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Program taps Rochester's underused talent

At a time of low unemployment, employers are struggling to find qualified workers in areas ranging from health care to education. Yet even as jobs go unfilled, a vast reservoir of talent, mainly from the area's immigrant population, remains untapped.

Pathway to healthcare
Mony Long reviews her notes before taking her final psychology exam at RCTC last month.

For six years, Mony Long tried and failed to immigrate to the U.S. Every time her application for a visa through a green card lottery was rejected, Long simply applied again.

And again. And again. And again.

It wasn’t until her seventh year and 14th try that Long’s dreams were answered. A native of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Long was entranced by stories of America as a place of opportunity, of high-paying jobs. Those stories were told to her by relatives already living in the U.S.

Yet, when she landed in the U.S. and arrived in Rochester, Long became less confident about her job prospects: She discovered that a good job is hard to find when you lack the credentials of a U.S. college degree or certificate.

Long recalls being in some despair about her future when she walked through the doors of the Hawthorne Education Center . Yet the moment marked a turning point for her, when her economic prospects began to brighten.

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Since then, Long has spent the last three years building up her resume, acquiring the credentials that open doors to employment opportunities. She credits a collaborative program called " Bridges to Healthcare ," a public-private partnership between Hawthorne, Rochester Community and Technical College , Workforce Development, Inc . and Mayo Clinic .

Today, Long is a personal care assistant in Mayo Clinic’s rehabilitation unit and is working toward becoming a registered nurse.

"It’s just amazing to see people get better," Long said about her work helping paralyzed patients recover movement and mobility. "I love that floor."

Untapped talent

Bridges addresses two economic challenges facing the Rochester area. At a time of low unemployment, employers are struggling to find qualified workers in areas ranging from health care to education. Yet even as jobs go unfilled, a vast reservoir of talent, mainly from the area’s immigrant population, remains untapped.

Bridges, as the name implies, seeks to span that divide by helping people acquire the skills employers are looking for.

The program targets both native-born and newcomers to the area: First-generation immigrants, English-as-a-second language learners and refugees; people who worked as doctors and engineers in their native countries and want to regain that status in their adopted country; and people who struggled in school and are looking for a second chance.

The program pivots on an idea gaining ground in education circles, that a four-year degree isn’t the end-all and be-all for students. Somewhere between the GED and a four-year college degree exists a vast amount of economic opportunity, including certificates and two-year degree programs. That is the wheelhouse that Bridges operates in.

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"That’s what I love about this program. It’s career-pathway driven," said Guy Finne, Mayo Clinic’s director of workplace development. "The whole purpose is employment in a job that provides a livable wage, benefits and long-term opportunity."

Clinic’s commitment

Since joining the partnership in 2013, Mayo Clinic has hired more than 160 Bridges graduates, from nurses and CNAs to phlebotomists and hemo-dialysis technicians. In a sign of Mayo’s commitment to the program, the clinic recently committed $100,000 to Bridges over the next three years. That’s on top of a previous five-year $85,000 donation to it.

More than 50 employers in the region have hired Bridges graduates, said Jakki Trihey, Rochester area manager for Workforce Development, Inc.

The program has expanded beyond health care over the years in response to the needs of students and employers. Bridges now offers pathways for students to become paraprofessionals, teachers and administrative office professionals.

"That’s what we’re finding. As students gain success and confidence, they come back and say, ‘I can do more,’" said Nadine Holthaus, program manager for Hawthorne’s Ddult and Family Literacy program.

Long first showed up at Hawthorne’s doors looking to improve her English. But she was soon confiding in a Hawthorne teacher how lost she felt.

"I just want a job. I just want something," Long said.

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Long had been an accountant in her native Cambodia, but had become bored with the profession. Long suspected she would be happier working with people than with numbers, so she decided to pursue a certified nursing assistant certificate. Once she got her CNA, she both worked and continued taking classes, boosting her job prospects.

A pathway to success

Bridges supports students like Long in two distinctive ways: One is to provide a roadmap, based on their assessed skills and interests, that charts an educational path forward for the student, from Hawthorne to RCTC.

The student is also paired with a navigator, a trouble-shooter who helps identify and knock down barriers and follows the student on their path.

Many of the students in Bridges juggle multiple roles. Just fitting time to go to school and study amid the hurly-burly of their lives can be a challenge.

In Long’s case, she was working two jobs, going to school, and being a mom to a 3-year-old son. Oftentimes, she felt guilty going to school, thinking her first duty was to take care of her son. Long has an uncle who helps with child care and encourages her to pursue her education. Long also contended with self-doubt, especially as it related to mastering complex medical terminology.

"Just the emotional support," said Long, about the way Bridges helped her. "If I didn’t have (them) persuading (me), I’d probably give up school and find a job."

Zaid Al Showbacki, a Workforce career planner, is a navigator whose job is to help students in whatever way he can. Sometimes, it’s helping a student apply for a driver’s license. Other times, it’s finding work. If he doesn’t hear from a student in awhile, he’s on the phone, asking where the student has been.

Bridges’ students are also eligible for financial aid. For a student struggling with self-doubt, the discovery that he or she qualifies for a scholarship can deliver a boost of self-confidence.

"It’s huge for a lot of different reasons, accountability, their-self esteem," said Kim Fanning, Hawthorne’s coordinator for Adult & Family Literacy program. "They’ll say, I qualify for a scholarship?’"

It’s easy for Long to imagine how her life might be different if she did not encounter the bridges program.

"I’d be working working at a factory, I guess. I don’t say that’s bad," Long said. "If you don’t have a certificate, no way can you have a job."

Related Topics: MAYO CLINIC
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