staff and REEP program staff to mitigate response delays by key outside entities can help to reduce some of the delays in the overall verification process.

Challenge #5: Jobs obtained during the enrollment process: Jobs obtained prior to finishing enrollment can make clients ineligible for WIOA programs. Often during a protracted enrollment process clients are found to be ineligible if they receive a promotion or wage increase. Significant delays in enrollment processing can affect a client’s ability to meet regulatory compliance and ultimately impact their eligibility for needed resource assistance.

Solution: Close communication and cooperation between the AJC and the REEP team helped to mitigate the impact of enrollment processing delays and address this challenge.

Tips for Collaboration with AJCs

The LFS REEP team has learned a lot from their experience collaborating with an American Job Center, and suggests the following tips for refugee employment programs around the country who may be considering similar collaborations:

  • Always have a liaison or navigator who can dedicate time to cultivating the relationship with the AJC and provide support to refugees and AJC staff during the complicated enrollment process. This can be an employment team member, an intern, or a volunteer—anyone who can take the time to learn the process and provide the needed support.
  • Job Developers can play an important role in opening up On-the-job Training and Registered Apprenticeship opportunities for refugee clients by making employer partners aware of these federal programs and connecting them to appropriate staff at the AJC. The subsidies that employers can receive through these programs can serve as a great incentive for taking a chance on hiring a refugee.
  • Invest the time to become familiar with how WIOA is administered and its requirements in your local Workforce Development region through research and look at labor market information to identify the high demand jobs in your area.
  • Be prepared to articulate the benefits of working with refugees and also to provide ongoing support to mainstream workforce development partners, just as you would with employers.
  • Keep up with changes in WIOA policies and meet regularly with AJC leadership to share updates and address challenges.

Many thanks to the staff at Lutheran Family Services Nebraska (especially Ryan Overfield, Carol Tucker, and Rich Surber) as well as the staff at Heartland Workforce Solutions for contributing this case study!

Have you collaborated with an American Job Center or other mainstream workforce development partner in your area? Share your success story by emailing us at


Please follow and like us:

WIOA Focused Case Studies to be Released in December

Attention dedicated Higher blog readers. As you know, the month of December can be very slow in the employment world.  With all the big holidays, it’s the time of year when employers tend not to hire new staff since most managers take vacation. However, after this year’s summer bulge, you may be left with lots of clients who are eager and ready to enter the workforce.

This is the time of year to get creative and think outside of the box. Have you ever wondered who puts up the decorations at you mall or who helps package all the online orders? Seasonal jobs are one way to ensure continued placement during the holiday season.

Another potentially more sustainable method can be to learn how to tap into federal programs. Higher is planning to release 4 case studies and resource guides over the next 4 weeks. Each study will lend a new perspective on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the programs and resources that are available to refugees.

Higher recognized two case studies from resettlement agencies who already have leveraged these federal resources. These case studies and resource guides will lend an on-the-ground perspective on establishing an employment partnership between refugee agencies and a WIOA program. The final two studies will focus on resources for refugee youth between the ages of 16 and 24 and who are hoping to enter the workforce. Please stay tuned in December for the release of these studies.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Leave a comment below, or share your thoughts with us at

Please follow and like us:

Happy National Apprenticeship Week!

This week is the second annual National Apprenticeship Week. Higher has been looking at apprenticeships as a strategy for career laddering for refugees, and we think there is a lot of potential for refugees to take advantage of the Registered Apprenticeship program, but our network is only in the beginning stages of figuring out how to help our clients access these great opportunities.

We can provide a lot of information, but we need your help to discover the frontline strategies and best practices for connecting refugees to apprenticeships!

apprenticeship-eventsThis week provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about apprenticeships. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 313 events planned in 47 states which will provide information on the registered apprenticeship program.

Although we are a couple days late in putting this on your radar (apologies!) there are still many events scheduled for the next 3 days.

Click here (or on the image above) to see if there is an event happening near you!

You can also learn more about apprenticeships by reading Higher’s recent post on Registered Apprenticeships or by checking out the ApprenticeshipUSA Toolkit.

