Helping others help themselves

A course led by a Kentucky college helps refugee youth gain skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

In 2010, our small Kentucky city of Owensboro (population 60,000) became a refugee resettlement site. Since then, about 1,000 primary refugees have been resettled in Owensboro, with many additional “secondaries” (those who are resettled elsewhere and migrate to Owensboro) joining them here. It is now estimated that Owensboro is home to about 2,000 refugees – primarily from Myanmar and Somalia.

Owensboro is an ideal place for resettlement for a variety of reasons, one being the ease with which refugees – even those with limited English proficiency – are able to find work.  Since at least one member of each refugee family is expected to start working within 90 days of arrival, access to employment is an important factor for resettlement agencies to consider. Food processing factories in the Owensboro area have consistently been successful placements for newcomers. These jobs provide well for new arrivals’ families, and most of the newcomers are grateful for steady work.

About a year ago, those of us who work with the refugee community in Owensboro began noticing that refugee youth graduating from or aging out of high school were – in large part – following their parents’ footsteps into meat-packing factory jobs. While this wasn’t necessarily a problem, there was concern that these students weren’t aware of other options and were missing opportunities to further their own educational and/or career paths.

The Kentucky Office for Refugees (KOR) approached Owensboro Community & Technical College’s SkillTrain adult education program about applying for funds to educate and prepare refugee youth for more diverse employment opportunities. KOR awarded and funded a Targeted Assistance Program-Discretionary grant (TAG-D) coordinator for this position, and this staff member has worked tirelessly this year to network with employers in town, to develop an “American Workplace” course, and to provide case management and application assistance for refugees in our community.

With significant collaboration from our two local public school districts, OCTC SkillTrain recently piloted the “American Workplace” course. This week-long course focused on equipping recently graduated high school students with English to better communicate with their employers, co-workers, and customers, as well as with soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Students who participated in this program were also eligible for employment application assistance, and 15 of the 18 students who participated in the program went on to diverse summer jobs in the community.

Starting in the fall of 2017, OCTC will also provide campus tours for refugee youth to introduce them to the variety of education and career-path programs that are available to them both during high school (as a part of a dual-credit program) and after high school.

OCTC believes that our community is increasingly stronger as individuals are given opportunities to develop their skills and become more fully integrated in the life of our community. Our TAG-D program is making this a reality — helping our refugee youth imagine new possibilities for their own lives and acquire the skills needed to succeed in their pursuits. We are excited to see how the program progresses in its second year!