Lutheran 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).
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.
How 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.
In 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.
Several 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.