If you have experience matching refugee clients to Registered Apprenticeships, we would love to highlight your success story! Get in touch at

Please follow and like us:

December 15, 2016 – Higher WIOA Collaboration Webinar

Collaborating with Mainstream Workforce Development and Taking Advantage of WIOA-funded Training Opportunities

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2:00 – 3:30pm EST

Higher has made a concerted effort over the past couple years to educate our network about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) and the ways in which collaborating with the mainstream workforce development system can increase training and career opportunities for refugees. When it comes to helping refugees transition from survival jobs to fulfilling career pathways with better wages, the mainstream system has a lot to offer.

The webinar will offer both government and refugee agency perspective on current opportunities and strategies for collaboration between refugee employment programs and mainstream funding.  Featured guest speakers include representatives of the U.S. of Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Education, and the International Institute of Saint Louis, a refugee agency that has a long history of successful mainstream partnership.

We hope you will join us!

Register here

Please follow and like us:

Free Webinar Archive: What WIOA Means for Immigrants


A Resource to Deepen Your Knowledge of WIOA Resources as Arrival Numbers Continue to Rise

Wonder how to keep current about WIOA and mainstream workforce collaboration opportunities?

There’s so much information out there and not much time to find the most helpful resources for your unique mix of client, community and agency priorities. It’s even more important to make the best use of all available resources to support your growing case load.

A recent National Skills Coalition webinar provided a comprehensive, practical and current overview of the important opportunities and changes that WIOA offers  for refugees and immigrants as federal WIOA regulations were published.  It’s worth your time to listen to the webinar archive to help you identify the best resources, programs and starting points for collaboration.

Please follow and like us:

Untapped Opportunities for Refugees Age 16-24


Learn how to access WIOA funding at NAWDP’s Annual Youth Development Symposium

Everyone should be aware of opportunities for refugees between the ages of 16-24 to access mainstream workforce funding for Out of School Youth (OSY) who are disconnected from education and the workforce. WIOA shifted funding from 25% to 75% for this population. At least 20% of refugees could qualify.

Partnering with us accesses a pipeline of highly motivated OSY eager for training, resources and careers. Our mainstream workforce colleagues continue to struggle to identify, attract and retain urban youth and other traditional clients at the increased funding levels.

Attend NAWDnawdpP’s Annual Youth Development Symposium in Chicago 10/31 – 11/2 to connect to over 500 youth workforce professionals from across the nation. You’ll meet American Job Center Staff, Youth Build Grantees, Job Corps Professionals, Career and Guidance Counselors, Educators, Community College Representatives, Juvenile Justice Specialists, and more!

To begin learning now, check out a previous post to explore our new youth employment services resource collection.

Please follow and like us:

Workforce Resource: Registered Apprenticeship



Welcome to the fourth post in our series featuring some of the tools, resources and programs available in the mainstream workforce system, shaped by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and delivered through the national network of American Job Centers serving all U.S. job seekers.

It’s a complex, resource-rich system underutilized in refugee employment services. Higher is determined to change that so our clients benefit from new opportunities and employment services.

We’ll do the research you don’t have time for amidst managing client caseloads and employer relationships. You can focus on using highlighted resources to help your clients succeed in the U.S. workforce.

So far we’ve highlighted online tools that you can utilize in your job counseling and job development efforts, as well as On-the-job Training. In this post we’ll talk about the U.S. Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeships Are Making a Comeback


When you think of an apprenticeship, you probably think of a unionized position in a skilled trade. That’s because that was what the U.S. Apprenticeship program looked like when it started about 75 years ago.

Today there are more than 400,000 registered apprenticeships in more than 1,000 occupations.

Since 2014, the US has added more than 75,000 new apprenticeships, the largest increase in nearly a decade. Some of these are traditional apprenticeships in the skilled trades, but many are non-traditional apprenticeships in fields including Healthcare, Information Technology, Advanced Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics and Energy. Learn more about DOL industry priorities here.

(Re)starting a U.S. Career Through Registered Apprenticeship

Registered Apprenticeship combines classroom-based learning with structured on-the-job learning. This federally funded “earn while you learn” training program allows employers to develop a highly qualified workforce and helps apprentices learn a trade while earning a living wage.

