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Helping Skilled Immigrants and Addressing Local Workforce Needs

Luis Silva speaking to woman in a work setting


In his native country of Colombia, Luis Silva Sinning held a master’s degree in business. When he immigrated to Maryland in December 2017, he found himself struggling to find a career that matched his skill-set and education level.  

“Just picture yourself coming to a place you do not know, where there are no familiar faces around, no job, no house, and no one willing to give you a chance to start,” he said. “I went from the top of my career being the general manager of an important dealership with over 250 employees to being the person who was washing the cars.”

Silva’s challenges are not unique. Many new immigrants face multiple barriers when first entering the U.S. Sinning learned about Howard Community College’s (HCC) Multicultural Banking and Finance Workforce Development Training Program, which provides workshops focusing on career development for mid- and advanced-level English speaking, bilingual, and multilingual students, with the goal of helping them secure careers in the financial industry.

Through the 10-week noncredit program, Silva learned professional and organizational skills, as well as American business culture, such as meeting workplace expectations and interacting with customers. He also took part in mock interviews with local bank representatives and participated in networking opportunities. Students involved in the program also learn industry specific vocabulary, and practice various types of professional writing, such as emails, memos, business letters, and resumes.

After completing the program, Silva was hired as a universal banker at PNC Bank, and has maintained that position.

“The program put me on the track to get a job in the banking industry,” he said. “I got a lot of valuable experience, the most being the interviews with different financial institutions who supported the program. It definitely opened the door for me.”

Now in its third year, the Multicultural Banking and Finance Workforce Training program has proven to be successful, leading the college to expand and build on its success with the development of a Skilled Immigrant Training Program.

“The region needs training programs to address the needs of Howard County employers by providing even more career pathways,” said Rosie Verratti, senior director of languages and culture in HCC’s division of continuing education and workforce development.

The Skilled Immigrant Program would expand the career opportunities for skilled immigrants in Howard County, capitalizing on their education, skills, and talents acquired outside the United States to meet local workforce needs, she said.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that over the last eight years, Howard County has grown by 12 percent, with immigrants accounting for more than a third of that increase. A notable percentage of these immigrants are highly educated, with 46 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher from their countries of origin, according to source data from the bureau’s American Community Survey, 2012-2016.

“Unfortunately, many are underemployed or working in low-skilled, low-wage jobs,” said Mary Barton, enrollment outreach coordinator for HCC’s English Language Center (ELC). “Underemployment affects individuals, but also the community. You’ve got a whole group of workers who are not fully contributing to their potential. So there are a lot of reasons the community would want to reduce the number of those unemployed and underemployed.”

HCC and the ELC have extensive experience developing and implementing programs to help skilled immigrants and students overcome barriers, Barton said. For a number of years, the ELC has been targeting students who already have college degrees from their home countries by offering a Professional English Certificate (PEC). Although the business English classes within the PEC program help students develop much-needed workplace English skills, completing the PEC does not necessarily help immigrants overcome all of the barriers that may result in underemployment.

Not only do skilled immigrants need to develop English language skills, they also need access to professional networks as well as professional U.S. work experience, she said.

“Therefore, in 2016, in partnership with the Horizon Foundation, the ELC launched the Health Care Interpreter Training Program to provide bilingual students the knowledge and skills to serve limited English proficient patients in local healthcare settings,” she said. “Additionally, in 2017, the Multicultural Banking and Finance Training Program was introduced. Both of these programs include engagement with employers and networking opportunities, helping skilled immigrants overcome barriers to professional development.”

Taking this experience, along with funding provided by Sandy Spring Bank, PNC Bank, BB&T, M&T Bank, Wells Fargo, Fulton Bank, and SECU, HCC is in the beginning stages of researching and developing a concept for a Skilled Immigrant Program, with the goal of forming a curriculum by spring and offering the program to students in fall 2020, said Jennifer Stadler, Skilled Immigrant Project coordinator.

“This program opens the door to a fulfilling career in banking for bilingual and multi-lingual speakers who reflect the diverse communities that we serve here in the Greater Washington region,” said Daniel J. Schrider, president and chief executive officer of Sandy Spring Bank. “Our employees have had the opportunity to volunteer with this program and work alongside some of the students, and we have seen first-hand the value this program brings to everyone involved. It’s wonderful to see this effort expand beyond banking, creating an opportunity to develop our future leaders across a wide array of industries.”

The first step is to identify the main barriers for skilled immigrants when they enter the United States. After some research, four primary challenges were discovered: English proficiency, lack of social network, U.S. job experience, and getting immigrants the credentials needed to work in a profession similar or equal to that of their native country.

“If employment is the outcome we are looking for, then he need to break down those barriers,” Stadler said. “And that is what we’ve been working on during this planning process.”

Similar to the Multicultural Banking Program, the college plans to work with donors and partners in the community to create networking opportunities, said Barton. Through these partnerships, students will have opportunities to gain U.S. job experiences through internships and externships. In addition,  the program hopes to help students obtain any necessary credentials.

On November 13, 2019, representatives from the college, including Barton, Stadler, and Verratti, plan to bring together leaders from ethnic community based organizations and other local leaders to talk about the need for a Skilled Immigrant Program and invite them to be part of the process and collaboration.

“The concept is to bring individuals together, let them know what we’re doing, get feedback, and create an advisory group,” Stadler said. “We want to really listen to their thoughts, what challenges they are facing, and how we can best serve those needs.

Topics: Career Focus
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