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Spanish-speaking workers: Tec Centro, workforce training center

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Marlyn Barbosa regularly sees doctors and other professionals recently arrived in Lancaster from Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries.

They come to Barbosa, program director of the Spanish American Civic Association's Pl@za Comunitaria Educativa, a bilingual employment center, looking for work.

"Here in Lancaster, you can find a lot of professionals from other countries," Barbosa said.

Usually, she directs them to jobs doing food processing or menial labor. She does so because they don't speak enough English to succeed in the local workforce.

Recent immigrants to Lancaster face many obstacles, but the first barrier, and the hardest to overcome, is language skills.

Beginning next month, a new facility will open and help Spanish speakers learn English and then provide them job-skills training in English and job-placement support.

The comprehensive approach of Tec Centro is intended to help lift out of poverty Spanish speakers who cannot find work in the English-speaking workforce or those who have been held in low-paying jobs by a lack of language knowledge and skills.

The $3.5 million training center, at 102 Chester St., opens Feb. 6.

After initial language training, specific job skills training is expected to begin in March, Barbosa said.

She expects Tec Centro to have about 300 students annually when the school is fully operational. About 120 people already are registered for programs, she said.

The first classes will be in the health-care field. Students will be taught to be nurse aides, physician or medical receptionists or medical billing specialists.

Training will begin soon afterward for jobs in the culinary arts, as dental assistants, and in the plumbing, electrical and carpentry trades.

The courses will be taught by instructors from Harrisburg Area Community College in a partnership with the Spanish American Civic Association.

Barbosa said the training could be as short as six months for students who already speak English. For those without English language skills, the training could last two years, she said.

"I think it will be a great new option for the community," said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board.

The job skills that will be taught are needed in the county economy, Sheely said.

He cited the jobs coming with the construction of large fulfillment centers by Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters.

Positions in manufacturing, logistics and transportation may start with relatively low wages but provide advancement opportunities for skilled workers, Sheely said.

But, he noted, the language barrier, and educational deficits resulting from the number of high school dropouts in the Latino community, have held them back.

"A manufacturer needs to have someone work for them who will understand safety instructions in English. You're not going to be able to get around that," Sheely said.

Tec Centro was conceived more than five years ago when SACA leaders determined that workforce training needs of the Spanish-speaking community were not being adequately addressed, said Carlos Graupera, SACA executive director.

The organization purchased a 15,000-square-foot former woodworking factory in the heart of the city's southeastern area that had been vacant for several years.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray praised SACA for taking what had been a community eyesore and making it an asset. "It's turned a real negative to a positive in the community," Gray said of the building rehabilitation.

Randy Patterson, city economic development and neighborhood revitalization director, readily agreed.

Yet Patterson said the benefit will reach beyond the neighborhood to the entire city, potentially for generations to come.

"Anytime you improve someone's income position, you also improve their disposable income position," he said.

That helps businesses throughout the area and the families of the workers, he said.

Graupera cobbled together grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state Redevelopment Capital Assistance program, the Lancaster County Community Foundation and the Steinman Foundation to finance the project.

Tax credits through the U.S. Treasury Department's New Market program, valued at $3.3 million and awarded by the Community First Fund, completed the funding.

Graupera said partnerships were also forged with local corporations.

"We received a lot of help. We're very thankful for the partnerships and collaborations that we were able to secure," he said.

Graupera said he also is seeking assistance from partners to fund the operational cost of Tec Centro of about $900,000 annually.

Students will not pay tuition at the school, only about $150 to cover the costs of books and other materials, Barbosa said.

For almost a decade, SACA has provided basic job-skills training in conjunction with the Workforce Investment Board. Barbosa said they serve about 900 people annually.

That readiness training, including job-placement services, will shift from Pl@za Comunitaria Educativa, in the basement of the Belco Credit Union building, 452 S. Duke St., to Tec Centro.

In a few months, she hopes to open a cafe in Tec Centro that will serve food prepared by culinary students. Initially, it will be sold only to students, but later school organizers hope to open the cafe to the public.

Similarly, plans call for a student-run dental clinic in the school to eventually be opened to the public.

"This is going to be a fully operating clinic. We can take advantage of that," Barbosa said.

Sheely said he was optimistic about the opportunities presented by Tec Centro for the city's Hispanic community and for the entire county.

It was Latino workers who provided the labor that helped build the county's diverse economy in the past five decades, he noted. And it will be Latino labor that helps build it in coming years.

By Bernard Harris
(c)2014 Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pa.)  
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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