A Registered Apprenticeship can last anywhere from 1-6 years (most are 4 year programs) and always leads to a nationally recognized credential that is both portable and scalable.

This means that apprenticeships lead to even more opportunity for additional career advancement for job seekers who might choose to take their skills and credential to a different employer or another State.  They might also decide later to obtain a higher level credential as they advance further in their chosen career.

The Five Components of Registered Apprenticeship

While Registered Apprenticeship can be organized differently and customized to the needs of the employer, there are five components to all Registered Apprenticeship programs:  

A Quick-Start Toolkit: Building Registered Apprenticeship Programs, U.S. Department of Labor / Apprenticeship USA

Source: A Quick-Start Toolkit: Building Registered Apprenticeship Programs, U.S. Department of Labor

Are Registered Apprenticeships a Good Fit for Refugees?

Apprenticeships can be a great fit for refugees, particularly those with higher levels of English coming from more skilled backgrounds—whether that be a professional from a STEM industry or a “blue collar” worker with experience in the skilled trades.

Registered apprenticeships have the potential to function as a bridge that overcomes refugees’ lack of US work experience and helps them obtain a “Made in America” industry credential – all while earning a living wage.

Imagine what a difference it could make, both financially and emotionally, for some of our higher-skilled clients to be putting their skills to use, learning new skills, gaining credentials, and earning $5+ above minimum wage. (Most apprenticeship positions start around $15/hour).

Challenges to Anticipate

We believe this is a great opportunity, but it won’t be easy to access. As we’ve noted in past posts, the mainstream workforce development system is huge and complex. Many who work in this system are unfamiliar with refugees. In addition, apprenticeships work differently in different states and expertise is largely centralized in federal and state government.

It will take a significant amount of staff time to figure out how things work in your state or locality. One way that refugee employment programs have overcome this challenge is to assign a staff member or volunteer to be liaison to key stakeholders in the mainstream system, including American Job Centers (AJC), Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs), and state/city workforce offices.

With intentional planning and commitment, we believe it’s worth the time to overcome the challenge of access to mainstream programs like Registered Apprenticeship.

3 Ways to Explore Apprenticeship Opportunities

  1. Get to know you state apprenticeship office and other mainstream workforce development players in your area. Start by finding the office for apprenticeship in your state. This list includes all DOL apprenticeship contacts by state.  If you have a hard time connecting with the apprenticeship office, connect with staff at your local American Job Center, and they may be able to help connect you to the right person or organization to talk to.
  1. Search for local apprenticeship opportunities using the map available on the US Department of Labor’s website. You can also use the Apprenticeship Finder search tool on It may be strategic to begin intentional outreach efforts with companies and unions that you know have apprenticeships that could match client skills. Take a look at this list of current Apprenticeship grantees to see where apprenticeships may already be happening in your area.
  1. Talk to the employers that you already work with, and make sure they are aware of the federal Registered Apprenticeship program. Who knows? Maybe one of your employer partners would be interested in creating an Apprenticeship program specifically for refugee-background employees. Share this helpful toolkit and  for employers interested in creating Registered Apprenticeship programs.

Resources for Learning More

For more information and resources on Registered Apprenticeships, visit the ApprenticeshipUSA website.

Be sure to look at the ApprenticeshipUSA toolkit, where you can access eLearning modules on the Registered Apprenticeship program, as well as other information about setting up apprenticeship programs and/or marketing them to employers.

If you have any experience with placing refugees in apprenticeships, please email us at to share your insights on this career path strategy.

Please follow and like us:

3 Opportunities to Take Advantage of NOW

whFrom the 06/29 White House National Skills and Credential Institute

This is a time of unprecedented opportunities for refugee and immigrant workforce integration.

We have strong allies at the White House and across federal agencies, including the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation. They’re working together at a high level to create opportunities and remove barriers for refugees and immigrants to enter and succeed in the U.S. workforce.

Read this National Skills Coalition overview of the White House Institute and the high level leadership that made it possible.

Higher believes that the three biggest opportunities you need to know about now involve:

  1. Occupational Licensing
  2. State Workforce Investment Board Strategic Plans, and
  3. Apprenticeships

Expanding opportunities for work-based learning through apprenticeships is one of the strongest opportunities for refugees in WIOA. The avalanche of available information makes it hard to know where to start. If the standard wisdom to “follow the money” is true, this is the workforce development strategy to prioritize.

Read a White House Fact Sheet for a summary of national priorities, current funding opportunities and context.

$90 million in additional funding was announced at the end of June and, on June 2, $10.4 million in was awarded to 51 states, territories and the District of Columbia to support the expansion of quality and innovative Registered Apprenticeship programs.

$175 million was awarded to 46 applicants on September 9, 2015. See a complete list of opportunities to connect refugees to apprenticeships from that funding round.

Workforce Investment Board Strategic Plans

Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) at the State and local levels set the strategic direction of workforce services. The State WIB strategic plans that outline those strategies were just released after a lengthy process and development of local plans that build on State strategies is in progress.

The National Skills Coalition has excellent resources to help you understand what’s important to know with a State Plan Playbook document and companion webinar.

In her remarks at the White House Skills Institute, Portia Wu, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor Employment and Training Agency (DOL-ETA) emphasized how important it is to “be part of the conversation.” The plans are works in progress with a mandated formal revision period in two years.  It’s not too late to get involved.

Most WIB meetings are open to the public and attending is a good way to learn more and build contacts. Click here to find contact information for your local or State WIBs.

Licensing and Professional Recertification

The Department of Labor has announced funding currently available to help “enhance the portability of occupational licenses and to otherwise reduce overly burdensome restrictions”. The funding targets national or regional groups of States and the deadline is fast approaching, so you might not be able to participate directly if your agency isn’t already well connected to on-going efforts.

We have all experienced the difficulties in helping clients become licensed in their previous career fields. This funding opportunity is one step to reduce those barriers and signals high level interest in helping highly skilled refugee and immigrant professionals return to their chosen careers.

Click here to read the White House fact sheet for excellent contextual background and the DOL-ETA grant announcement.


Please follow and like us:

Workforce Resource: On-the-Job Training

On the Job TrainingWelcome to the third post in our series featuring some of the tools, resources and programs available in the mainstream workforce system, shaped by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and delivered through the national network of American Job Centers serving all U.S. job seekers.

It’s a complex, resource-rich system underutilized in refugee employment services. Higher is determined to change that so our clients benefit from new opportunities and employment services.

We’ll do the research you don’t have time for amidst managing client caseloads and employer relationships. You can focus on using highlighted resources to help your clients succeed in the U.S. workforce.

In our first two posts we highlighted online tools that you can utilize in your job counseling and job development efforts. In the next few posts we want to shift to highlighting programs within the mainstream workforce system that can help your clients break into career fields that they are interested in.

Breaking into a Career through On-the-job Training

Breaking into one’s field of choice can be a challenge, even for native-born Americans. On-the-job Training (OJT) is funded through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and is one strategy for obtaining or updating skills and securing employment.

OJT is a win-win situation in which the OJT participant receives training and employment and the employer is reimbursed for the training costs (usually calculated at half the pay rate for the agreed-upon training period- although under the new WIOA legislation states can choose to increase employer reimbursement up to 75%).

OJT & Refugees

For refugees, OJT can be a strategic way to either re-enter one’s former industry or gain new skills that will put them on a stable career path in the US.

Because OJT is a comprehensive skills training program, it will be most useful for refugees with higher levels of English and literacy. Some programs, however, have found success placing LEP clients in OJT placements when there is a strong relationship between the employer and the refugee employment program in which they work as a team to make sure the OJT training is successful.

From the research Higher has done so far, refugees with backgrounds in “blue-collar” industries (e.g. construction, manufacturing) seem to be a particularly good fit for OJT, because of the experience they bring to the table, and because the federal reimbursement opportunity is attractive to small and medium sized business in these fields.

That being said, there have also been successful OJT placements with both high skilled refugees with more professional backgrounds and low-skilled refugees with little to no work background (see examples below).

Places Where it’s Worked

OmahaOmaha, NE:

Partnership: Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska (Omaha) with WIOA Contractor Goodwill Industries of Omaha, NE

Population: Afghan SIVs

Industry: Construction


“With [WIOA/OJT] dollars and Lutheran Family Service’s reputation and connection to the community, we’re able to put together a package that speaks to a hiring manager or organization…and it’s quick—participants are getting enrolled in our program and within 3 or 4 weeks they’re working. We use our dollars to pay for tools, steel toed boots—whatever they need to be successful on the job, as well as paying money towards the employer for hiring through our program” –Justin Dougherty, (former) Director of Workforce Services, Goodwill Industries, Inc., Omaha, NE

Orlando__Lake_Eola_1Orlando, FL:

Partnership: Catholic Charities, Orlando, FL and local employers (Catholic Charities operates the OJT program in house using WIOA funds)

Populations: Cubans, Haitians, and Iraqis

Industries: Dentistry (Dental Assistant), Childcare (Assistant Teacher), Logistics/Warehouse, Hospitality (Maintenance Technicians and Front Desk), Food Processing

“OJT is a good option because it provides employment that is higher paying than most entry level positions, gives some clients an opportunity to continue in their field, and gives others a great ‘stepping stone’ job.” –Daisy Clemente, Employment Services Coordinator, Catholic Charities, Orlando, FL

Salt Lake CitySalt Lake City, UT:

Partnership: IRC, Salt Lake City, UT with Utah Department of Workforce Services Office

Populations: Sudanese, Burmese, Iraqi

Industries: Sewing, Construction/remodeling, Glass recycling


“We keep OJT in our back pocket as an incentive for employers who are a little hesitant [to hire refugees].” –Nolan LaBarge, Employment Specialist, IRC, Salt Lake City, Utah

Tips for Success

In talking to these 3 sites, some common themes emerged in terms of what made their OJT efforts successful:

  • Commit to learning the system: If you don’t already have someone on staff who has a background in mainstream workforce development, identify someone who can commit the time to learning the process and be the liaison between your office and the American Job Center (AJC). Additionally, look for allies within the mainstream system who are excited about your work and can give you an insider’s perspective on how to navigate the system.
  • Strong job development makes strong OJT placements: Often times it’s the employers you already have strong relationships with who will be most interested in placing your clients in OJT. You can also use OJT as a selling point when approaching new employers. Either way, you can put the opportunity on their radar and if they’re interested, you can can make the connection to the AJC to continue the process.
  • Provide good marketing materials for employers: In the same way that you provide employers good information about refugees, consider also leaving them with a nice brochure about OJT. Give them something to think about, and follow up with them shortly afterwards.
  • Offer employers additional support (coordinating interpretation, etc.): Let them know that you not only can provide them with strong candidates, but you are available to provide reasonable support to them to help with some of the challenges that come along with hiring refugees.
  • Make the right match: Always remember to take your clients past experience and skills into account when recommending them for OJT. While OJT may at times provide an opportunity for someone to learn completely new skills, the OJT program is primarily designed to be a skills upgrade program, and trainees are expected to begin contributing as productive workers on day one. The refugee programs that have found success with OJT have done so largely because they capitalized on skills their clients already had.

Getting Started & Learning More

If OJT is new for you, the best place to get started would be to contact your local American Job Center (AJC). Click here to find an AJC near you.

Once you identify the OJT resources and process in your community, you can begin marketing the program to employers that you work with.

The Employment Training Administration (ETA) is in the process of updating its’ OJT Toolkit which will be made available soon on the new Workforce GPS website, but in the meantime click here to access a recent webinar entitled “Strategies for Implementing OJT Simply and Effectively” as well as an OJT Training Brief and Resource Guide by the same name (you can find it in the left hand column called “Related Resources”).

Coming Soon…

Also, keep your eyes out in the next month or so for the next edition of our Workforce Collaboration Case Study Series, which will take a deeper look at the OJT partnership (highlighted briefly in this post) between Lutheran Family Services and Goodwill Industries in Omaha, NE.

Have You Placed Clients in OJT?

It’s impossible for us to know everything that everyone is doing out there. If you’ve placed clients in OJT, please let us know so that we can learn from your experiences as we continue to look at this strategy for refugee employment! Send us an email at


Please follow and like us: